I use TV dinners to show my students that nearly everything, even things they’d never expect, are awash in race, gender, and class meaning.

Hungry-Man is probably the most obviously meaning-laden of the TV dinners.  It is aimed directly at men, of course, with one and a half pounds of food, an excellent blue box, and a strong font in all capital letters.  But it also advertises a particularly working-class masculinity.  In these two boxes, notice the references to “backyard barbeque” and “sports” (XXL).  The food itself, barbeque chicken and pork, mashed potatoes, and beer battered chicken, reinforces this class message.  But this is also about race, as the working-class masculinity is implicitly white.

Stouffer’s, in contrast, is more moderate.  The font for the brand is cursive, for the meal in lower-case.  Without being over the top, it still passes as masculine.

Stouffer’s bistro, in contrast, is a feminine version.  References to a “bistro” makes you think of France (a notoriously feminized country) and the meal here is a “crustini” (something a “real” man would never eat).

Healthy Choice seems to go further towards neutralizing its brand.  The green color is neutral and using the term “healthy,” instead of “diet” or a similar word, keeps the brand from being too feminine.  Plus, there’s a running MAN in the logo.  Still, there’s a feminine feel to the food choices.  The first meal is “Roasted Chicken Marsala… in Wine Sauce with Penne Pasta [and] Green Bean and Red Pepper Medley.”  The second includes “Caramel Apple Crisp” and “Broccoli Florets.”  Descriptions of truly manly food would not include “wine,” “medley,” “crisp,” or “florets.”

The Cafe Steamers sub-brand further feminizes Healthy Choice.  Notice the cursive font and the double reference to “merlot.”

Lean Cuisine is the most feminized brand.  Between the turqoise and orange color scheme, the reference to slimness with the word “lean,” and the delicate all lower-case font on the boxes, the fact that the product is aimed at women is clear.  There is also a class message.  Who eats “Szechuan Style Stir Fry with Shrimp”?  Not the same guy that eats “Backyard Barbeque.”

I saw this shirt online at a site advertised on YouTube. It also comes in “women’s cut” tees and spaghetti string tank tops. The story here is old…

Also see the last t-shirt in this post: “I like my women like my chicken, battered.”

Eric S. sent us a link to the webpage for the Sun-Maid Girl, the girl used to represent Sun-Maid raisins. Here is the original painting of the first Sun-Maid Girl, Lorraine Collett Peterson:

The logo was most recently updated in 1970; here is the current incarnation:

In discussing the original painting, the website says,

Sometimes we forget that in 1915 there were no electric hair dryers, that television would not be invented for decades to come, and that automobiles were not in every home. Life was much simpler, more rural, a lot less hectic and sunbonnets were still part of women’s fashion in California.

I like the romanticization of the past there. In 1915…World War I was going on. I guess life was “less hectic” in that you didn’t have a Blackberry to check every 15 seconds, but overall, I’m not sure I’d say it was “simpler” in a way that implies everyone had time to just sit around eating raisins and drying their hair in the sun.

Also from the website:

To Payne, the sight of the red sunbonnet and the pretty girl in the morning sun was the ideal personification of E.A. Berg’s brand name SUN-MAID.

This might be an interesting addition to some of the images in this, this, and this post about the sexualization of food. Whereas the women in those instances are mostly explicitly sexualized, in this case, the product is being associated with an idealized, non-sexual “maiden” version of femininity. I just thought it might make a good contrast if you’re discussing connections between women and food–the use of female sexuality and idealized female chasteness as marketing tactics related to food products. I wonder if Sun-Maid has stayed with the de-sexualized icon because raisins are associated with children?

FYI, Sun-Maid was one of the companies boycotted by United Farm Workers of America, the group let by Cesar Chavez.

Thanks, Eric S.!

NEW: In a comment Adriana pointed us to Ester Hernandez’s parody of the Sun-Maid girl:

Thanks, Adriana!


