The understanding of gender, as so far as the common belief, is limited to the sexual organs and the chromosomes we inherit but what if I tell you that food is gendered. However, not in the sense that onions are male and potatoes are female (although that may be true for certain languages comme un oignon et une pomme de terre) but in the sense that our relation to food is gendered.
Sex and gender are two distinct categories. Sex refers to our genes and the sexual organs we are born with, but gender is a performance. In their article ‘Doing Gender’, West and Zimmerman (1987) explained that gender is not something we have, but rather something performed every day in our lives. Our gendered identity exists in every social setting. In the classroom, when we talk to friends, in a football game and even when we cook and eat. In the book Food and Femininity by Cairns and Johnstons, they mentioned that food and its practices are fundamental aspects of doing gender (2015). But how do we do gender? How is our relationship to food and food practices shaped by gender? Ultimately, how can food be gendered?
Using my own personal experience with food, I will attempt to answer these questions through my cooking skills (or lack thereof) and my most hated space in a house; the kitchen.
Learning How to Cook
My mother has never forced me to cook at home because she is a working mom so it makes no sense for her to enforce it on my sisters and I when she also does not do it very often. Nonetheless, whenever I go back to my mom’s side of the family, where I see my grandmother and aunts, I feel pressured to learn how to cook. Ever since I was an adolescent, around 10 to 11 years old, my female cousins and I were always forced to go to the kitchen to help or simply watch my female relatives cook. Of course, at that age, I just wanted to play. Sitting around doing nothing in the kitchen or cutting vegetables is not what a ten-year-old kid who just met their cousins would do. I once complained to my mom about this, and she told me, “you should watch your Tok (the name I call my grandma) cook so you can do it yourself in the future“.
Similarly, while watching my grandma cook, I told her, “Tok, why do I have to do this? I can learn this once I get older. Can I go play?” and I was scolded. My grandma replied to me angrily, “I need to teach you now. If I do not, what would other people think of me as a grandmother?“. My female cousins and I were dissatisfied because our male cousins did not experience the same thing. This apparent distinction made by my grandmother and other adults in that household is a way of parenting explained by Emily Kane in her book ‘The Gender Trap’. She studied how parents’ behaviour contributed to reproducing or undoing gender norms (2012). She categorized parents into five distinct types; Naturalizers, Cultivators, Refiners, Innovators and Resisters. My grandmother belongs to the Naturalizers group, who regard gender as an outcome of their biological features and thus adhere to traditional gender roles. All this while, she was not teaching me how to cook but was teaching me about femininity or, more specifically, food femininity which Cairns and Jonhston described as “food specific-ways feminine subjectivities are embodied and enacted in daily life” (2015).
Furthermore, Kane also mentioned that Naturalizers tend to hold greater accountability on gender behaviour (2012). As shown by the concern expressed by grandmother, there was a sense of anxiety that she felt if I did not know how to cook. Nonetheless, this concern was not because she was worried that I would end up starving in the future but rather what other people would think of her as a grandmother. This burden that she felt was described by Merin Oleschuk in her article ‘Gender, Cultural Schemas and Learning to Cook’ where she introduced the ‘cooking by our mother’s side schema‘ to explain the expectation that society has on women as the primary agent to relay cooking knowledge over generations and the expectation that learning how to cook can only happen during childhood (2019). As a result, women feel burdened to teach their children cooking skills and stigmatised for failing to do so (Oleschuk, 2019). Today, I am still not a great cook, even after the constant nagging from the elderly in my family. In fact, I would say that I have inherited zero cooking knowledge and recipes from my grandmother (which is a shame because I could really use those skills in France). However, as a result of this experience, I do inherit an expectation that women have to know how to cook and that cooking is central to femininity.
Teaching how to cook
At 20 years old, I moved to France for my studies and have since lived alone in my student apartment. This was the age when I really began to learn how to cook but still, I am a mediocre cook. My cooking ranges from avocado toast to store-bought pasta sauce – nothing fancy.
