The shortcomings of instagram, who's entitled to gluttony, & what I think about Action Bronson
What is missing in what’s conveyed about food/eating on social media platforms like Instagram? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately and contemplating the role of women and femmeness in the food & wine world I like/sort of inhabit. There is a persistent trend towards concepts easily construed as masculine, or perhaps made more acceptable in masc people, that I see a lot of in the natural wine realms and in the foods scenes that accompany them. The ever-familiar glorification of a kind of “punk-rock-ness” that gets attached to everyone from the wild-haired wine maker who smokes too much pot and lives in a trailer on his vineyard to the red-faced chef loaded with the requisite sleeves of tattoos who says fuck every other word.
I get it. I mostly like it too. But I find it odd, and sort of delimiting, that once again our conception of “coolness” and “realness” is channeled almost solely through a masculine lens. Even the women I do see getting celebrated seem to have to possess an element of rowdiness that renders them edgier than tradition. They have to be “one of the boys”, however, while doing so they also have to remain palatable enough (ie. feminine enough) to still be considered desirable. It’s not a coincidence that there’s no lady-equivalent of Action Bronson. That kind of famed vulgarity, to dumb it down, is literally not accessible to female-identified/bodied people.
There is an excellent book by a woman named Julia Serano called: Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity that I find myself returning to again and again over the years, whenever I’m trying to process something related to gender in our world. To start, she blows the whole thing out of the water by naming the caveat I’m always trying to get across when I have these conversations—It’s not just about “men” and “women”, those physical bodies—it’s about maleness and femaleness as ideas, and the systems of valuation they carry in our historical/social/political lives. I do not intend, in that statement, to remove the body from the conversation and am well aware of the dangers of doing so. Academia’s penchant for neglecting physical reality is not lost on me. Rather, I think it’s more possible to have a conversation that doesn’t feel like it’s attacking the “other”, when we talk about gender as veritable collections/constructions of traits and attributes that every person possesses. Thus “man” and “woman” (and everything in-between and beyond) gets to have a lot more freedom of meaning and expression.
Another thing that struck me initially, and continues to stick with me, is Serano’s critique of the perception of femininity as “artificial” or “performance”. Though her book focuses on transgender experiences, particularly those of trans women, she makes a point of noting that it is negligent, and honestly not even really possible, to talk about gender equity without including everyone. In doing so, she traces conceptualizations of femininity throughout contexts, noting the persistent depiction (feminist/queer movements not exempt), of the feminine as somehow less authentic.
Which brings me back to food. And wine. And actually, CONSUMPTION, and how we (I) do that and what it looks like in the pretty photos of our endless scroll.
Recently, the talented Cara Nicoletti (butcher, baker, author, fellow sausage maker etc.), who I like and follow on Instagram, but have never actually met, posted a story lamenting the absurd standards of physicality that are so frequently reinforced in media depictions of women eating. Unfortunately, given the ephemeral nature of instagram “stories” I can’t return to what exactly she said, but to sum it up, it was basically a photograph of three very thin women feasting on a whole spread of decadent foods, on which she wrote something to the affect of “tired of the impossible standards this perpetuates”. Immediately what came to mind was shit like this. Images of hyper-thin blondes going to town on bright, happy looking burgers and piles of pink sprinkled donuts, burned into my memory from a teenage addiction to Vogue.
I can picture perfectly (though I couldn’t find it online), one particular spread I saw when I was around 16, of some actress, of course beautiful in every societally-ordained way, in a kitchen with an equally aesthetically-pleasing male counterpart, wearing what was implicitly his blue button up and nothing else, sipping on a vanilla milkshake. Red maraschino cherry on top. Puckered mouth, men’s shirt, expertly disheveled hair, and thin body—some divine concoction of Shirley-Temple naiveté, tomboy earnestness, and Victoria’s Secret angel.
At the other end of the kitchen he is captured preparing plates of hot dogs and hamburgers. Vibrant stacks of iceberg lettuce and beefsteak tomatoes, along with cartoony scribbles and dollops of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise lighting up the shot. As the pages go on we see them eating together, her long golden legs draped over his lap, while she takes a bite of whatever he has in his hand, a smear of some condiment on the right side of her lovely mouth, cutely marring the perfection, lending it just the touch of silly and easygoing it absolutely must possess. An accompanied article about how much they like to cook together. How she has a such a hearty appetite. Dad used to sometimes take her for milkshakes long past bedtime as a treat. Now she makes them as a midnight snack sometimes.
