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George F. Will Disapproves of What You Put in Your Mouth. And Has Suggestions!

Here is a quiz for you: can you find the glaring omission in George Will’s recent essay about shifting attitudes towards food and sex? HINT: it involves the sexism!

Imagine… a 30-year-old Betty in 1958, and her 30-year-old granddaughter Jennifer today. Betty’s kitchen is replete with things — red meat, dairy products, refined sugars, etc. — that nutritionists now instruct us to minimize. She serves meat from her freezer, accompanied by this and that from jars. If she serves anything “fresh,” it would be a potato. If she thinks about food, she thinks only about what she enjoys, not what she, and everyone else, ought to eat.

Jennifer pays close attention to food, about which she has strong opinions. She eats neither red meat nor endangered fish, buys “organic” meat and produce, fresh fruits and vegetables, and has only ice in her freezer. These choices are, for her, matters of right and wrong. Regarding food, writes Eberstadt, Jennifer exemplifies Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: She acts according to rules she thinks are universally valid and should be universally embraced.

Yes, imagine two women who are both solely responsible for obtaining, preparing, and serving food for themselves and, in Betty’s case, “everyone else,” by which I am assuming George Will means Don and Sally and Bobby, because that is always fun. Now imagine that one of them is a big old whore!

Betty would be baffled by draping moral abstractions over food, a mere matter of personal taste. Regarding sex, however, she had her Categorical Imperative — the 1950s’ encompassing sexual ethic that proscribed almost all sex outside of marriage. Jennifer is a Whole Foods Woman, an apostle of thoroughly thought-out eating. She bristles with judgments — moral as well as nutritional — about eating, but she is essentially laissez-faire about sex.

Yes, my friends, imagine: imagine that preparing food, and ensuring the moral and sexual purity of the heterosexual pair bond, were both entirely women’s responsibility. Imagine that, in your grandmother’s day, women risked losing their sole commodity for negotiating financial and social security – that is, their virginity – should they engage in sexual intercourse, and that marriage, for women, was basically a contract granting them access to money should they grant one man sole sexual access (whereas non-monogamy, for men, was an admittedly roguish but pretty much expected move) and perform unpaid domestic labor, meaning that dudes got access to personally prepared meals, sex, and the social and institutional power that comes from having a professional life and the possibility of advancement therein, in exchange for basically letting a lady live in their house and maybe giving her some money for dresses if they could spare it. What a crazy mixed-up fantasy world that would be!

Now, imagine that women your age fucking wrecked it by maintaining their sexual autonomy and expecting men to cook for their own damn selves. These women, these Jennifers, probably have jobs, too. All sorts of things can happen when you don’t assume that a woman’s moral standing and her sexual inexperience are inextricably bound to one another! You could even become some sort of arugula-eating liberal who cares about things like “nutrition,” and “responsible food production,” and “whether or not it is OK to personally end a species because you think it is tasty.” It is terrifying, I know. I apologize for forcing you to contemplate this dark, dystopian vision.

Kant, my ass. This essay isn’t about food, or sex, or morality, in any real sense; if it were, Will would have actually mentioned dudes, who, as far as I can tell, all come equipped with both mouths and genitals. (That last might not be true of George Will, I admit; if nothing else, it would explain why he always looks so pinched and uncomfortable.) It is about gender, and the Good Old Days, and why things were better before women actually started doing things other than working to please their men. Right now, right this minute, George Will is saying, he could be in his spotless home eating steak and anticipating a furtive, guilty sexual encounter with his lawful wife, who has never seen nor touched another penis and therefore cannot judge his own. (SHOULD HE HAVE ONE.) This is a lovely fantasy, for George. It is also a fucking horror show for any woman forced to contemplate it. That’s why that way of life ended, and that is why, rail against Whole Foods as Will may, it’s never coming back.



  1. earlgreyrooibos wrote:

    Something that sticks out to me:

    If [Betty] thinks about food, she thinks only about what she enjoys, not what she, and everyone else, ought to eat.


    Jennifer pays close attention to food, about which she has strong opinions . . . These choices are, for her, matters of right and wrong.

    It’s not just vegetarianism/humane treatment of animals/health/etc that’s at issue here – it’s also thinness. There have always always always been ridiculous and arbitrary standards of female beauty, but the obsession with thinness (especially thinness disgued as health). As women have gained more sexual autonomy, social pressures to be thin have increased, and they become more obsessed about controlling what they eat not just so they will be healthy, but so they will be thin and “desireable” and ironically, be able to exert that autonomy.

    That is, in order to be sexual beings, women feel intense pressure to control their eating habits so someone will actually desire them sexually. There is something so very wrong with that.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Interrobang wrote:

    Will is full of it. There have been moral connotations associated with food since at least…*thinks*…the early 20th Century (see ads for Karo syrup or Coca-Cola)…no, since the Victorian era (rules about what women should and shouldn’t eat — garlic and onions were right out and strict class-based rules about food; breakfast cereals invented as a lust-preventive)…no, since the middle ages (lettuce touted as an aphrodisiac)…no, since the time of the ancient Greeks…no, since pre-Biblical times (kashrut, for pity’s sake!)…

    There almost certainly have been moral (and possibly gender-based) prescriptions surrounding food since prehistory, since it seems to be a universal trait in human cultures. The difference between the “food rules” of the 1950s and now is that we are much more nutritionally aware now, and the kinds of food we classify as gendered (masculine/feminine) have changed slightly.

    Incidentally, there was a lot of pressure in the 1950s for women to stay thin and conventionally attractive. Just about any mass-market or women’s periodical of the time is replete with diet ads and the unspoken assumption was that if you didn’t keep your looks up, Hubby would be more than justified in trading you in for a hotter model, whether he bothered to divorce you or not. Small wonder 1950s housewives did so many drugs.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Brennan wrote:

    Hello! I’ve been enjoying this blog, but felt the need to chime in on this particular entry. While the I agree that the Jennifer/Betty device is horrifyingly sexist, you gave George Will too much credit when you presented it as his creation. The article was a review of a Policy Review essay titled “Is Food the New Sex? A curious reversal in moralizing.” The culprit in this case would seem to be a lady, Mary Eberstadt. (I wonder about this phenomenon of sexists consistently using female voices to spread their propaganda?)

    The full essay is much more horrifying than the op-ed column, but as far as I can tell, Mr. Will’s only original contribution is the cheeseburger=adultry analogy. Oh, and his depiction of Ms. Eberstadt as “intimidatingly intelligent.”

    p.s. No, I’m not entirely sure why I’m commenting on an article from February either. I promise I’m not quite the stalker I appear to be.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink