"I’m not a feminist… I love cooking!" Why food is a feminist issue

Another day, another “I’m not a feminist” news story.

In an interview for Redbook, Kaley Cuoco — who plays Penny in the CBS comedy series “The Big Bang Theory” — talks about her recent $1 million an episode pay cheque, her decision to get breast implants and, perhaps most controversially, about her opinions on feminism. In response to being asked if she identifies as a feminist or not — a response which has since generated much talk among feminists online — Cuoco replied: “Is it bad if I say no?”

Joining a long list of female celebrities who shy away from the f-word due to a basic lack of understanding, Cuoco’s answer comes as no surprise. Feminists have become used to cries of “humanism” and “but I love men!” from various celebrities over the years. What makes Cuoco’s rejection of feminism surprising is — wait for it — that it conflicts with nurturing her husband:

I cook for Ryan five nights a week. It makes me feel like a housewife. I love that. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I like the idea of women taking care of their men… I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him. My mom was like that, so I think it kind of rubbed off.

I’m not exactly in the position to disprove Cuoco’s assumptions that feminists hate cooking. I once famously burnt spaghetti because I forgot to put water in the pot, and I struggle to open the Sara Lee box when it’s my turn to “make” dessert. But my lack of prowess in the kitchen has nothing to do with my belief in feminism, just as Cuoco’s love of cooking should have nothing to do with her lack of interest in feminism.

Western culture is dominated by references to cooking as an anti-feminist act — which is, unfortunately, often reinforced by women who fly the feminist flag. Scattered throughout pop culture and even politics; from Lily Allen’s “feminist” anthem Hard Out Here (e.g., “I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking; you’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen”) to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s response to Gordon Ramsay (e.g., “he should confine himself to the kitchen … rather than make public comments about others” — I must admit, I had a little laugh about this one), cooking is depicted as an insignificant act, or worse, as an act that has nothing to do with feminism at all.

But why is cooking considered the antithesis of the feminist movement? Why do the phrases “go back to the kitchen” and “make me a sandwich” still feature as regular insults against women who convey feminist sentiments? And why do the Cuoco’s of the world seem to think that being a feminist involves the senseless burning of aprons?

 

It’s accurate to say that feminists have a long and conflicted relationship with all things domestic. Cooking, a task traditionally relegated to women through the role of the selfless nurturer, is perceived by feminists as an act that reflects women’s oppressed cultural status both inside and outside the home. In The Whole Woman, Australian feminist Germaine Greer argues that the role of feeding is essentialized to women through our ability to breastfeed, and as a result, generalized to our relationships in the kitchen. Specifically, she explains that while our bodies may have the capacity to feed and nurture others, that our relationships with food are marred by the social conditions that hold us principally responsible for its preparation, in some cases leading to resentment, boredom, and what Betty Friedan famously referred to as “the problem that has no name.”

Women’s resentment towards cooking has been represented in various ways throughout the years. Performance artist Martha Rosler famously expressed the conflicted sense of apathy and rage involved in cooking in her video piece The Semiotics of the Kitchen. In a mock cooking show backdrop, Rosler is shown alphabetizing the utensils in her kitchen (“A is for Apron”); becoming increasingly violent as she moves from letter to letter. These sentiments are echoed by radical feminist writers such as Ann Oakley. Oakley expresses her frustration with housework when she describes women’s responsibilities in the home, such as cooking, as acts that inhibit women’s lives and calls for the abolition of housework — and therefore, cooking — altogether. Some researchers argue that radical feminist perspectives on cooking (and housework in general) have gone so far as to contribute to changes in contemporary architecture, leading to the popularity of the open-plan kitchen space, where cooking is intended to be collaborative rather than confined to women.

While references to cooking (and domesticity) feature in many feminist texts as an unwanted and in some cases negative experience of being a woman, what becomes apparent is that feminists are not directly opposed to cooking per se. Rather, feminist writers such as Greer and Oakley object to the patriarchal restrictions that prevent women from doing anything other than cooking.

When Cuoco fantasizes about “feel[ing] like a housewife,” she is not fantasizing about actually being a housewife. She is not channeling the countless women out there who, with less substantial paycheques, are expected to feed their families every night and be given the leftovers as a consolation prize; or the career women who spend all day working to then come home and be expected to get their Nigella on. Cuoco is privileged enough to reap the benefits of the feminist movement, which is what makes her dismissal of feminism in the name of cooking all the more confusing.

I am not suggesting that finding cooking pleasurable is somehow strange or anti-feminist. Cooking for oneself, and for others, can be an enjoyable experience when it’s done out of one’s own volition. But it’s important to acknowledge that just because some women enjoy cooking, that doesn’t mean that we should stop politicizing the act itself, or renounce feminism in the process. When Cuoco — and others — perceive feminism as a movement that rallies against women’s relationships with food and cooking — or as a movement that is fundamentally incompatible with nurturing and respect — they implicitly hold feminists responsible for women’s lack of interest in cooking.

Ultimately, it is not feminism that divorces women from food and cooking — it is the patriarchal social structures that confine women to the kitchen. If it were not for the systematic devaluation of women’s labour both inside and outside the home, women would not need to feel burdened by the act of cooking (and housework in general). As Greer explains, “food is a feminist issue” and, as such, is subject to the same politicization as every other “personal” aspect of women’s lives.

So the next time Cuoco is in the kitchen leisurely making herself (or her husband) a sandwich, it might be useful for her to remember that cooking does not define her lack of interest in feminism; but rather, that feminism is the often missing ingredient that makes all her meals taste better.

Natalie Jovanovski is a PhD Candidate and Feminist Researcher from Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include the harms of sexual objectification, the cultural reinforcement of eating disorders, and the discursive portrayal of food in contemporary Western media. 
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