Man v. Food: backlash or banter?

Man v. Food is a US reality television series presented by Adam Richman, a bit-part actor from Brooklyn, New York. The show ended after three series’ on Travel Channel, but for those feeling curious, repeats of the show are easily accessible on Dave, the self-professed “home of witty comedy banter”.

Man v. Food is the quintessential embodiment of this supposed ‘banter’; an elusive word I find impossible to say without dwelling upon its somewhat problematic ties to the justification of sexism. (If you can bear to recall the slimy and repulsive UniLad rape jokes, shielded by the bloke-ish arms of ‘banter’, you’ll know what I mean). Man v. Food has caused mixed reactions amongst critics, from scathing looks and tummy-turning nausea to ‘manly’ expressions of approval, admiration and infatuation directed towards Richman, a now legendary ‘real man’ because of his gastric prowess.

The programme follows a relatively simple structure, following Richman as he travels from one state to another, gorging himself on meal after meal, with obvious bias towards fatty, calorific and meaty dishes. The average episode of Man v. Food generally incorporates four key elements. Richman begins by sampling a local delicacy or speciality, expressing his appreciation through grunts and groans of apparently primitive satisfaction, a token dribble of sauce often smudged across his chin. He then observes the creation of a super-sized food challenge, which he will attempt to conquer in the third part of the programme.

The show ends with a pseudo press conference setup, with Richman playing the role of A-list celebrity and answering questions put to him by an adoring audience of devoted fans that have watched him either succeed or fail in the aforementioned challenge. Richman often dons a pair of aviator sunglasses for this final part of the programme, presumably in an attempt to bolster his ‘manly’ reputation.

This apparently playful finale is itself incredibly troublesome. The valorisation of Richman sends strong messages about what it means to eat meat, what it means to ‘be a man’ and how meat and masculinity are somehow inherently linked.

During the course of the series’, Richman’s extreme manliness appears inextricably linked to his consumption of non-human animal flesh. The outdated yet depressingly persistent phrase “real men eat meat” seems to be a mantra for the show. (And one can always rely on The Daily Mail to help maintain these dietary ideologies). Richman has become the ultimate symbol of manliness and an instigator in the nostalgic pine for more primitive masculinities to resurface, as inspired by the man-as-hunter paradigm (this link will take you to a wonderful book, well-worth reading for more on the topic of vegetarianism and a history of human diets, if you’re interested to learn more).

The scene develops, proceeding quickly into the ridiculous, as Richman aims and fires at beef burgers being thrown into the sky

The show propagandises a meat-centred diet and Richman’s eating challenges are commonly accompanied by a burly chorus of “beat the meat”, “man versus meat”, “do it, do it” and other similar, relatively aggressive, chants. If Richman successfully completes a challenge, he is met with roars of vehement approval and a distinct sense that he has somehow proven himself as a man. This highlights a (misleading) rhetoric of ‘naturalness’ in relation to the ties between ‘being a man’ and eating meat. Richman is a man because he has (b)eaten the meat.

These pressurising situations promote very specific ideals of masculinity and create a fan base for meat consumption, while disparaging and belittling vegetarian/vegan diets. Richman can also be seen to mock these figures through condescending portrayals of vegetarians/vegans as effeminate and finicky eaters.

In Boise, Idaho, for example, he raises the pitch of his voice after being presented with a burger weighing over 4lbs and, using stereotypically ‘camp’ mannerisms and tone of voice, complains to the waitress: “um…I had the salad” to rumbles of delighted amusement from his audience. Another example of so-called banter, because of course they don’t really mean it. They’re being ironic.

The programme is dominated by men, with a male presenter and majority male audience, and there are strong hints of phallic solidarity woven throughout. Richman’s behaviour puts forward very specific ideals for masculine practices that are generally aggressive and typically ‘tough’. Often, he evokes stereotypes of the state he is in, celebrating a mode of masculinity commonly associated with that location.

In San Antonio, for example, Richman emulates a Texas Ranger, with phallic symbolism through presence of a rifle. The scene develops, proceeding quickly into the ridiculous, as Richman aims and fires at beef burgers being thrown into the sky.