The things women have to put up with. Most husbands, nowadays, have stopped beating their wives, but what can be more agonizing to a sensitive soul than a man’s boredom at meals. Yet, lady, there must be a reason. If your cooking and not your conversation is monotonous, that’s easily fixed. [Ed. – Though apparently boring conversation is a life sentence.] Start using soups more often, with lighter, more varied dishes to follow. Heinz makes 18 varieties. You can serve a different one every day for three weeks. Use them in your cooking too, and strike some new flavours that will lift ordinary dishes out of the commonplace.

Vintage ad found here thanks to Laura R.

In this election, no one wants to be “elitist.” You know, the kind of person who went to an Ivy League, speaks perfect English, and avoids processed foods like high-fructose corn syrup.

Ben O. sent us these two ads, made by the Corn Refiners association, in which two historically marginalized groups–women and blacks–get it over on historically privileged groups–men and whites respectively–by exposing their obsessive-health-food-mania. Ben writes:

…the implication is that critics of [high-fructose corn syrup] HFCS are privileged (white and/or male) people who are condescending to inform black and/or female people that HFCS is bad, although they’re not only paternalistic but ignorant. And in both ads, standing up for the supposed virtues of high-fructose corn syrup appears to be an empowering action.

Nice observation, Ben!

Stephen W. sent us this picture of the “Hispanic” foods aisle at a Walmart in Sioux Falls, South Dakota:

Why is this odd? 

The word “Hispanic” was actually invented by the U.S. government to mean Spanish-speaking.  The government invented it for the census because they wanted to be able to label and identify all Spanish speakers.  “Hispanic,” then, unlike the terms “Latino” or “Chicano,” is not an identity that originated among those to whom it applies.  Further, though it is sometimes used as a euphemism for “Mexican” or “Latino,” Spanish is only spoken in Latin America because of the conquest of parts of Latin America by Spain.

Given the history and use of this term, what would “Hispanic” food be?!  (According to Walmart, it’s salsa and tacos.)

NEW: Another use of the term “Hispanic.”  This time on a bag of peanuts passed out on a Southwest Airlines flight. 

From a press release by Southwest Airlines about their celebration of Southwest Airlines:

Southwest Airlines shares its passion for Hispanic Heritage Month with our internal and external Customers by hosting celebrations in our Hispanic focus markets. Local Employees kick off the festivities by partnering with local organizations, and at airports, with gate games, Mariachi music, authentic foods, and distributing commemorative T-shirts and lapel pins emblazoned with our Hispanic Heritage Month message “Celebremos Tu Herencia,” “We Celebrate Your Heritage.” Hispanic Heritage month posters also are on display during this month-long celebration. Finally, be on the lookout for Southwest’s Hispanic Heritage Month specialty packaged peanuts! (emphasis mine)

Thanks to Stephen W. for this link, too!

This afternoon on Marketplace (on NPR) I heard this story about a new McDonald’s commercial, called “Intellectuals,” that pokes fun of Starbucks. Here is the commercial (available here if the video doesn’t show up right in the post):

Here’s an older one for the guys:

Now, I’m all for making fun of pretentious hipsters (or anybody else pretentious, for that matter), and I’m not a fan of Starbucks for a host of reasons. But I think the anti-intellectualism in these commercials is fascinating. Now that McDonald’s offers a lower-cost cappuccino, women are free to wear heels again! They don’t have to pretend to like jazz, speak a foreign language, or care where Paraguay is! The men are liberated, not just from Starbucks’ prices, but also from pretending to be sensitive intellectuals. Both groups can stop acting as though they like reading and go back to watching TV. Men don’t have to watch films anymore. Being intellectual, i.e. reading books, watching “films” (as opposed to “movies”), and not wearing heels, is posing; going to McDonald’s, watching sports, and wearing short skirts (the one woman says “I just want to show my knees, you know?”) are authentic. And in the case of women, presumably being an intellectual forces you to wear stuffy clothes (turtlenecks and long skirts) that probably preclude you from ever having sex (although maybe you can attract the guys posing as intellectuals).

