American Meat and Masculinity

By Sailor R.

I’m out to eat with a group of friends on a Friday night. When it comes time to order, I get a pasta without meat and ensure that they remember to avoid putting cheese on it. People start probing and I tell them I’m vegan. Some of the men at the table are almost offended by the fact that I choose not to consume meat. Although I present as a traditionally masculine American, the fact that I don’t consume meat shatters my image of manliness with some. In the American context, the consumption of meat has become synonymous with manhood. But why?

The Symbolic Anthropology School is interested in how symbols within a culture are interpreted within their own cultural context. Clifford Geertz’s semiotic perspective defines the method as, “Pertaining to the relationship between symbols and what they represent”.[1] When an anthropologist observes the classic symbols of American machoism, the connection to meat consumption is clear. The most glaringly obvious symbol of American meat- tied masculinity is the cowboy. Characters portrayed by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have helped reinforce the symbol of the macho carnivore by tying the meat industry directly into the popular culture definition of manliness. By portraying symbols of “true” American masculinity through such a narrow lens, men who feel unsure of their own masculinity are forced to fall in line with this rigid definition.

The Culture and Personality School believes that, “Cultures and cultural traits are uniquely patterned”.[2] This school believes that specific cultures produce specific individuals and therefore, behaviors of individuals within that culture are a direct reflection of that culture. The symbolic anthropologist would look at why American culture specifically produces the connection between meat and masculinity. To analyze this, we must first look at cultural foundations between high meat consumers such as the US and low consumers such as Bhutan. The religious values of both nations are quite different and are clearly going to produce different individuals. The Abrahamic foundations of the US view human- animal relationships as hierarchical and view animals as tools to be taken advantage of whereas the Dharmic religious foundation of Bhutan emphasize non-harm. The differing values of these religious foundations can lend an important clue as to how men see their relationship with animals and their subsequent consumption.

The definition of traditional American masculinity is tied to a meat- heavy omnivorous diet. Starting with the cultural foundations of the country all the way to modern interpretations, meat consumption has always played a role in how men see themselves in their environment. Both the Symbolic and Culture and Personality Schools allow the anthropologist to analyze American macho-culture in different lights and break down what truly drives this social construct.

[1]http://anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29532647/Symbolic%20and%20Interpretive%20Anthropology#MainMethod

[2] In class lecture

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36 Responses to American Meat and Masculinity

  1. Jill Wetzel says:

    I think this is a very insightful essay! People never find it odd that my mom is a vegetarian but I’m sure they would have negative or puzzled reactions if my dad were to say the same thing. The idea of a man and his grill seems so embedded in our culture that I constantly see it on advertisements, which just further perpetuates the idea! I like how you tied this idea to culture and personality – I had never thought about other cultures (such as Bhutan) being raised with fundamentally different ideas about animals and how that relates over to meat consumption – it makes sense! Do you think that this trend will eventually diminish as the vegan lifestyle grows more and more mainstream in American society? I wonder if in the future we will see advertisements with men working the garden instead of the grill as this cultural idea is continually contested and they symbols of manhood/consumption change.

  2. Skylar Scharer says:

    I never thought about the gender association with different diets. I know on the contrary to vegan, you can think of the keto diet. The keto diet is a diet that cuts out carbs entirely and focuses on proteins: meats, beans, nuts, etc. I guess this would be considered a “manly” diet by society. Then there’s the paleo diet, as in Paleolithic era foods only. This involves a lot of nuts, fruits, meats, and vegetables. This would probably be considered manly too, based on the consumption involved. Scary to think about how everything we do can be gendered.

  3. Sneha Varanasi says:

    This is a really interesting observation. While I was aware that meat in a lot of ways was tied to masculinity, I didn’t really think about how weird it would sound to have a buff guy say that he was vegan/vegetarian. In my family, nearly everyone’s vegetarian, so that wouldn’t really apply to someone like my dad or uncle, but this is definitely noticeable in other cultures and social contexts. I like how you related this back to Abrahamic US perspectives and cowboys like John Wayne to explain the connection between meat and masculinity – though it may often seem quite obvious, a lot of people wouldn’t notice this relation.