Man v. Food utilises ‘banter’ to undercut moral questions which challenge meat-eating, rendering them invalid

Superficially, the scene is meaningless and allegedly humorous, due to its distinct lack of sense. However, there is a clear assertion of violent masculinities through a celebration of shooting. One may also interpret the scene as a metaphor for the aforementioned man-as-hunter framework. The twist is that Richman is shooting the flesh of animals already slaughtered for the purpose of human consumption, therefore simultaneously bringing together and showing distance between the contemporary and traditional depictions of ‘real’ manliness.

This scene, although here isolated and held up as an example, is part of a wider selection of scenes throughout Man v. Food which promote human privilege, specifically human male privilege, over non-human animals. The apparently comedic element to this scene is troublesome because there is a blatant and intentional disregard for the origins of meat; a once live, sentient creature, reduced to pieces of meat.

Indeed, Carol J. Adams notes that meat is a mere cover term that enables the disassociation between ‘meat’ and the non-human animal from which it comes from. The non-human is the “absent referent“, intentionally not spoken about so as to avoid interrogating the ways meat eating is naturalised and the supposed right of human animals to exploit and consume non-human animals. Man v. Food utilises notions of banter to undercut moral questions which challenge meat-eating, rendering them invalid and ridiculous.

Man v. Food‘s promotion of masculinity seems shrouded in myths of manliness as intrinsically tough, as supported by Richman’s employment of American stereotypes – the aforementioned ranger, a boxing champion, a racer and an athlete, for example. Richman’s language in the programme highlights a heavy-handed use of war-like rhetoric, as he shouts “you wanna know where the beef is? It’s on the battlefield” (Baltimore) which, again, underlines assertions of vicious strength and/or brutish behaviour.

This language encourages a continued ‘battle of the sexes’: the battleground becoming a war waged against the perceived domestication of men

With a plethora of articles affiliating meat, specifically red meat, with masculinity, it’s easy to extend Richman’s comment to have beef as a metaphor for man. The idea is that men belong on the battlefield – they are aggressive, protective and primitive beings. At least, this seems to be the overarching message. Indeed, the pre-credits to the show tell us Richman is “a regular guy”, making him representative of men and masculinity more widely. Consequently, Man v. Food‘s masculinity propaganda becomes generalising and limited, skimming over the surface of masculine behaviours and failing to recognise anything which opposes ideals.

This jingoistic language is not only supporting a particularly violent expression of masculinity, but also encouraging a continued ‘battle of the sexes’: the battleground becoming a war waged against the perceived domestication of men, which is so often depicted as an unnatural, emasculating, and feminine force denying males the opportunity to embrace being ‘men’.

A prime example of this would be the infamous Burger King ‘Manthem‘ commercial, which satirises the feminist movements through a relentless and reckless employment of banter, reclaiming Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’ and altering the lyrics to celebrate men and masculinity (because there isn’t much in terms of male promotion out there, right?). They also exploit the bra-burning-feminist stereotype by incinerating their underwear and push a family car over a bridge to demonstrate a renunciation of the family man and a valorisation of the independent bachelor archetype. The hyper-masculine camaraderie throughout this advertisement is similarly mirrored in Man v. Food through a largely male audience, the prevalence of ideological messages surrounding meat and men, the resultant feminisation of vegetarianism/veganism and the relative invisibility of women on the show.

In keeping with this, there are also unfortunate portrayals of women and notions of femininity in Man v. Food. This goes back to the notion of banter, the blurry-edged safeguard of sexist commentary. This is precisely what enables Man v. Food to express depressingly limited depictions of women, following a predictable line of sexual innuendo and body-only objectification. The pervasive use of sexual innuendo in the show is a prime example of the utilisation of such banter.

The show employs banter’-esque and sexist commentary to legitimise the objectification and silencing of women and ‘feminine’ social movements along environmental, animal rights and feminist lines

The interesting twist in the show is how these remarks are often directed towards food, (perhaps due to the extreme marginalisation of women, leading to desperate measures for finding somebody/something else to ridicule instead?). Here, there are transparent analogies linking food with the female body, such as “the biggest buns in Texas” (San Antonio) as an obvious coupling between women’s breasts and cinnamon buns.

