As we wait for the U.S. to go down the tubes after Trump takes office, and for the rest of the world to fall apart from war, terrorism, and hatred, it’s nice to know that our university professors are busy concentrating on the really important stuff, like the implications of yogurt “culture” for feminism and white privilege.
Yes, we’ve had feminist glaciology and Pilates, and discourses on how pumpkins at Halloween are racist and oppressive, but one item heretofore left untouched is the pressing issue of yogurt.
No longer, for Perin Gurel, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has published an incisive postmodern analysis of yogurt in America in the journal Gastronomica. The title is below (click on the screenshot to to go the paper; reference and additional link at bottom).
Her observations are simple enough, and I can state the facts given in the paper in a few sentences. Yogurt was for generations a staple food in the Middle East. It was then imported into the U.S., where it was initially seen as a strange and exotic food. Then advertisers decided to sell it to women as a “health” food that could help one lose weight. It then became mainstream, and some producers like Dannon added fruit on the bottom. It was later adopted by hippies and feminists, increasing its popularity, and even some men became fans. More recently, “Greek yogurt”, a thicker version, has been successfully marketed by Chobani, and even more men have adopted that, though the yogurt is really not Greek but Turkish—”strained” yogurt.
That’s the story of yogurt, although, in the one inadvertently funny sentence in her article, Gurel says, “The origins of yogurt are cloudy.”
The problem, as always with this postmodern persiflage, is that Gurel has to trick out her story with all kinds of feminist and racial overtones, to the point where I’m not sure at all what she’s trying to say beyond waving her Postmodern Feminist credibility card (she teaches a course on “Gender and Popular Culture”). And so we get thickets of words like this (emphasis is mine and, by the way, if you see a lot of words that end with “-ize”, like “problematize,” “contextualize,” and “historicize”, those are sure signs of postmodern gibberish).
In her groundbreaking book The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol J. Adams coined the term “feminized protein” to describe food sources derived from the imprisonment and domestication of female animals, whose bodies are “manipulated as incubators of protein” (Adams 2010: 112). Interested in the intersection of two overwhelming binary oppositions, between human and animal and male and female, Adams’s analysis does not differentiate between, say,milk and yogurt. The recent work of Greta Gaard on “feminist postcolonial milk studies” builds upon Adams’s interventions to historicize and contextualize the femaleness as well as the whiteness of milk. Gaard (2013: 596) writes: “Milk—a commodity that the American dairy industry has marketed as ‘natural’ and ‘wholesome’—is not a homogeneous entity but one that has various meanings and compositions in different historical and cultural contexts.”
Well that says about exactly nothing.
As for yogurt being a form of sexual oppression as well as cultural appropriation, there’s this:
Although feminization and exoticization go together in canonical feminist analyses of Orientalism, in the case of yogurt’s popularization in the United States, feminization as a “diet” food has been a significant part of its cultural neutering. In the early twenty-first century, marketing campaigns for “Greek” yogurt have modified this cultural neutralization by foregrounding a nonthreatening “white” ethnicity, while further feminizing yogurt consumption and obscuring connections to the food cultures of the Middle East.
It’s true that yogurt marketing was directed largely toward women, since that sex is more concerned with weight loss and appearance, but “cultural neutering”? Was the deliberate? There is no evidence for that, simply the author’s assertions. As for “foregrounding a nonthreatening ‘white’ ethnicity”, that’s just a gratuitous form of virtue signaling.
When Perin manages to admit that some men took to yogurt, too, as in some later ads, she lapses into complete incoherence. Referring to Yoplait ads featuring men enjoying yogurt flavors like “banana cream pie”—ads that were removed after complaints—Perin goes to town:
The original version of this ad was pulled off the air in 2011 after activists accused it of promoting eating disorders; it certainly encourages an incredibly problematic relation to food (“Yoplait Pulls Ad . . . ” 2011). Having young men replace the women in this case follows a recent trend in media activism in which “gender flipping” deconstructs the normatively gendered source text. As Patrick Jung, the co-creator of the parody video with Nick Taylor, wrote in his paper about this piece, gender flipping makes us ask, “If it is uncomfortable to look at these flipped versions, then why was the original acceptable?” It, of course, would not have been but for a specific brand of capitalist patriarchy predicated upon policing women’s bodies.
Well, I saw those ads, and I wasn’t uncomfortable, so I don’t know what she’s talking about. And the stuff about “policing women’s bodies” is over the top, for yogurt companies were targeting that segment of the market most concerned with weight loss. Why are erectile-dysfunction ads aimed at men? Is that patriarchal policing of men’s bodies?
I needn’t go on except to give two more quotes about how yogurt is oppressive to women and people of color. To make the former case, Gurel notes that yogurt, while marketed to women in the U.S., is marketed to everybody in her native country of Turkey, but even there it’s oppressive (she also manages to throw in the Edward-Saidist buzzword “Orientalist”):
We must, therefore, be wary of a romantic, Orientalist binary opposition between Turkish tradition and American commercialism. Turkish and American ads for mass-produced yogurt both exemplify what Sut Jhally (1995) has called the “image-based culture” of modern capitalism, which causally links positive emotions to the consumption of commodities. In all cases, the empty signifier of coagulated milk sold under a brand name is enriched with signification borrowed from preexisting values. Similarly, ads in both countries are gendered in rather limited and stereotypical ways. While Turkish ads primarily incorporate folk foodways and the communal practices of food-based nurturing (provided by women) and hearty ingestion (showcased by men and children), American ads focus on individualized feminine consumption for “female” ills. Yet if staring at a fridge in doubt for minutes on end and eating controlled portions of artificially flavored yogurt alone on a couch is oppressive, what about slaving away at the kitchen all day to make sure store-bought yogurt can be consumed, mostly by others, alongside appropriately labor-intensive foods?
And here’s why yogurt is a form of white supremacy (I’ve removed the references for clarity, but you can see the full passage in the original paper):
Since the 1970s, popular American constructions of normative whiteness have pushed against the symbolic WASP and instead begun to celebrate white “ethnic” cultures, such as Greek, Italian, and Irish immigrant ancestries (Jacobson 2006). Both a product of and a backlash against the civil rights movement, this aspiration for a “special whiteness” beyond and within whiteness has boosted interest in “ethnic dining,” making available a cosmopolitan identity to those who can claim it by heritage or travel and consumption. Mass-produced Greek yogurt offers a tame version of this gastronomic cosmopolitanism to the masses. Of course, like more extensive practices of “eating the Other,” it does so without challenging the structural racism that generates asymmetric access to culinary adventurism.
So yogurt is a backlash against the Civil Rights movement? And is a form of “culinary adventurism” that itself is a kind of racism? Seriously, that’s stretching her thesis to the point of breaking. It’s ludicrous—and this is taken as serious scholarship.
My conclusions about this paper and its author?
- Gurel doesn’t have enough to do.
- She also needs to learn how to write without using obscurantist postmodern jargon.
- The paper says nothing that hasn’t been said before. What is true is not novel (weight-loss foods are marketed to women), and what is novel is not true (yogurt is a manifestation of racist white cultural and structural paternalism).
- The paper adds nothing to the store of human knowledge; it was written solely to advance the author’s career.
- Isn’t postmodernism over yet?
- Shoot me now.