Yeah, me too.
But also, what the fuck? I think this memory speaks to the similarly contrived appearance of food and wine stuff on Instagram that I’m talking about. And to why the archetypal male foodie/winey (most typically white, heterosexual in a performative way, and construed as “badass” via aesthetic and attitude) is the only person afforded the privilege of being gross.
Let’s actually complicate gross a bit. I want to talk about appetite and its polarizing reputation. About which bodies are communicated as entitled to or tolerated in their indulgences, and which are not. The Action Bronson Phenomenon and its lacking feminine counterpart is something I actually think about a lot. His specific brand of vulgarity reads so masculine, I think in part, because we live in a society where recklessness and impetuosity have been historically celebrated in men but shamed in women. Indulgence then gets quickly tied up in constructs of morality, and while “boys will be boys”, good women don’t. Even contemporarily, we’re only comfortable with women consuming, taking up space, having active roles etc. when they’re cute enough to take the edge off. That, or they’re rendered completely un-sexual, often vaguely matronly, and thus not a threat at all. I’ve yet to hear of, say, Paula Dean’s absurd behavior or body size being interpreted as badass.
When women do participate in things like gluttony and intoxication, and if, god forbid, these behaviors are made visible in an un-beautiful way, they are made to seem repellent. At best, we receive them with a kind of fascinated horror. The morbid onlooker transfixed by something reminiscent of the fat or bearded lady in a freak show. Their eccentricity resulting, alternately, in a de-sexualization or fetishization that dehumanizes and collapses equally into a spectrum from mean joke to failed biological destiny.
After thinking about all of this the last few weeks, I revisited a paper I wrote in College in a Psychology of Food elective class. I titled the paper: Health: A Discursive Technique of Power. It was the year I discovered Foucault and took Adderall way too frequently, so as you might imagine it’s a bit sprawling. I don’t have the patience to trim/edit it at this point, and to be honest, two degrees in Psych later, the language grates. Re-reading yesterday, I annoyed myself. That being said, it captured a lot of what I’m getting at. If you haven’t tired of my voice you can read the whole thing here. Fair warning though, I’m pretty sure I was also trying to hit a word count.
Throughout the paper what I’m trying to get at is exactly what that photo of the model eating fast food visually embodies. At the time, all my psych research focused on intersections of Psychology with feminist/queer/critical race studies, the goal being to explore and improve the distinctly oppressive and pathologizing structures that shape the field of “Health” overall. When I found myself signed up for an online class called Psychology of Food (for little besides the sake of credits, because the actual syllabus was pretty inane), I took it as an opportunity to explore the last lesser-explored facet of oppression-related stuff I had yet to delve into. Fatness.
It was my first attempt at dabbling with Fat Studies research, and I found myself struck by the discovery that not only had I been neglecting that part of the conversation, I was actively uncomfortable. That discomfort, in this case, transformed into an essayist-zeal that attacked contemporary standards of “healthfulness” via Foucauldian thought. At one point, near the start, I grandly declare that the way we deal with fatness is by wrongly articulating it as a “current issue, rather than a longstanding historical/biopolitical dilemma of violent proportions that systematically employs mechanisms of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
If you’re unfamiliar with Foucault the main point is that he talks about Power and how power operates through discourse. Basically the whole world is constructed of shared ideas and concepts that we exchange with each other in order to create meaning. And, a lot of that meaning ends up being super violent and oppressive because it revolves around specific ideals. Hence, the photograph of the pretty blonde with ketchup on her lip is a perfect demonstration of the ideal citizen within our neoliberal economy. Basically, in order to be good subjects we must participate in capitalism and its culture of consumption, whether that means directly consuming the food, or consuming the productions of the diet industry instead. The ideal subject/citizen is actually then, only the individual who can accomplish, or at least appear to accomplish, both eating and thinness.
