In Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture (UNC Press, 2020), Emily Contois argues that the figure of The Dude was invented (or perhaps only capitalized on) by marketing and advertising firms to combat “gender contamination” and sell what may be perceived as “feminine” foods to men. Contois suggests that this figure coalesced in response to the 2008 recession and the “gender crisis” that it created. Not only were job losses higher for men during this “mancession,” but struggling companies sought to improve sales by marketing products to men that had previously been targeted exclusively at women including diet sodas and low-calorie yogurts, as well as cookbooks, food television, and weight loss programs. In short, The Dude – represented by Jeff Bridges’s famous character in The Big Lebowski – is a male figure who “resit[s] the demands of manhood like competitiveness and breadwinning” by “simply opt[ing] out of the struggle.”
Contois devotes an entire chapter to the figure of Guy Fieri, who embodies the carefully crafted ambivalence of the Dude. Contois explains that while the Dude somehow seems to be breaking gender stereotypes by offering a pathway for defying social expectations and un-gendering products, the Dude only serves to reinforce binary gender and hegemonic masculinities. Contois concludes that most of the marketing campaigns featuring the Dude have essentially failed or changed course. Notably, Coke Zero and Weight Watchers for Men have had design and marketing makeovers to Coca-Cola Zero Sugar and WW. Still others have repurposed the Dude into a gender inclusive message that uncritically accepts not caring about consequences of the food system. Contois’s final word of the book is directed to media strategists and designers, asking them to think more carefully about the role that they play in forming and reforming expectations and performances of gender in the real world. “Advertisers can do better,” Contois asks, “so why aren’t they?”
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her new book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.