Opinion: No Ketchup, Just Tits

Apparently, we've reclaimed the word 'slut' enough that we're cool with it being written on our dinner. One concerned voice considers how sexist language has slipped into the marketing of food, and why fellating a hotdog isn't funny

Feature by Lauren Strain | 08 May 2013
  • Food and Sex

It's the 21st century: and recently, in the Northwest, the young, hip and educated have been queuing for a burger with the word 'SLUT' grilled into its brioche bun.

Arguably sparked by the success of outlets like London's MEATliquor, the UK food scene's bewildering current obsession with a particular kind of Americanised, unctuous meat is ever-intensifying, with countless new pulled-pork pile-ups, ‘true’ pit barbecues and carne carnivals springing up nationwide. Disconcertingly, in certain instances this fetishisation of the red stuff is finding its voice in an intentionally brazen machismo that equates gooey Monterey Jack and how much steak you can stuff into your gob with bodily fluids and fellatio: and rather than being challenged, it's being welcomed, laughed along with, and paid for.

A popular Manchester burger diner is perhaps our most immediate, enthusiastic proponent of this ‘ironic’ chauvinism. It takes the titillation of US restaurants like Arby’s (with its burgers-as-boobs ad campaign), Grind Burger (whose mascot is a naked woman apportioned into butcher's cuts, from ‘rump’ to ‘loin’ to ‘soup bone’) and Hardee’s (known for its sex-sells trailers) to a more explicit, direct level, tweeting at its customers quips such as: “we eat bitches for breakfast then floss with their panties – YOU'RE GOING DOWN (on us bitches)”; “let's do this – my hot meat – your mouth – the image is coming together beautifully", and, to one Twitter user who commented on the taste of another restaurant's food, "you said this the first time you managed to fit a cock and balls in your mouth." It produces web comics hyping up its specials that feature its trademark 'dumb blonde' characters pleading things like, 'Oh baby fuckin' fill me up with... oozing meaty pizza and sauce and cheese make me squeal like I'm getting slammed in a car door'; on a visit, when we asked the difference between the regular and the 'trailer trash' fries, a staff member informed us that they were "the same, except the trailer trash have been fingered by gypsies for half an hour." Last year, a poster for a spin-off sausage fest featuring a girl in a bikini poised in anticipation of giving a frankfurter a blowjob was not dissimilar to one made by a Singapore agency for Burger King back in 2009, depicting a wide-eyed, open-mouthed young blonde preparing to receive the chain's new ‘super seven incher,’ above the tagline: ‘It’ll blow your mind away.’

Now, it’s nothing new for food, and particularly meat, to be rhapsodised over in a language that errs on the sexual, and particularly the patriarchal; and it’s not hard to understand from where this originates. After all, meat is flesh, and it is – originally, anyway – the trophy of the (male) hunter, the predator. Eating it, we engage in something that can be allegorised with a sexual act: a body ingests another, an' all that. There are all your connotations of the colour red (lust, blood, licence, vice), of overindulgence and excess, of power, and even of violence. Eating is a sensual experience, and can, for some, edge into a sexual one. To unpick these associations would be to take a long and possibly futile journey into our collective unconscious: but what is troubling today is where the use of this language crosses over from the unsophisticated to the calculatedly provocative and even degrading – in the service of a) lols and b) commerce.

This carefully calibrated brand – and brand it is – of 'trash talk' and imagery can be seen as symptomatic of what we’ve come to know as ‘hipster sexism’ (or ‘ironic sexism’): a term Kelsey Wallace over at Bitch magazine defines as ‘the notion that if sexism is done tongue-in-cheek it's okay, even hilarious.’ Hipster sexism is itself a strand of a broader irony that attempts to legitimise itself by being spoken by those who should know better (and know it). The premise is that, as long as no one thinks you really mean it – because you're probably, again in the words of Wallace, one of those ‘progressive people with possible college degrees who are maybe environmentally conscious and probably liberal and might even identify as feminists’ – then it’s OK to insult and offend. Hipster sexism is everywhere. See for example: the two ‘lightheartedly’ sexist T-shirts pulled from Topman’s range in 2011, one of which – ‘Nice New Girlfriend: What Breed Is She?’ – compared women to bitches; the other of which poked fun at domestic violence/rape (‘I’m So Sorry, But...,’ it began, followed by a set of tickboxes, including ‘You Provoked Me,’ ‘I Was Drunk,’ and ‘I Couldn't Help It’); and, back on the meat scene, the poster that a Leeds hotdog outlet last year produced advertising their new-term student discount, reading: ‘Freshers Girls: Get ’Em While They're Skinny.’ (This was all the more disorienting for the fact that it didn’t even seem to make any sense. What did they mean? That you need to grab a nubile young innocent before she's gotten podgy on their cut-price sausages?)

You could choose to blank this behaviour, sure. But those who would shrug off someone in a shopping centre in one of those tees, or pass a poster equating taking advantage of a 10% discount on some fast food to taking advantage of a witless first-year student, are subject to a gradual, insidious unlinking of serious words from their serious meanings, normalising not only the language itself but also the attitudes it indicates and the acts it describes; and there is no difference here. (There is perhaps no stronger example of this than the way we have, over the last few years, seen the word ‘rape’ be assimilated into casual chitchat: aggressive music can be ‘rapey,’ someone ‘frapes’ your Facebook status.) Isn't it worth asking at what point using sexually dominative and even aggressive language in the marketing of food became a successful way of appealing to a moneyed, city-dwelling clientele who would likely, if asked, regard themselves as otherwise culturally enlightened, socio-politically savvy, and broadminded? And at what point did the default reaction to anyone calling someone out on this become one of, as I have found, “lighten up, they're just having a laugh”?

What makes hipster sexism in this context OK? Is it that women often participate in the Twitter banter (i.e. it’s OK to portray the opposite sex in a demeaning light if they play along themselves)? Is it that the privileged target market for this expensive food that’s as much about the ‘experience’ of eating as it is the food itself can, quite simply, afford to dissociate themselves from the real impact of this language and imagery (i.e. it’s OK to allow your gender to be stereotyped and condescended to in the interest of financial gain if you're fortunate enough to be in a position to flick the finger and walk away)?. Maybe I should just chill out and suck up some whore slaw with my bingo wings. But to let this business's modus operandi and the wider problem it is indicative of go unchallenged is to allow and accept the language of misogyny into the promotion of a mainstream commercial venture – and therefore into its surrounding culture and society. We shouldn’t become inured to this, whether you want to find out what it tastes like when you sandwich a wheel of mince inside a Krispy Kreme donut or not.