Real men eat meat

How media ruined the diets of Western men

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MEN EAT MEAT. And if a man does not, his masculinity will be in question; emasculation shall be his malnourishment.  

Many of us today mock the ‘real men eat meat’ refrain. Yet society still insists that meat consumption is a marker of manliness – and the redder the meat, the manlier the man.  

The unprecedented reach of American culture has helped reinforce attitudes towards meat and its masculinity in other Western countries. In particular, our unique masculine sensibilities dominate the all-American entertainment buffet bloating the West. Uncontrollable meat pangs are either treated as a joke or in a manner lacking in the nuance that a serious issue like this requires. Even as the media pokes fun at these ‘real men’ it never condemns them; it only humanises and elevates them to meme status.  

Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in American advertising, which, due to the influence of the Beef Checkoff, has run wild with the ‘real men eat meat’ trope over the last few decades. The Checkoff was established as a national marketing and research initiative in the US to promote beef sales. From 1988 onward, participation has been mandatory for all beef producers and importers – who pay per head for animals they market and the equivalent in imported beef. In 1992, Robert Mitchum, an icon of American masculinity, famously lent his voice to the ‘Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner’ ad campaign, which features his narration over footage of rugged Americana. Airing for seventeen months and costing a whopping US$42 million dollars, ‘Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner’ was commissioned by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor of the Beef Checkoff, to announce the return of a staple of the American diet after beef sales had declined. The campaign was so successful it became a permanent fixture of the NCBA’s advertising initiative; by 1993, the US$520 million collected by the Checkoff in fees from cattle ranchers had resulted in US$3.3 billion in revenue from promotional efforts.  

Since then, promoting meat consumption by appealing to traditional masculinity has become even more shameless. Burger King’s infamous 2007 ad for the Texas Double Whopper is perhaps the apotheosis of this irresponsible nonsense, showing men marching on the streets of New York proclaiming: ‘I am man, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore. And I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food…’ 

THE PERSISTENCE OF these ideas has made it hard to push back against the environmental and nutritional harms caused by industrial meat. Cows are unleashing methane in record numbers – there are more than a billion cattle in the world, a number that’s rapidly growing to meet the rising demand for beef and dairy. Cow products, in particular, have become a staple of the Western diet, and the beef industry capitalises on this to drive up demand for what it’s already selling at an unprecedented rate. Numerous studies have debunked myths surrounding plant-based diets (for example, the necessity of eating meat every day, and the inability to maintain proper nutrition while gaining muscle as a vegan), while the scientific establishment frequently broadcasts the benefits of forgoing meat consumption, which has been heavily linked to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.  

And yet, many men remain convinced that having less meat will rob them of their precious masculinity. A study by the journal Sex Roles aptly titled Masculinity Matters for Meat Consumption’ surveyed a cohort of 4,897 Australians to probe their attitudes towards meat consumption and their self-rated genders, finding that men who were less likely to consider reducing their meat consumption identified as more masculine. Another study commissioned by the non-profit No Meat May revealed that male and female respondents believed that the masculinity of a diet increased the more meat it contained. Bafflingly, when these respondents were given a hypothetical choice between a meat-free diet or a reduced life expectancy, nearly three quarters of male respondents opted for the latter.  

IN THE EARLY aughts, ‘real men eat meat’ underwent a brief backlash. By this time, how seriously meat consumption affected men’s health and the environment was widely known. However, this backlash wasn’t able to pick up traction. The food industry barely acknowledged it, and while activists were loud and clear about how severe the situation was, their warnings were drowned out by talking heads that used the trope as a contention point in the culture wars. 

Meanwhile, on the big and small screen, serious attempts to dissect the problem from a health and environmental perspective only came from documentaries such as Food, Inc. (2008) or What the Health (2017) – and while these were critically and commercially successful by that medium’s standards, they didn’t have the same reach as other forms of media. The net effect of all this was that the public became conditioned not to take the meat consumption debate as seriously as the research suggested. 

There’s no longer a push to rehabilitate this ‘real men eat meat’ trope across media platforms since other forms of toxic masculinity have captured the imaginations of creative writers (for example, Walter White’s pride and ego in Breaking Bad). We now treat men’s insistence on eating meat as a tongue-in-cheek pop culture reference. Consequently, the trope is returning in full force with marketing strategies that have learnt from the mistakes of previous ad campaigns. American advertisers can re-indulge in the dated stereotypes they created with a wink and nod to sell us even more meat. 

We’re in this weird place where chains like Carl’s Jr. can advertise ‘The Most American Thickburger’ by boasting: ‘What’s more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger – loaded with a hot dog and potato chips in the hands of all-American model Samantha Hoops in a hot tub in a pick-up truck driven by an American bull rider on an aircraft carrier under the gaze of Lady Liberty as she admires The Most American Thickburger with a split hotdog and kettle-cooked potato chips on a fresh-baked bun, new at Carl’s Jr.’ 

IT’S NO SECRET that the public is impressionable. The media we’ve been force-fed over the last century has had a significant influence on our habits and attitudes: infamously, tobacco use, especially among young people, was linked to the prominence of smoking in film and TV. It was only through concentrated media campaigns and sensible legislation that smoking rates decreased in the West. Consumers now see around 5,000 ads daily across all media, and the cynical use of tired masculine stereotypes hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s become more sophisticated. Now that TV is no longer at the forefront of media campaigns, the NCBA works with online influencers to spread its pro-meat message worldwide.  

This refinement of tired, toxic tactics is why we must be cautious in depicting meat consumption on any of our screens. Rating boards should factor it in when writing content warnings, and legislation is needed to regulate how it’s presented, especially to children. Despite recent attempts to question or rehabilitate traditional masculinity, we have yet to see any mainstream attempts to carve a new path for it that leads away from the deli. If we’re serious about reducing men’s meat consumption, the first diet we need to tackle is their media intake.  

Photo credit: Edson Saldana from Unsplash

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About the author

JD Harlock

JD Harlock is a SWANA American writer, editor, researcher and academic pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of St Andrews. In addition to...

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