The New York City subway is not only the network that allows millions of people to travel within the city every day, but also a crucible of conversations, gestures, and images that I believe play an important role in shaping the local culture. However, when hanging to a pole or trying to read our newspaper, the sights and sounds that surround us are typically ignored on the surface level, but that does not mean that they do not affect us, in some ways. In particular, advertising tries to influence our choices as consumers, at times by shocking us and forcing us to take a second look, other times with subtler, less intrusive approaches.
The other day, a picture of gelato containers (chocolate and French vanilla, to be precise) caught my eye. Because I love gelato, I could not ignore the poster. I immediately realized that it was not directly addressing me. The caption in big letters read: "You'll start to forget him by the 4th spoonful." All the rest of the copy -- in smaller lettering -- conveyed more utilitarian information, including the name of the local drug store chain selling the new product, its exclusive distribution in the said chain, and its affordable price. What startled me is that I immediately understood what the advertising referred to. The copy writers have correctly taken for granted that the background assumption behind the words is widely shared and easily appreciated. Anybody can be on the joke. Well, anybody as long as he or she is familiar with American popular culture and one of its almost unshakable tenets: When women get sad or depressed, they cope with their emotions by binging on sweets. Countless are the movie scenes where, after going through a devastating break up or other major setback, a woman cries her eyes out on her sofa while eating entire pints of ice cream, or stuffs her face standing directly in front of a fridge. Men only do it in comedies, and they usually are emasculated and overweight characters whose behavior is supposed to be funny. Well-known examples include the clumsy and lovable professor Sherman Klump, played by Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, and the obnoxious champion slipped into fatness after a major defeat, played by Ben Stiller in Dodgeball. Apparently, excess of girth -- interpreted as a clear sign of weakness -- could also cause males to take out their anxieties on desserts.
For women, it is different. Cultural critics have observed how lack of control over one's appetite has been considered a threatening but common female trait throughout history. Since the Middle Ages, women's association with the preparation and serving of meals seems to have given rise to men's fear about feminine control over ingestion and consumption. Building in part on this connection, medieval theologians tended to relate women to matter and the body, while men were equated to the spiritual and the rational. You never know what may happen if you let female bodies go unbridled. The apparent ignorance of some politicians and media gurus about the basic biology of female reproduction and contraception suggests that the mystery still lingers, and that it needs to be regulated and controlled by somebody who knows better. Definitely not by women.
We cannot exclude food and ingestion from power struggles. The way we understand and experience our physical needs, the way we choose, store, prepare, cook, ingest, digest, and excrete food, are far from being neutral or natural. Like many aspects of our life, gender is performed, regulated, and reinforced by daily gestures and practices that are so ordinary we often fail to even recognize them. Media and advertising participate in the creation of stereotypes and expectations. A woman that temporarily loses control over herself because of sadness or anger -- the narrative goes -- may easily surrender to the desires of her unruly body, and even dare to consume fattening foods. Giving in to her appetites, enjoying pleasurable treats, and momentarily forgetting her supposedly natural role of nurturer and caregiver, can be interpreted as a minor act of insubordination that deserves a laugh, or at least a smirk. Here the joke sells the very cause of insubordination (ice cream) and, with it, quite a bit of apparently harmless stereotyping. But is this really so innocent and benign? Bon appétit.
For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.