thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Interlude: Brownies, Diets, and the Women who eat them.

In gender on July 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

Chelsea Narr Henson

Hi, GLG!  Sarah kindly allowed me a spot to write a guest post, so let me introduce myself.  Like these other awesome ladies, I’m a PhD student in English lit.  I also write about food and recipes elsewhere on the internets.  I don’t usually write about television.  I prefer to yell at it.  Unless there is food on it.  And then I’m typically more interested in the food than in the medium from which it is displayed.

But here’s the thing: unless I’m watching FoodNetwork, the place where food shows up more often than not is in commercials.  And that means, as I tell my students all the time, that there are going to be biases associated with it.  Sometimes it will flat-out be representing the food as more eat-able than it really is.  But sometimes, as in this case, it involves the way the commercial is written and shot.  I couldn’t find the commercial posted online, so we’ll have to work from my memory of it.

(Nota bene: I’m not a film scholar chick, so forgive my lack of appropriate vocabulary for particularly film-y things…)

The ad begins with a determined-looking, pretty blonde woman, probably early 30s, walking quickly and purposefully through a grocery store.  She’s wearing a pencil skirt and heels, and doesn’t stop to take anything off any shelves.  She heads straight for the end of an aisle where a beefy looking guy – a bouncer, of sorts – stands with his arms crossed in front of a ceiling-to-floor red curtain.  He seems as though he will stop her, but she waves him aside and goes through.

While this scene of what seems to be female empowerment is going on, the voiceover for the ad announces that now, something formerly off-limits, something that could never be thought about before, has become approved for consumption for people on diets.  As the woman pushes her way through the curtain, the voiceover reveals this secret taboo, this wondrous, mysterious no-no, is a brownie.  A 90-calorie brownie.  The shelves on the other side of the curtain are stacked with boxes containing these snacks, and we can see them pictured on the boxes: tiny squares that look more like foam rubber or molded plastic than delectable fudgy chocolate treats.

Once within the curtain, we see a club scene: people dressed up, jumping around and dancing, multi-colored lights flashing and disco balls hanging from the ceiling.  There is at least one tray full of the brownie treats being held up and passed around.  The woman we’ve been following happily joins the dance party, and the voiceover tells us encouragingly, no, joyfully, that brownies are back on the dieter’s can eat list, and they can be found in your local supermarket in the granola bar aisle.

Does this seem innocuous?  The first time I saw it I thought nothing of it.  The second time I saw it I started noticing some things that bother me a little.

As far as I can see, there is one man in the dancing scene of the ad.  One.  Everyone else rejoicing over this product is a woman.  Further, they are all relatively young and dressed to the nines.  Does this mean only women like brownies and would therefore care about them being available in a low calorie incarnation?  Not true, I say: my husband loves a big, chewy brownie.  Does it mean only women go on diets?  The very next commercial might be for Hydroxycut or similar, which would disprove this one as well.  Here’s where I think it gets more insidious.  Does it mean only women have to restrict themselves to certain types of food?  Or does it mean that if you’re a woman who enjoys an occasional brownie, you ought to start thinking of yourself as doing something wrong?  Really, the commercial seems to urge, if you’re taking good care of your body and keeping it thin and trim, brownies should have been off limits to you until now.  The man in the party scene, incidentally, is about as far in appearance and habit from the uber-masculine bouncer as you could get.  He might be a hipster, he might be metrosexual, but more likely (I think), he’s styled to look somewhat effeminate, so it turns out it’s a “girls’ night” complete with a token gay guy – and lord knows he hasn’t had a brownie in ages either… until now, that is!

Further, let’s consider the big bouncer that the woman steps casually past at the beginning of the commercial.  Sure, he plays into the club vibe the ad wants to invoke.  It makes sense for him to be there, guarding the red curtain, but what does that mean from an over-analytical perspective?  This woman wants to do something taboo.  She wants to eat this delectable snack hidden away.  He is there to prevent her from indulging, even though, as the commercial so helpfully reveals, what she’s after is only 90 measly little calories.  So here, it would seem, even though we now know this dessert is not so bad for the woman in search of a trim figure, this guy still doesn’t want our girl to have any.  He would rather block the door than allow her this small indulgence.

Finally, there’s the issue of placement.  The voiceover tells us not only how fantastic it is that these brownies are 90 calories a piece; it also tells us where we can find them in the grocery store.  They are shelved with the granola bars.  It’s like that final wink: even if you’re a woman, and you’ve not eaten a brownie in 3 years because you’re trying to stay trim for your next upcoming high school reunion, so that Joe Quarterback will finally, finally notice you after all these years, but now you feel like it might be okay to indulge by picking up a pack of these 90 – just 90! – calorie brownies, they don’t get shelved with the cookies or the baking mixes.  No, they hang with the granola bars.  Now, on top of being delicious and formerly forbidden and reserved for those women who can’t resist partying over chocolate, they are also a health food.  Don’t worry, girls, they aren’t really even brownies!  They’re just like granola bars.  They must be good for you, because stuff with low calorie counts is good for you, since it helps you be thin.  And thin is good.

To sum up, what this commercial teaches us is as follows:

1.) most young attractive women either are, or should be, on diets.

2.) indulgence is a bad thing, because it means you won’t be following your diet.

3.) men wouldn’t want you to indulge, because then you wouldn’t be as attractive as you could be, since you’d probably gain weight.

4.) men don’t need diet brownies, unless they are those kind of men (by extension, perhaps, men don’t go on diets?  And why not?  Surely they, too, feel the pressure from society/people they want to seem attractive to?).

5.) even if you are going to indulge in this new godsend, no one will judge you, because in addition to being low calorie, it’s actually a healthy snack.

Girls!  Can’t we just feel beautiful and accepted AND enjoy some good old dessert if we want to?  Come over.  I’ll make brownies.  And they won’t come from a 90 calorie box.

Now you know why I yell at the TV set.


Addendum:  Just saw this commercial again and noticed something I forgot to mention.  As the dance party progresses, the curtain is moved aside slightly and who peeks through?  Two teenage boys dressed as supermarket janitorial staff.  They look in voyeurs to the scene, seeming both slightly shocked and a bit bashful about their actions.  Are they turned on by these dancing, brownie-eating women?  Are they horrified at the taboo being broken?  What does it mean that they are staff members with somewhat undesirable jobs?  I can’t decide what effect this additional moment has on the message of the commercial.  How would this be different (or would it?) if the voyeurs were attractive male grocery store customers instead of janitor kids?

  1. Well put. Commercials are why I usually don’t watch television on the television.

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