In Food and Femininity, sociologists Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston begin their book with a very broad question — what does it mean to be feminine? More specifically, how does one be and act feminine in food patterns, behaviours, and foodwork (vi)? They connect this question of the personal with the social challenges of multiple roles and performances of femininity. In their first chapter, the authors outline a feminist politics of foodwork by respecting the meaning that women find in food and not devaluing their foodwork; combining a structural critique with a feminist politics of foodwork to address lingering inequalities; and connecting feminist and food movements (21). In chapters two and three, Cairns and Johnston employ Foucault’s theoretical toolkit and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to further analyse neoliberal discourse. By connecting habitus and female consumers’ lived experiences, the notion of neoliberalism can provide insight on the value of individual choices (43).
It is a very compelling tension, connecting the personal to the social in foodwork. Food is, as the authors emphasise, personal, and carries different meanings to different women. Yet, the personal aspect of food becomes a social activity because of the complex performative aspects of motherhood, cooking, and consumption. In chapter five, the authors write that neoliberalism is an abstract ideology in which ideas of “healthism” and morality come into fruition (89). By framing healthism as a part of moral discourse, the consumer becomes tasked with being a responsible citizen, one that must be responsible to update herself on all food and health discourses (89). Cairns and Johnston do allude to the ideal female physique and body as a category of health, yet it is puzzling that they do not consider other epistemic dimensions of a neoliberal marketplace. In other words, who gets to make these claims of health? Who are the experts of the government agencies that release data on obesity? Learning about food and health is indeed a social activity, but it becomes complicated when we realize why anyone chooses to trust a particular critic or expert.
For their ethnography, Cairns and Johnston interviewed 129 individuals, including men, women, people of colour, various class statuses, and prominent and self-identified food activists. Like the contentious debates on the limits of empiricism, their data does not offer any profound insight, especially if one understands the social function of habitus. Food knowledge from food activists differs from consumers. Middle and upper class females have more options than those with less financial freedom. Some women enjoy grocery shopping more than others. The women and men interviewed did not make ideological statements on gendered grocery shopping (63). Rather than continue to describe what feminism might mean and how taste indicates class distinction, more elaboration on female political agency (chapter 6) would be a more timely contribution in the current political climate. If grocery shopping and caring about food is directly related to accessibility and income level, there is no boundary between the citizen and the consumer (131); rather, like the multiplicity of performative femininities, a woman is both a citizen and a consumer.
As a doctoral student who considers herself a critical food scholar, I rarely use the words “feminist,” “femininity,” or “gender” in my work. It is not because I think these words are unimportant, but I use a framework that addresses representation, politics, and power, all of which intersect with feminist studies. I raise these points to respond to the comment in the concluding chapter, where Johnston notes that it is possible to write a food-related dissertation that does not mention gender (172). Although this aside was written in parentheses, it struck me that many scholars in food-research communities – whether in food science, anthropology, or philosophy - have constantly attempted to define food studies in normative ways. It is clear that Cairns and Johnston deploy a feminist framework for their own research, which reveals their own values. How could it not, when food is a deeply personal matter? What happens once we try to codify ethnographic data into patterns of meaning? The important takeaway in any engagement in food scholarship is to remember that any theoretical framework is normative; thus, writing about food becomes a normative activity. If the adage that the “personal is political” is still true, then any evaluative stances on food, femininity, and feminism reveals our values and the researchers’ values simultaneously.
Ultimately, cooking can be a feminist act. The activity itself is not important, but how women who cook talk about feminist acts and discourses matters more as it can lead to more complex understandings of the self and the social. But the bigger question is how does feminism as a matter of concern intersect with other investigations of power? Food and Femininity highlights some of these connections, but the authors’ conception of a feminist food politics framework may differ from that of readers and other feminist scholars. As the authors themselves admit, this book is just as much about inequality, social justice, race, and capitalism as it is about feminism and gender. They just choose to emphasize the latter.
Anna Nguyen is a PhD student and a Faculty of Arts and Sciences Fellow in the Communication Studies department at Concordia University. She holds an MLA degree in Gastronomy from Boston University and a BA in English Literature and European Studies at the University of Arkansas.
Anna Nguyen est étudiante au doctorat et bénéficiaire de la Faculté des arts et des sciences du département d’études en communication de l’Université Concordia. Elle a obtenu un MLA en gastronomie de Boston University et d’un BA en littérature anglaise et études européennes de University of Arkansas.