Maybe I’ve been out of the loop, but do intellectual women never wear heels? Are we not allowed to wear skirts above the knee? I love fashion and have lots of heels in my closet and I spent a good part of the summer watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a TV show. Crap–do I have to give my Ph.D. diploma back now?

In the Marketplace story I linked to above, one commentator connects this to Sarah Palin, saying,

It really seems to be in the Sarah Palin moment. Because all that is about anti-intellectualism and shootin’ and huntin’ . . . . And this is, you know, “Oh, we really always hated Starbucks, and thank God for McDonald’s and a real American option”.

I get where she’s going–the idea of authenticity and all–but I assume the ad was being planned well before Palin was named the VP candidate, so that seemed a bit of a sketchy assertion, but the discussion of the anti-intellectualism is pretty accurate, I think.

McDonald’s has also created a website as part of this campaign, Unsnobby Coffee (I can’t tell if it’s a general McDonald’s site; at the bottom it says McDonald’s of Western Washington). It has a mad-libs style “intervention” page where you can insert phrases into the spaces in a pre-written letter to a friend, asking them to give up their “snobby iced espresso.” The words available for you to drag into the spaces include:

trust fund

After filling it out, you can send it to a friend.

This could be used for discussions of gender (“real” vs. inauthentic masculinity and femininity) as well as attitudes toward “intellectual” pursuits and the way that things like reading books and knowing where Paraguay is are often linked to an idea of upper-class snobbery so that being a “real,” authentic, non-pretentious person requires you to reject reading in favor of TV and films in favor of sports. While this message makes fun of hipsters, it’s also painting a pretty negative portrait of “normal” people–as non-reading, non-thinking, and superficial. You could also use it as an example of the commodification of authenticity.

I took these pictures at a Vons in Los Angeles, CA (Eagle Rock neighborhood):

Someone or someones somewhere made a conscious decision to hang candy bars on the outside of the freezer doors leading to the TV dinners marketed as healthy. I think it nicely illustrates how, in American culture, we are subject to incredible temptation and pressure to consume more calories than we need at the same time that we’re encouraged to look as if we do not submit to that temptation. This is good for the economy in that both the food industry and the diet industry are far larger industries than they would be were we to restrict our caloric intake according to need.

NEW (from Gwen): I took the following two photos in my office building at Nevada State College. We don’t have any food service program and there aren’t any places to eat within walking distance, so the only options faculty and students have are the vending machines. The other day my attention was drawn to this sign posted inside one of them:

Now, on the face of it, this seems all good–individuals should take responsibility for their food choices by choosing healthier options, and the vendor is even providing guidelines. How nice!

But then I stood back and looked at the products for sale in that same vending machine (there were a couple of rows of chips at the top that got cut off in the photo):

None of these products had nutritional information in view, so I couldn’t actually see how many of them fell within the guidelines helpfully posted along the side. I know, from looking at similarly-sized packages at a convenience store later, that all the chips had over 350 calories.

My guess would be that most people would choose the “yogurt apple nut mix” on the next-to-last row as the healthiest item, but I’ve found that mixes like that often have surprisingly high fat and calorie contents, particularly because they often come in multiple-serving packages. But without access to more information, the consumer is left to try to guess what would be healthiest and what might have lots of hidden calories (like those yogurt-covered nuts might).

I thought it was a great example of how concerns about unhealthy eating habits and obesity are often framed as failures of individual responsibility–people just eat too much and make bad decisions about food. The food industry likes this explanation because it takes the focus off of the types of products it makes available or the responsibility food companies might have for producing healthier options…or at least telling us more openly about what we’re eating. But this framing of the issue ignores the fact that it’s often very difficult to make better eating decisions; nutritional information is often lacking (I have on several occasions asked for nutritional information at restaurants, just out of interest, and usually found that employees have difficulty locating it; in one case they eventually found it posted on a chart hidden by a fake plant), and in other cases there simply aren’t better options (or they’re more expensive than the unhealthy ones). Providing platitudes about “making balanced choices” isn’t that helpful in the absence of specific information about and access to foods that are, you know…balanced.