There was an interesting story on the BBC this week about veganism and dating, featuring the London Vegan Meetup Group. It clearly had one positive effect for the group – many people who had never previously heard of them now have done. They provide a group for people to “meet without meat” – and presumably to meet without having to explain their dietary choices.
We know that food is heavily gendered. “Real men” eat steak, chicken burgers, Yorkie bars and drink beer. Women are encouraged to pick daintily at a salad. It’s a stupid stereotype but a real one. Vegan men are coded as un-masculine, based on a construction of masculinity which would hold hands with macho culture if holding hands weren’t such a girly thing to do.
Interestingly though, vegan women can also be coded as un-feminine. During my own brief flirtation with veganism I discovered that vegan women are associated with the “hairy lesbian” stereotype of an overly masculine woman. This is interesting because most things which are “not masculine” are coded as directly feminine and vice versa: pink, make-up, DIY, fixing engines. Very few things (I can’t think of any others off the top of my head) are coded as both un-masculine AND un-feminine.
There is loads of room to explore tired gender stereotypes within veganism. So when the interviewer asked Robb Masters, the co-ordinator of the vegan meet up, about the perception of vegan men as un-masculine, he had an opportunity to question what masculinity actually is. Is it beefy muscles and not too much brain? That’s our current construct, but these are subject to change: Chaucer’s parfait gentil knight would probably get called a big poof these days, but was the height of perfect masculine identity at the time.
Masters was put on the spot, it seems, as he explains here, and reached for the most masculine vegan he could think of: Mike Tyson. Tyson is of course a convicted rapist.
I don’t suppose for a moment that this was deliberate, but it does raise two wider issues. The first is that this was placed in the context of how to attract more women to vegans / veganism. Vegan women outnumber vegan men (possibly not, according to this), yet they too apparently code vegan men as un-masculine and can be reluctant to date them. “It’s okay, not all of us are Walter the Softy! Some of us are rapists!” is unlikely to be a draw factor to a woman who is thinking of going along to the group.
More broadly though is that Tyson can still be held up as an example of masculinity, an example that anyone might reach for when put on the spot by an interviewer. I’m not singling out Robb Masters for a kicking here, I’d add, it’s not unusual for someone faced with the question of what is masculine to reach for the hypermasculine as defined by current standards. It’s the current standards I have a problem with. This is a general comment on how (a) a rape conviction is soon swept under the carpet by public memory and (b) violence, especially sexual violence, is coded as masculine plus. If I were a man I’d be horrified by the concept that physical aggression enhanced my masculinity. I’m not too keen on it as a woman, come to that.
There are plenty of reasons to date vegans, male or female. Apart from anything else, they can usually cook. But the construction of gender roles on dietary choices really shouldn’t be one of them.