How Vice President Pence Is Exposing the Sexual Politics of Meat

The Vice President vowed to protect red meat from Democratic challenger Kamala Harris, bringing into question what role misogyny and white supremacy play in the current political climate.

vice president pence
Gage Skidmore

Perspective Law & Policy Policy

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On August 11, Joe Biden announced his selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. It didn’t take long for the reactions to this ticket to lead to the issue of “red meat.” Two days later, Vice President Pence offered a halfhearted response: the red-meat-white-masculinity trope: “Mike Pence Says He’ll Keep Kamala Harris From Meddling With America’s Meat,” the headlines read.

In “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” I argue that white supremacy and misogyny together upheld meat as white man’s food. The belief that meat is the best or only protein source is a racist belief, discounting the way the majority of the cultures ate. I also show how during the 19th century, meat-eating became associated with colonial expansion by Western countries, masculinizing Western countries and feminizing “rice-eating” cultures.

A masculinity made anxious and unsettled seeks to re-establish itself by invoking red meat; you can find this happening at key points in US history: the rise of immigration at the end of the 19th century, after the Vietnam War, after 9/11, and during the Trump 2016 campaign, and now his Presidency.

The scholar Vasile Stanescu discusses the work of E.M. DuPuis who suggested that it was not a coincidence that colonialism, nativist union sentiment, and the decrease in the cost of meat occurred simultaneously at the end of the 19th century. A 1902 American Federation of Labor pamphlet that called for Chinese exclusion was entitled “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?

Stanescu explains that DuPuis shows how a mutually beneficial relationship was forged in which eating a large amount of meat and the right type of meat “became a symbolic proxy for the issues of class, gender, and race privilege as they impacted the displaced white, male worker.” That white male worker didn’t win on wages, DuPois says, but they won cheaper meat.

With the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center another crisis of masculinity occurred. A popular culture fascination with male heroes—firemen and policemen—ignored women’s roles in the days after the attack. There was also a renewed insistence on meat-eating and masculinity. By 2006, a Hummer commercial said it explicitly: “Restore your manhood.”

In the video, a white man buying groceries places large tofu containers on the conveyor belt but exhibits insecurity upon seeing the cart of the white man behind him filled with red meat. What must the tofu-buying white man do to offset the masculine anxiety created by that purchased tofu? Buy a Hummer. “Restore your manhood,” the tagline read. Until it didn’t; it was changed to “Restore your balance.”

It’s about white maleness and the need to “Wave the blood-red banner high.” Those words are from an article in The New York Times from 2008 (way too late in time for this sort of dribble), which suggests, “Meanwhile, meat-eating persists as a badge of masculinity, as if muscle contained a generous helping of testosterone, with the aggression required to slay a mammal working its way up the food chain.” But whose “masculinity”?

A. A. Gill picked up the blood-red banner a few years later in Vanity Fair. “If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation.” As with much of popular culture, the whiteness of those being discussed may not be acknowledged, but white male identity is at the heart of these articles. Look at the commercials over the past decades and we can see their target:  the anxiety of white men to man up. One example, “Hurricane Doug” from a TacoBell ad for a sandwich that is “3 times the size” because “that’s what a man eats.”

As Doug eats, he watches some men play basketball. The racial makeup of these men exposes the threat to his white manhood. At least three are clearly African Americans, reinforcing the “spectacle” nature of Black athletes identified by Patricia Hill Collins in Black Sexual Politics. Sometimes there is an over the top feel to the ads and the commentaries, which only means they can have fun while at the same time they are inscribing dominant perspectives. “If you think we don’t believe this, if you think we are being ironic, we can get this message under your skin.”

Asserting the importance of red meat is also a dog whistle to fascist white men who have already trod this path, equating liberals with eating soy. When motorcyclists came to see Trump at Bedminister a couple of years ago, one white biker wore a patch that said, “THIS IS AMERICA. WE EAT MEAT. WE DRINK BEER AND WE SPEAK FUCKIN’ ENGLISH.” It turns out that t-shirts with a similar message could be found in Australia in 2009 (changing “America” to “Australia.”) Appropriately, that t-shirt is in a Melbourne Museum where it is seen as an example of racist and nationalist memorabilia. (And this is why I collect examples like t-shirts for my “Oppressive Images Collection.”)

“Real men eat meat” and “Man Up” inevitably interacts with a reactionary political perspective, the “we-eat-meat-we-drink-beer- and-we-speak-fuckin’-English” attitude.

Remasculinization goes through continual stages, as masculinity—a construct of the gender binary facing constant destabilization—feels always under threat. Pence’s job could be done by a woman? A woman of color? What a threat to white male identity so raise the blood-red flag high.

Carol J. Adams discusses the association of meat-eating, white masculinity, and xenophobia in a chapter on “Man Up” in The Pornography of Meat: New & Updated to be published on October 29. Her seminal text, The Sexual Politics of Meat, is celebrating 30 years in print this year.

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