  4. Zoe Fleming says:

    I really enjoyed reading your essay because I never realized how every single aspect of society is truly gendered – even diets and food as you present in your essay! Specifically, I thought your analysis of meat and masculinity through the lens of culture and personality was especially insightful because it demonstrates how differing cultures and societies produce specific individuals – keying into why some societies like the United States value an omnivore diet with high meat consumption versus other societies like the Bhutan who believe in non-harm, reflecting little meat consumption. In addition, I think it would be interesting to analyze this culture phenomenon of meat and masculinity through a feminist anthropology lens since there seems to be a correlation between vegan/vegetarian diets being with females instead of males.

  5. Gracey Thompson says:

    I loved this essay. People always talk about inequality on the female side, but people rarely talk about inequality on the male side. I really liked how you tied in movie references to back up your point.

  6. Darby Simpson says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. As a female who does not eat meat as well I can recall countless times that my brothers, father, or guy friends have poked fun at me for my dieting decisions. I have rarely met any men who choose to go vegan and I thought it was super interesting to hear about what the social repercussions have been for you. Everything is truly gendered and it is so important to recognize these things before placing judgement on ones life decisions even things that seem so silly such as if you get meat in your pasta or not.

  7. Isabel Adkisson says:

    I enjoyed reading this essay. I also wrote my essay about veganism, however, I discussed more about how veganism is sometimes a subject of mockery and joke in conversation and I discussed potential reasons why this could be. I liked your essay because it was something that is definitely relatable. Although I am a female, all of my life I haven’t eaten meat, and I have noted that it always appears to be the boys/men in my life who are the ones to make a comment about my eating habits. I never even thought about diets as being gendered, but your essay made me think about it and along with my own experience, made me realize that this is indeed the case. The culture + personality perspective was also very fitting to your argument. Very thought provoking, nice job!

  8. Libby O'Neall says:

    I really liked your essay because it made me make another connection with the consumption of meat. From my experience, people also often correlate whether or not someone eats meat with their political affiliation. For example, after attending Boulder for a while, a school that is considered very liberal, my ultra-conservative grandmother called me and said, “So, are you vegan yet?” Her question made little sense to me, as I have been eating cheeseburgers for as long as I can remember. To my grandmother, though, veganism was an indicator, a symbol, of being liberal.

  9. Riley Ferrero says:

    I enjoyed this essay, and had never truly considered why so many people seem averse to the idea of one choosing to partake in veganism (nor vegetarianism, pescetarianism, fruitarianism and what have you). I agree strongly with your connection between what is shown in popular culture and media influencing this train of thought to its near-binary state. And, in my opinion, this television macho-meat era is losing ground (albeit somewhat slowly). As I watched my little sister struggle with a severe Gluten allergy growing up, I paid very close attention to the available options and alternatives for her, which most often included the vegetarian and vegan options offered by the restaurant. I’ve certainly noticed a significant uptick of the availability and quantity of these choices over the past few years, along with a shift in tone surrounding gluten free and vegan foods. To me, this shows that the symbolic nature of being vegan or vegetarian has begun to shift as culture’s general regard for it softens, and any stigma surrounding certain restrictions or choices may – hopefully – lessen along with it.

  10. Julia Giltner says:

    I really enjoyed reading your essay, good job! Although I am not vegan, I have witnessed this same reaction where women are not scrutinized for being vegetarian or vegan, but when a man or even worse, a “masculine” man says they’re vegan both men and women judge the male. Since being a student at Boulder, I have noticed that being vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, and everything in between is far more acceptable compared to other places. It would be interesting to see people’s reactions to a vegan male somewhere like Texas, where meat is very prominent and almost apart of their culture. I think people’s reactions would be even more extreme. I think being a vegan or vegetarian male will become more normalized with time, especially because this is such a new craze in American society. Hopefully, people’s reactions to male vegans will become less extreme as we grow as a society. Overall, great job!