These comments may appear unremarkable to some, even amusing, but the ramifications of these allegedly ironic statements are unfailingly negative, as women are once more tied to bodily objectification through the implications of desire for “big buns”, and the ties between women and sex. The phrase intentionally focuses upon female anatomy, specifically women’s breasts, or ‘buns’, demonstrating a fixation with female body parts.

This is a tactic repeated in the show in one particular episode in Durham, North Carolina, where Richman takes part in a four-person relay which combines food and sporting activities (swimming, running and cycling) over the course of fifteen miles. Richman takes part alongside two sporting men, and one woman, a cheerleader, called Tiffany. Tiffany is to take part in the swimming section of the relay and, in doing so, is something of a mastermind behind her complete objectification.

Prior to the race, Richman instructs Tiffany to “strip into that bikini as slowly as possible”, highlighting the importance of the visual impact of her body, idyllically slender, tanned and toned, and maximising the opportunity for the male gaze to demonstrate its authority over the female form.

When Tiffany strips down in the show, bold and brassy music accompanies the slow motion picture capturing her steady undress for the purpose of being ogled by a male audience presumed to be entirely heterosexual. The scene concludes with Richman smugly saying “You’re welcome, America”, implying that Tiffany’s objectification is something to feel thankful and appreciative for.

The scene is made more complex when we take into account that, presumably, Tiffany has chosen to strip; there are no obvious signs of coercion in the scene. We can assume, therefore, that Tiffany is knowingly presenting her body to Richman, the camera and those around her. In what ways, then, is Tiffany being objectified?

Tiffany’s willingness to strip seems strikingly post-feminist. Here, apparent choice and empowerment have become about women actually opting to reveal their bodies and finding liberation in their to-be-looked-at-ness. However, Tiffany is inescapably an object of sexualised fantasy in the show, as she is so clearly fragmented and reduced to a body and the show makes no attempt to enrich this two-dimensional body-only status, in the same way that men and manliness is explored (however problematically).

Indeed, for the majority of the show, Tiffany remains almost hauntingly silent; her major communication on-screen comprises of the occasional smile and getting undressed. Tiffany, as she appears, is also fully compliant with patriarchal demands for contemporary (post-)feminine appearance and behaviours in the scene – a slim, tanned, blonde cheerleader willing to undress on camera. She promotes a femininity which does not challenge masculinity and/or patriarchal values.

Overall, Man v. Food promotes a reversion towards primitive and traditional modes of manliness and a hyper-masculine space celebrating fundamental needs and desires – food and sex. Perceived feminine influences are mocked and neglected, with the show employing banter’-esque and sexist commentary to legitimise the objectification and silencing of women and ‘feminine’ social movements along environmental, animal rights and feminist lines.

Man v. Food, along with other similar backlash media, appears to be fighting to reclaim something apparently lost by men through equality crusading. Their reversion to almost caveman-like behaviour may be understood as an attempt to re-establish a traditional hierarchy of male dominance… or perhaps it really is just “banter”?

Image descriptions:

1. Trimmed cover of the Man v. Food Season 2 DVD. This shows a head and shoulders shot of a slightly smiling Adam Richman, with a raised knife and fork in his hands, about to tuck into a pile of pancakes on a plate. This is against a red background, subtly overlaid with faded pictures of fast food items, such as burgers in buns and hotdogs.

2. Screenshot of Richman sitting at a table in the pseudo press conference set-up mentioned in the piece. He is attempting to complete the “Fire in your hole” wings challenge in Sarasota, Florida. There is an audience in front of him, with some members holding up mobile phones to film him.

3. Screenshot of Tiffany removing a dark pink top to reveal a dark pink bikini to dive into a swimming pool. This is the slow motion scene mentioned in the article (Durham, North Carolina).

Amy has just finished her Undergraduate degree in English Literature with Media and Cultural Studies at Lancaster University, and is due to commence an MA degree in either Sociology or Gender and Women’s Studies in October. Her key research interests are various aspects of feminism, masculinities and looking at the relationship between humans and nonhumans. She also enjoys copious amounts of herbal tea, spending time with her pets (two dogs and two cats) and sitting in front of her sewing machine and getting creative