The dubious masculinity of grilling

The Beef Industry Council introduced its sole lasting legacy to the cultural imagination 27 years ago, in 1992. I have no recollection of watching the actual commercial on TV, but for my entire life and even to this day, my dad repeats it every time he grills a steak: “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

It is not a coincidence that it’s him and not my mom who always says this; nor is it a coincidence that it’s the baritone voice of Robert Mitchum (and after Mitchum’s death, Sam Elliott) who recites the slogan at the end of each commercial, even though it was actually aimed at women. Beef, and the activities around preparing it — butchering, barbecue, and grilling — have always been coded as masculine.

It’s why if this summer you will be attending an event at which someone will be preparing grilled meat outdoors, that person will likely be a man. It might not be; I don’t know your life! But even with the knowledge that gender is fluid, and that the differences between men and women are largely social constructions, we still presume men are the ones in charge of prepping the burger part of the cheeseburgers but not necessarily the toppings, and that they are the ones who get to recite dorky ’90s advertising slogans to each other and debate the ideal way to light a grill.

Like carving the turkey on Thanksgiving, who gets to man the grill determines who’s the biggest boy at the party, the setter of the general vibe. And the reasons why, and how we talk about it, are complex — and relate to thorny themes of gender essentialism. But data may suggest that jokes about grill guys are more prevalent than the grill guys themselves.

Where the grilling-is-for-dudes stereotype comes from

People have been debating men and grills on the internet for a very long time. In a defining piece on this very subject for Forbes in 2010, Meghan Casserly explains why men love grilling thusly: Grilling is sort of dangerous (there’s fire!), it lets dudes hang out together while also providing some sort of neutral entertainment (getting to watch one guy do stuff and possibly also criticizing him while he does it), and requires minimal cleaning (self-explanatory).

Casserly also notes that this is a particularly 20th-century American phenomenon — in early hunter-gatherer societies, cooking meat over a fire was largely women’s work, and in most of Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Serbia, for instance, it still is. The reason we associate grilling with men is, like many stubborn gender stereotypes, a product of the 1950s and suburbanization. Suburban homes with backyards led to the popularity of the backyard barbecue, and parenting books at the time stressed the importance of present fathers who’d spend time with their families, when in an earlier era they may have spent that free time at the pub with other dudes.

Meanwhile, she writes, “Marketing and advertising at the time made a big push to drive home the connection between grilling and masculinity. [Christopher Dummitt, an associate professor of Canadian History at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario,] uses an example of an early advertisement for a Canadian home goods store that features an older man cuddling a buxom young blonde while serving her a big steak off of the grill to illustrate his point. ‘There was a conscious effort at this time to make a connection between grilling and virility, to make cooking with fire the macho thing to do,’” he says.

In the Telegraph in 2014, Chris Moss proposes a more cynical theory: “The barbecue is a superb example of justified idling,” he writes. “It involves lots of standing around … and allows a male to appear busy while women/guests/kids run around making salads, laying tables, cooling beers and generally doing everything.”

Why it’s really hard to talk about men and grilling without a layer of irony

All these reasons that grills and men are culturally linked have one thing in common: They rely on gender essentialism. It’s the idea that all men share certain traits, like loving fire and danger and being lazy, and that all women prefer baking and cooking and running around being busybodies, for instance (and also that “men” and “women” are the only two genders).

In his 1993 essay “Why Do Men Barbecue?,” which isn’t really about barbecuing, the anthropologist Richard Shweder discusses the origins of male and female spaces in different cultures. In contemporary American urban society, we wrestle with Western gender norms at the same time as we reject them.

“One harbors the suspicion, however, that when settled sensibilities and nomadic sensibilities live side by side in the same sensibility, as they sometimes do, they do so unhappily or a bit uncomfortably,” he writes. “For contemporary nomadic common sense, the sexual division of barbecuing, whereby women who are the equals of their husbands and who do not typically stay close to home, never cook when the family hearth goes outdoors, is something of an embarrassment, a shameful confusion of ideal types, or at the very least a good topic for conversation.”

He’s talking about his own community here — that is, Chicago in the early ’90s among a group of presumably educated men and women. I think what he means is that as much as women and men in late-20th-century urban America did not consider themselves tied to traditional gender roles, when the activity happens to be barbecuing or grilling, everyone resorts to them and then gets really sheepish about it.

It’s why nearly every time I’ve attended an event where meat has to be grilled, not only are the men the ones doing the grilling (regardless of their actual meat-preparing prowess) but someone is always pointing out the fact that the men are doing the grilling. We love to talk about men and grilling maybe more than men actually love to grill — because these stereotypes may be increasingly less tied to reality.

According to a study by a grill manufacturer cited in a 2014 Newsweek piece, the number of women operating grills increased from 20 to 25 percent from 2013 to 2014. And according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association(!), 55 percent of electric outdoor grillers — which notably do not require the building of a fire — are women.

As Newsweek posits, noting that what we now consider grilling culture incorporates much more than meat:

Such cultural shifts prompt wonky questions from social scientists that tend to go like this: Are the production decisions involved in modern barbecue practices, in which the diffusion of gender coding in food activity may be reflected in the growing presence of vegetables on the grill and more complex and varied meals, introducing a new cultural coding into the time-pattern allocation of female dominance of indoor home-related activities?

Translation: Are women and their efficiency making the backyard barbecue a better meal?

It’s an interesting thought, but one that, much like popular discussions of men and barbecuing, relies on traditional gender stereotypes — that women are better at multitasking and care more about eating balanced meals. Whether there is there anything wrong with acknowledging that sometimes there are differences between men and women is a deeply rooted debate within feminism and the social sciences and does not need to be dissected here, but it’s part of what we talk about when we talk about men and grills.

A 2015 essay for Slate by Jacob Brogan functions almost as a mea culpa for his love of grilling. “I’m uncomfortable with the pleasure I take in something so conventionally masculine,” he writes, which is very funny whether he means it to be or not. “Looming over the coals, tongs in hand, I feel estranged from myself, recast in the role of suburban dad. At such moments, I get the sense that I’ve fallen into a societal trap, one that reaffirms gender roles I’ve spent years trying to undo. The whole business feels retrograde, a relic of some earlier, less inclusive era.”

The fact that Brogan feels guilty for liking to cook outdoors may feel silly, but what he’s really apologizing for is the bro culture still largely present in marketing and advertising that declares grilling must be done by men. One particularly egregious example is that 2009 Kingsford Coal commercial where a woman starts to load a grill with charcoal until her husband runs over to stop her. “This isn’t a stove,” he says. “What if I just walked into the kitchen and started making a salad?” “That’d be weird,” she agrees.

That could be changing, however. Last week the British Advertising Standards Authority’s law banning gender stereotypes went into effect, meaning that ads now can’t feature men or women “failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender” (“e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car”). As Cornell assistant professor of communication Brooke Erin Duffy explained to Vox, “The very limiting portrayals of gender which have sustained the advertising industry for well over a century no longer resonate with our social world.”

These attitudes may not have yet reached grilling culture. In 2017, the US beef industry brought back its famous slogan in a series of social media ads largely similar to its 1990s versions, using the same baritone voice and plentiful shots of mostly male cattle ranchers. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — all it does is illustrate that men and grilling remains one of our most stubborn and curious gender associations. Beef, for now, still seems to be what only men make for dinner.

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