  11. Anna Kauffman says:

    I love this essay! I am a vegan and even though I am not a guy, I do receive some not so great looks and comments. I have noticed that the Boulder culture around animal products is different and more accepting of vegetarians and vegans than other places. When I visit family in the south, I often have to compromise my eating habits because no meat, let alone no dairy and eggs, is simply not in their vocabulary. I appreciate that here in Boulder being vegan is not as tied to a negative connotation as other places. However, your essay has opened my eyes to the gender difference. I had never really taken the time to recognize that the vegan experience for a guy could be quite different. The nonjudgemental (or less judgmental than other places) culture of Boulder is not all encompassing. I find it very interesting that there is a different meaning given to being vegan as a guy.

  12. Daniel Friedman says:

    I think your symbolic description of meet is correct, but also want to add that I think meat is also tied to manhood and masculinity, because back in the day meat used to be a commodity that only the upper class and wealthy could afford. And everyone wants a upperclass and wealthy man rather than one who can’t afford meat. I never thought of big of an influence meat had on ones masculinity before reading this.

  13. Theodore Gonzales says:

    I had not yet thought about how what you eat can affect one’s perception of your masculinity/femininity but you did a great job in analyzing it! I was a bit confused about why meat is associated with masculinity, but I think you put it well. I cant think of any foods that carry an association of femininity, so an essay further discussing the association between diet and masculinity/femininity would be interesting. It would also be interesting to look at expectations about how much male’s and female’s “should” eat, and how going agianst those norms might make someone be percieved as more or less masculine/feminine.

  14. Glenn Jones says:

    This is an insightful essay. Personally, I’ve never consciously thought about how men who don’t eat meat are viewed in a different light from vegan/vegetarian females. While I am a male who eats some (though not a lot of) meat, I respect people who are able to stick to a vegetarian diet out of kindness to animals, regardless of gender. I totally agree that the “macho cowboy” image has contributed to the expectation that American men eat meat. However, I also wonder whether the association between meat and masculinity has something to do with the fact that meat is generally high in protein, which helps to build muscle? Your analysis of different countries’ religious traditions interesting and their relationship to meat-eating is also thoughtful. It is true that there are references to meat production in the Abrahamic tradition, such as killing the fatted calf. Maybe as more Americans learn about other religious traditions attitudes toward male vegetarians and vegans will become less judgmental?

  15. Emmett Trumbull says:

    This is a great essay! You do a wonderful job of defining the two anthropological theories. I would critique this, however. I cannot for sure say that a Culture and Personality Anthropologist would analyze meat consumption in the same way that you did. Your quote states “Cultures and cultural traits are uniquely patterned”. If every culture is unique then I do not understand how a comparison to another, drastically different culture provides any clear insight into the argument of why men in America view meat the way they do.

  16. Chris Shaw says:

    This is a very interesting topic to persue but you explained it so well. I enjoyed the comparison between the US and Bhutan, and how they are both so different with their amounts of meat consumption and how they perceive animals in their culture. Also, your Symbolic analogy with Clint Eastwood (cowboy lifestyle) and how much they ate meat in movies/ films shows a brief, but relative example for how much meat consumption means to men in the United States.

  17. Tyler Mauer says:

    This is a great topic! I feel like everyone always focuses on gender differences in regards to the effect it has on girls, but ignores the fact that these stereotypes can go both ways. I appreciate how you pointed out a possible root of this stereotype, I had never considered where expectations like this come from before.

  18. Than Ball says:

    High meat diets, specifically high red meat consumption, is also tied to colorectal cancer as the aforementioned John Wayne found out the hard way. I’ve also found this meat diet-manliness assertion to be true among bodybuilder friends of mine. BCAA animal proteins being the key to bulking up its seen as a requisite to being a “strongman”. I’ve also heard a perpetuated myth among bodybuilders that soy protein is linked to increased estrogen. Furthering the masculine stereotype that if you’re eating something other than meat you’re not masculine but the exact opposite.

  19. Paige Scatena says:

    I really enjoyed this essay! I totally agree with you that eating meat is seen as a masculine trait and we see this stereotype reinforced and portrayed in movies all the time. Being vegan myself, I completely respect and appreciate your decision to be vegan. My brother and dad are also vegan and when they tell people people are shocked. Whereas, when my mom or I tell someone it doesn’t seem to be as shocking. I find it very interesting that not eating meat is considered weak because standing up for your morals even if you might get ridiculed takes a very strong individual. Breaking the norms of society and being different takes a strong person. I think you did a wonderful job on this essay.