As a second-year student in Sciences Po, I signed up for the Godparent-Godchild program, whereby the second-year students are assigned a first-year student to mentor and help them adjust to their new adult life in Le Havre. Surprisingly, I was given a male Godchild who had little experience with cooking. Therefore, as the good Godmother that I was, I brought him grocery shopping because he did not know what ingredients to buy. Then, I showed him how to use the stove and gave him instructions on how to fry sausages and how to cut an onion. As I have said before, I am not a professional cook. I have tons of encounters of almost burning my apartment, but somehow, I transformed into this extremely knowledgeable chef when I am with my Godchild. It occurred to me that I was really indulged in my role as a mother, a position that I unconsciously embodied because of my title as a Godmother. Judith Butler’s work then makes sense as she said that “gender is thus a constituted social temporality”, which was constructed due to ‘stylized repetition of acts’ contributing to the illusion of that gender identity (1988). The fact that I was teaching him how to cook created the illusion of a caring mother whose expertise in cooking is unquestionable.
However, why did I bother to show my Godchild that I was a good Godmother? Well, similar to why my grandmother was so keened about teaching me how to cook – my role as a Godmother was held accountable. Indeed, gender acts are constantly policed and sanctioned by society (West & Zimmerman 1987; Butler, 2018). Consequently, the idea of having this risk pushes us to perform the gender role that we assumed. Additionally, I wanted my peers to know that I was a good Godmother; hence I really committed myself to the role given to me. One of my friends praised me, saying that my Godchild was lucky to have a responsible Godmother, and I felt that my role as a Godmother was acknowledged.
The kitchen: Why I’m not too fond of it (other than the fact that I am bad at cooking)
Growing up, I have always noticed a binary gender division in the kitchen and the dining room. This is especially true on my mother’s side of the family. Whenever my family and I visited them, it would be when everyone was back, so mealtimes imply large family gatherings. Female members would be expected to be in the kitchen as early as 11 a.m. to prepare lunch that happens at 2 p.m. No one would be exempted except for mothers with young children to care for. Therefore, it was a typical scene to see the kitchen dominated by the female members of the household. Then when it was 2 p.m., the male members would just come to this space only to eat – nothing else. All men and my grandmother (the only exception) would eat at the dining table (including young male cousins) while other women and children would eat on a large mat beside it.
Furthermore, the male members were not allowed to do any type of food labour. My dad once tried to wash his plates, but my aunt was quick to tell him just to leave them in the sink because “it was not his job“. Of course, a massive part of me could not accept this. I can recall the number of times my female cousins and I complained about this inequality we experienced during mealtimes. Women have poured in as much labour in the kitchen as the men did outside the house, but why are men rewarded more than women?
Therefore, Connell’s idea of hegemonic masculinity is helpful to explain this inequitable gender relation. She explains that hegemonic masculinity is not fixed nor static but relational (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, cited by Cairns and Johnston, 2015). She defined it as “the masculinity that occupies the hegemonic position in a given pattern of gender relations” (Connell, 1995 as cited by Cairns and Johnston, 2015). Therefore, we can observe a type of hegemonic masculinity in my family. It is translated in the position that one occupies in the dining room. Those eating at the table possess a higher social status inside the family, such as my grandfather, grandmother, and other male members.
In comparison, the female members and the children who have a lower status could only sit on the floor to eat. Indeed, the kitchen is a space where gender power dynamics can play out. Gregson and Rose extended the social interactionist idea to include space and power. They argued our social performances create and discipline the social actors; thus, these performances are produced by the power embedded in the space they are in (2000). Once they entered the kitchen, everyone in the family understood the activity they must do and the space they were allowed to take as if a social script was premade and the kitchen was the stage for the performance to occur.
Analysing the relations between food and gender made me realise that it is challenging to find non-gendered things in our life because gender is a master identity that cuts across all social situations. We can expect to see our gender identity playing out in other mundane activities like sleeping or going to the toilet. Maybe undoing traditional gender roles does not require us to look very far. Just look around, and you will notice our gendered social reality.