What is most interesting to me, rereading that paper, is that I think on some level, my own guilt over feeling sort of personally complicated about the topic, made me even more vehement. I have since continued to be puzzled by my inability to ever truly level in conversations about radical body politic. Things I have internalized about femininity, desire, and control—to name a few, that I just can’t seem to shake. It is a contradictory relationship to the politics of consumption that I don’t think is uncommon and I believe is especially salient in the lives of people who work in the food and beverage industry. Particularly, though not solely, women who do.
With Dinner Again about a year and a half in, and in starting working more in the wine world, I’ve become increasingly aware of my own complicated relationship to eating and drinking. What it does, what it means, how it is visible. While Dinner Again has never been a project with much political alignment, in fact in many ways it began as a rebellion against that, it has inevitably touched these big topics, and like most things in the Internet world its imagery sends out information that is fantastically and invisibly butchered.
Save light attention to the idea of making tasting menus and natural wine more accessible and chill, I’ve engaged Dinner Again very little with critical political thought. In truth it was born out of a time where I was really halting my political engagement on whole. I felt apathy on the offense. After years of being incredibly politically engaged, much of it related to my education and work in Psychology, I found myself throwing my hands up in the air. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I didn’t want to feel so consumed by the infinite injustices of everything. I knew leaning out was a privilege in and of itself, but I did it anyway. Often quipping that instead of getting a PhD, as was the plan, I wanted to learn to make sausages. That year I started dating straight cis men again for the first time since High School and ended a ten-year streak of vegetarianism. The joke was lost on no one.
I’m often asked by people if I cook for myself like I do in the photographs all the time. This makes me laugh. While I have been lucky enough to often have experiences that don’t actually look so different from the beautiful kitchen couple making hamburgers, I am absolutely not cooking myself lemon meringue pie and merguez from scratch on your average Wednesday evening. I’m also not one of these people who eats whatever they want without a care in the world. Few are. Also, neurosis die hard, and though it was a long time ago that I struggled with disordered eating (middle school predominantly), a habit of what I’ll call hyper-self-awareness and the criticisms it induces remains very present in me. So yeah, I love ice cream and white four, but more often than not I air towards meat and vegetables and don’t eat much bread. And in spite of being intellectually disposed towards not giving a shit about societal expectations about how women should look/be, the way I interact emotionally with concepts like appetite and desire is not totally absolved.
Finally, the mechanism of perpetual everything-branding that Instagram has proliferated, makes the fabrication of the “self” and the way we are interpreted, little more than an onslaught of partial-information. So even though we exist in a social economy that is hyper-communicative, we get only curated blips. We seldom actually get to form our own impressions of each other, because so little of our getting-to-know happens in real time and without self-editing occurring first. The “self” is streamlined, made less dynamic, and limited to its own self-produced scope. I found that really fucking weird when I first made the Dinner Again Instagram account, and because of it, liked the idea of an account being run by more than one person. Existing as my own singular persona, the one I knew would become constructed, completely freaked me out.
Which brings me back to the idea of what’s “real”, and the frequent devaluation of femininity as somehow less authentic. Somehow less cool, or capable of the rawness and simplicity championed in the work of men. What freaked me out, at the very start, was not that I might so easily be written off as another girl making jam. I am another girl making jam. But rather, that there was something inherently less valuable about that. Something differentiated as girl-food. Maybe made slightly subversive with so much meat grinding present, but honestly barely, because the obtuseness of the sausage joke will always take up way too much space in the room. I remember very clearly, when I started Dinner Again, how much I actively wanted the presence of boys to be felt in the project. It was a goal, though largely unspoken, to break-up the uniformity in the femininity I feared I might produce. Insuring, if only by proximity, that what I creating could be owned, without having to be one of the boys.
As time went on I stopped feeling that way. I felt more comfortable owning, and the beginning purpose, to de-mystify wine and food, and do away with the pretensions of both the “expert” and the obsessively innovative, remained. I wanted, and continue to want, to interact with eating and drinking as something that is simultaneously fundamental and artful. Both profoundly personal, and as all-inclusive as it gets. In order to do that I think it’s important to have ongoing talk about what is not, and often cannot, be pictured and captioned. To make, and to communicate, something whole.