  20. Joshua Kuntz says:

    Great essay, solid connections between the theories and examples. I enjoyed the use of Cultural & Personality Anthropology with religion. Religion being a major influence over diet in many cultures can seem like odd concepts to the outsider but pointing out Americans own eccentricities and the Christian hierarchy in the animal kingdom was a great use of cultural relativism.

  21. Matthew Loughridge says:

    Really interesting connection, and one that I have always taken for granted but can totally see the connection now that you’ve drawn the line. As a Texan born and raised, I really connected with your linkage to symbolic anthropology and the concept of the cowboy. And while cowboys, cattle hands, and ranchers are not nearly as common place today, as elementary students in the Dallas – Fort Worth area growing up we were constantly learning about famous cowboys in Texas history and taking class field trips to the Fort Worth stockyards where we would see the cowboys in action. I didn’t understand what I was watching growing up, all I knew was that it was entertaining. But now, I can see how the meat industry (the lively hood of all cowboys) drove the country forward economically and culturally throughout the 1800 & 1900’s and now that shadow remains very prevalent (although outdated) in todays society.

  22. Ari Rabor says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. When I first read the title I thought you were going to talk about a different kind of meat, so I was a bit surprised that you were talking about food meat. I totally agree with what you’re saying; even in my own family my dad would always order meat at restaurants and my mom, sister, and me would get more “feminine” (I guess) dishes. Great job on the essay, you really shined a new light on the concept of meat

  23. Kody Shugars says:

    Great essay, I really liked how you were able to talk about a form of inequality through cultural expectations. I have never thought about how meat is engrained into our definition of manliness. I really did like your use of how the American symbol of cowboys is so popular in American culture since the meat industry is such a large and influential part of the economy. For the last century, the most iconic image of masculinity has been a cowboy, eating bacon, and smoking a Marlboro cigaret. Which has also been intuned into the American identity, and fits into American Christian Ideals.

  24. Jacob Icolari says:

    The title shook me a bit. But i guess that is the point of this assignment: to leave the reader wondering what they got themselves into. A very well writtten essay, I love reading this, and I loved the way in which you really brought to life the meaning of masculinity through symbols like the cowboy. But along with masculinity, and your description of the cowboy, and how actors who come off as rustic and sort of tough depict the very idea of what a masculine American man is. MEat eater, tobacco consumer, emotionless, is basically what I’ve been able to understand about what masculinity is through reading your essay. I personally never would have even thought that eating meat could be viewed as a masculine trait; however, you’ve really opened my eyes to seeing how that it a true possibility. well done.

  25. collin lento says:

    I think it was harsh to make the assumption that meat eating correlates with masculinity. I know many men and women who eat meat that would not be considered “masculine” by society. I think that diet lies within the tastes of the person as well as what their family fed them growing up. Sure there is imagery of manly men hunting and consuming meat, but in the modern age, meat can be consumed in a less barbaric way. Many restaurants serve meat in a way that does not seem manly such as over salads or with other sides. But I feel the assumption of meat being only manly is too broad to be accepted.

  26. William Meeker says:

    Very interesting essay. I think it would cool to think about the primitive culture of hunters and gatherers whereas men were the hunters and women were gatherers. I think this is why we get the idea that eating meat is so masculine and vegans/ vegetarians are perceived as feminine. As humans have evolved through society, obviously, the times are changing. As society learns how harmful the mass production of the meat industry is for the environment, more and more people are changing their eating habits.

  27. Matt Shanahan says:

    Great essay with great examples of theories we have learned. Americans really do have this complex of being macho and meat-eaters. I have also heard the term “Unamerican” from someone that is a meat-eater, to one that may be vegan or vegetarian. Early humans did not eat as much meat as we do now, and also had a tighter bond with animals. Masculinity is such a huge concept to Americans that the bigger picture is often overlooked and only what you know is right. Hopefully more people will see your perspective in their lifetime and the future generations will move forward with this. Awesome read!

