In LOVE Magazine’s 2017 advent calendar, model Emily Ratajkowski is featured rubbing spaghetti on her body as she rolls around seductively on top of a dining table. In a post-photoshoot interview, Ratajkowski professes her love of pasta and “being greased up in olive oil,” urging women to “do what [they] want” in the name of feminism. The shoot – which was intended to promote a ‘feminist’ message about choice in response to sexual assault allegations in Hollywood – used food coupled with the thin, white, pornographized, female body to express ‘female empowerment’; a trope that has been used in advertising many times before. As some feminist researchers have argued, these themes are commonplace in a postfeminist media landscape; one that embraces gender stereotypes and reclaims them as sources of female pleasure.
Instead of foregrounding women’s appetites – both personal and political – sexualized images of women in relation to food signify a cultural dependence on the approval of the male consumer to both frame and validate women’s appetites. At the very least, they rely on the heterosexual male gaze, or popular depictions of women in ways that bring pleasure to heterosexual male viewers, in general. This sexualization of food and women’s appetites in mainstream food discourses – a phenomenon I refer to as the soft-core pornographization of contemporary food culture – poses problems for women and girls. A radical feminist food lens can serve as a useful alternative to the current postfeminist palate. This lens simultaneously rejects the restrictive gender stereotypes that ‘food pornography’ promotes, and refocuses attention to the personal and political aspects of women’s relationships with food and eating.
Despite gaining considerable traction on social media platforms such as Instagram, and the online world of professional and amateur food blogs, ‘food pornography’ is a contested topic in academia (cf. Rousseau). Arguably, one of its most common definitions refers to the way that contemporary photographs of food depict enticing images of oozing, dripping and hedonism; elements that are said to be found in traditional pornography. In the last decade, however, critics of this definition have argued that it conveniently glosses over the realities of traditional pornography and its degrading treatment of women. As former porn- and current food-producer Alan Madison explains, “porn is designed to subordinate by pictures or words, not to elevate or deify.” Supporting Madison’s assertion, ‘food pornography’ in feminist discourses should focus on how women’s appetites are pornographized, restricted and, thus, subordinated, for the heterosexual male gaze.
Broadly speaking, food porn images rely on a tacit cultural knowledge of pornography as a mainstream genre, wherein food itself is either pornographized through comparison to the female body, or women’s bodies and appetites are pornographized in relation to food. These images have become mainstream due to the wider acceptance of pornography itself. As feminist activist Gail Dines suggests, pornographic images that were once considered soft-core and objectifying of women several decades ago have now been absorbed into mainstream advertising and the media.
As I have argued elsewhere, women’s relationships with food, as depicted in mainstream culinary culture and fast-food advertising, are cast through a pornographizing lens that appears to promote hedonism but, instead, portrays women’s relationships with food one-dimensionally. From images of food celebrity Nigella Lawson shaking a martini with a Playboy bunny t-shirt on, to Food Network star Rachel Ray licking chocolate off a wooden spoon in her lingerie for a men’s magazine, depictions of women’s appetites and relationships with food are increasingly valued, and made visible, when they conform to the sexual tastes of the heterosexual male consumer. In this sexually-saturated, porn-savvy culture, food also becomes pornographized to connote the sexualized female body: a glossy magazine image of a frittata with a slice taken out of it is made to resemble the splayed legs of a Playboy centrefold (cf. McDonnell). As Tisha Dejmanee eloquently argues, these images only make sense in a culture fluent in soft-core pornography and the sexualization of the female body itself.
It is important for feminist researchers wanting to understand women’s often complicated relationships with food to untangle the seductive postfeminist veneer of empowerment in these images. As Rosalind Gill explains, the postfeminist landscape that produces sexually objectifying soft-core tropes for women to consume, however playful and ironic the tropes may seem, still conform to rigid gender stereotypes. In the case of ‘food pornography’ involving the use of female bodies, women are ultimately cast as visually edible objects in order to reinstate dominant notions of ‘manhood.’ What women ‘consume’ from the soft-core pornographizing of food is, thus, different to what heterosexual men are intended to consume – and benefit from. As Anna Lavis explains, the type of ‘eating’ that postfeminist food pornographies construct is one of mimesis rather than embodiment: endorsed narratives that encourage women to desire being desired; whetting the appetite in a virtual sense but, ultimately, offering no physical nourishment. A feminist lens, replacing the male gaze of soft-core food pornographies, is needed to cut past these outdated narratives.
Based on feminist rejections of oppressive gendered food practices, resisting today’s soft-core food pornographic culture requires actively challenging the heterosexual male gaze, and reinforcing a radical, feminist portrayal of food and eating. It is useful to look at the way that feminist activists and artists have transformed women’s relationships with food in ways that challenge regressive gender stereotypes. Radical feminist writer Ann Oakley, for example, was provocative when she called for a kitchen-less home; one that prevented women from being confined to food-related caregiving by design. Feminist performance artists such as Martha Rosler used the feminist lens to depict the drudgery involved in domestic cooking, parodying the television kitchen in a monotonous performance that grew in anger as it progressed. Outside of the kitchen, women have also been reclaiming their appetites and right to food regardless of their body weight, shape and size. In these resistant acts, women are shown challenging the status quo, and casting notions of care, personal responsibility and selfless domesticity aside to create feminist representations of women’s food realities.
Taking a leaf from feminists of the past and present, confronting the soft-core food pornographies of today calls for a radical lens that not only depicts women’s positive (and embodied) experiences with food, but also foregrounds the sometimes harsh and political realities of these experiences, too. This lens would refrain from using stereotypes of femininity, whether playful or not, to draw attention to the variety of women’s food experiences by encapsulating everything from the struggles that low-income mothers face with conflicting messages about ‘good’ food work, to the experiences of women finding themselves cooking and enjoying food after a lifetime of punitive self-restriction. While these representations do not subscribe to postfeminist tropes of fun, empowered, and ironic food femininities that only allow women to display appetites if they are thin and decidedly heterosexual, they are contemporary representations of women and food that warrant mainstream attention. The soft-core food pornographies currently on offer present women’s appetites for food as nothing but one-dimensional props for heterosexual male consumption. Women are hungry for representations that offer more.