  28. Katie Lynch-Dombroski says:

    You did a great job of explaining the theories and tying them to your topic. As a vegan, I’ve also seen ideas put online about how eating meat is masculine and eating tofu can make you “womanly.” I had not thought about the cowboy being an important symbol in the US but it makes sense how you explained the connection. There are also lots of typically thought of as American foods that just include meat like hot dogs and hamburgers that are culturally acceptable and encouraged.

  29. Andrew Matthews says:

    Well done! I think that you did a great job explaining the idea that not eating meat is somehow seen as not manly from an American perspective. The symbolic interpretation is spot on, in advertisements for meat you almost always see a man grilling, preparing, and eating meat which for many Americans reinforces the idea that men be associated with the consumption of meat. I also like how you included how characters such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have a sort of generational effect on Americans as being the sort of definition of what a man is and does, such as eating meat. In your second paragraph, you make a solid claim that meat consumption is also associated with differences in ideology in how the U.S views animals as nothing but tools to serve humans while the Dharmic religious foundation of Bhutan emphasize non-harm. Overall I enjoyed reading this article well done.

  30. Mariah Goudy says:

    This was a super interesting perspective. As a female I often have an opposite judgement placed upon myself. For example, I remember being told in high school that girls should eat light meals like salads on dates so that they appear more “lady-like”, whatever that means. After reading your essay I have really recognized the differences between “proper” gender performance in accordance to eating.

  31. Brianna Shriner says:

    This was a very interesting take on this topic. Before reading this essay I never really thought of the judgement that many men face when they are vegan. Many people’s idea of an american man is some strong man who has a steak in front of them. I also enjoyed how the author engaged both theories nicely. The essay flowed very well.

  32. Dylan Zamora-Silva says:

    So I’m just going go ahead and say it, Veganism isn’t the “ideal human diet,” as many claim it to be. Our the physiology of our digestive system and size of our brain, from an evolutionary standpoint contradict the very staples of a vegan diet.

    Another possibility is perhaps that there is a connection between meat and protein and protein equated to muscle. Muscle being a trait to our definition of “masculinity.”

    With that said, as a vegan I would like to address that just because humans aren’t made to be “plant based,” doesn’t mean we haven’t advanced enough to acquire our nutrition through means of a highly varied diet allowing for healthier lifestyle if done right regardless of gender.

  33. Bryan Fierro says:

    I can see how society forces individuals to find the idea of eating meat as being manly or what men should do, but I do think that it is more than just eating meat. I think society as a whole has created norms that encourage individuals to avoid any kind of dietary change as a whole. It seems that following any kind of specific diet like being vegan or even choosing to only eat meat is something that falls outside of what a “normal” individual would do considering that society often expects any individual to simply follow the normal diet of eating anything and everything.

  34. Rowen Lewis says:

    This essay was eye opening because many of my friends who are women are vegetarian or vegan and I am always surprised when a man says that he is vegan or vegetarian. My initial instinct is to follow the social norm of men being omnivorous or carnivorous. Even when I am told by a friend who is a man that the are vegetarian I forget that they are and have to be told many times that this is not the case. This essay opened my eyes and helped me realize that even the food that we eat is often gendered.

  35. Brooke Thurman says:

    I think this essay provides an important narrative, since our society often links veganism and vegetarianism with women. Something like meat is one of the many things that Americans associate with traditional conceptions of masculinity, in which men are glorified for being strong, muscular, tough, and handsome. Expectations regarding gender are instilled in us beginning at such a young age, and this essay demonstrates how something as basic to human survival as food can even be gendered.

  36. Marina Rich says:

    I find this essay very interesting because in the same way that meat is associated with masculinity, salads are associated with femininity. As a child growing up it was more common than not that my dad would order a stake at dinner and my mom would order either a salad or some kind of salmon. A “lighter” dish. As I grew up I almost felt expected to eat more greens then my male cousins or friends. When boys eat a lot they are “growing” but when girls do the same they are often considered pigs. How is it that something as simple as our nutritional needs have been genderized and expectations have been set in place. Can this have a biological explanation or is it all societal and cultural?

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