Bonbons and Bad Moms: An Anthropological Exploration of Chocolate and Gender

The “bonbon-eating housewife” narrative is so pervasive that it has become a rallying cry for stay-at-home-moms who feel underappreciated and overworked despite their reputation for laziness. In dozens of blog posts, these stay-at-home mothers decry the injustice of this stereotype, mocking the image of the bon-bon obsessed housewife in satirical articles and feminist op-eds. It seems as though this stereotype became widely accepted with the advent of the multi-camera situational comedy — one of the most widely-known models of how American family life is and should be. Since the earliest days of the multi-camera sitcom, the modern housewife has been stereotyped in the media as indulgent, lazy, and chocolate-crazy. The 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy and the 1990s sitcom Married … With Children provide perspective on the evolution of this stereotype and gendered assumptions we make about chocolate confections and the people who consume them. Through analyzing contemporary criticism of the “lazy housewives with bonbons” archetype, we can develop an understanding of how modern feminism challenges this narrative and how chocolate could be less strongly associated with femininity in the future. This association between housewifery, misogynistic narratives about women’s economic value, and the bonbon can help us to more clearly understand the cultural relationship between chocolate and femininity.

First, we must explore what a chocolate bonbon is and how it became associated with middle-class womanhood. A bonbon is typically a piece of candy — usually nougat, caramel, or other soft candies — covered in a thin coating of chocolate. While truffles are traditionally defined as balls of chocolate ganache covered in a thicker layer of chocolate, Americans often use the terms “bonbon” and “truffle” interchangeably to describe a small, bite-sized, chocolatey piece of candy. “Bonbon” can be roughly translated to “goody goody” in French, and French confectioners have been creating these sweet, delicate treats for centuries (ChocolateNoise.com). In the pre-industrial period, bonbons were handmade luxury goods, filled with expensive ingredients like candied fruit and nuts. Without mechanized equipment, confectioners had to hand-temper chocolate and cook candy with unreliable heat sources, hand-craft and coat each morsel of candy with chocolate, and sell them in small storefronts (France Today). Therefore, bonbons were a small-batch luxury good rather than a treat that any housewife could afford.

With the dawn of industrialization, many confectioners could streamline the process of producing bonbons. By the 19th century, confectioners could use mechanized equipment to produce bonbons more quickly and reliably — they no longer had to hand-sculpt each candy. The benefits of this more efficient bonbon-making process can be seen in the below video, in which a confection uses industrial cooking vessels and molds to easily produce many bonbons (Insider).

Increased sugar production in the Caribbean and other European colonial territories made sugary goods of every variety more affordable for middle- and working-class families (Mintz, 174). By the 20th century, a variety of bonbons and truffles were being produced in the United States, including the ice cream bonbon, which were largely sold in movie theaters and sports stadiums in addition to grocery stores (The Nibble). A 1988 New York Times article mentioned ice cream bonbons as one of international food conglomerate Nestle’s most popular chocolate products (Feder). Today, Americans buy over 36 million boxes of chocolate (typically filled with bonbons) for Valentine’s Day every year (Shah)! Clearly, the chocolate bonbon is one of America’s most treasured chocolate confections, but it is not clear how modern Americans came to associate bonbons with lazy stay-at-home mothers and the fraught gender politics of womanhood and work.

Perhaps the earliest example of this “lazy bonbon-eating housewife” stereotype can be found in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnazs’ semi-autobiographical 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. In the show, Lucy is depicted as a funny, confident, and somewhat scatterbrained wife and mother. In contrast to other television mothers from the so-called “Golden Age of Television” (the late 1940s to the early 1960s), Lucy was the star of the show and frequently proved her husband wrong. Where Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver was demure, Lucy was vibrant and opinionated. Where The Honeymooners’ Alice Kramden was bitter, Lucy was witty and pleasant. However, despite her character’s originality and complexity, Lucy was still subject to the gender expectations of her time. Like many married woman of her time, Lucy was a housewife and stay-at-home mother, and I Love Lucy frequently focused on disagreements between breadwinner Ricky Ricardo and his supposedly-lazy wife.

This conflict came to a head in the famous I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching” ( In the episode, Ricky accuses Lucy of being a lazy spendthrift who doesn’t appreciate how hard he works to put food on the table. In turn, Lucy accuses Ricky of failing to understand how difficult it is to be a homemaker. To settle their disagreement, Lucy and Ricky agree to switch jobs — Lucy and her friend Ethel spend a day making bonbons in a chocolate factory because they are talented makers and consumers of bonbons. At the same time, Ricky and Ethel’s husband Fred spend the day as “housewives.” Both groups fail spectacularly at their new “jobs,” as seen in the clips below.

This seems to reinforce the idea that Lucy and Ethel are naturally suited to housewifery while Ricky and Fred are naturally suited to work outside the home. When Lucy and Ricky resolve their differences at the end of the episode, Ricky presents Lucy with a five pound box of chocolates to show his appreciation for her hard work (This Was Television). This joke is ironic because Lucy has just spent a terrible day working in a chocolate factory, but also because housewives stereotypically love a box of chocolate bonbons. Early 1950s sitcoms were largely not as interested in subverting or exploring gender stereotypes as they were in reinforcing these stereotypes. Because Lucy in many ways represented the “model housewife,” she was traditionally feminine, took pleasure in domestic work and motherhood, and devoted to her husband. Her stereotypically feminine love of chocolate bonbons was an integral part of this “zany domestic goddess” image.

By the 1990s, many sitcoms were significantly less interested in upholding “traditional family values.” For example, in the irreverent sitcom Roseanne, eponymous main character Roseanne was a beleaguered working mother rather than a cheerful, polished housewife, and family comedy Full House abandoned the traditional nuclear family model altogether, instead centering around three men raising a family together. Perhaps no series embodies the genre-bending 1990s sitcom better than Married… With Children. The show centers around the Bundy family: Al, a misanthropic shoe salesman; Peggy, a profoundly lazy housewife; and their often-bratty children, Kelly and Bud. In many ways, Married… With Children is a perverse satire of the traditional family sitcom a la I Love Lucy, particularly because Peggy Bundy makes little effort to be an exemplary wife, mother, and homemaker. Instead, Peggy spends every day literally sitting on her couch and eating chocolate bonbons. Bonbons have become so closely associated with the character of Peggy Bundy that multiple recipes can be found online for “Peggy Bundy’s Bonbons,” including a recipe for “Peggy Bundy’s Lazy Day Coconut Bonbons.” The recipe description characterizes Peggy as “selfish and lazy” and associates theses qualities with Peggy’s habit of “watching Oprah and eating bonbons” (Eat Out Loud).

This association between Peggy’s gender, occupation, character, and love of chocolate bonbons is an extreme example of the way in which the “housewife with bonbons” stereotype had become widespread by the late 20th century. Peggy Bundy was the embodiment of every negative stereotype about housewives in the 1990s, when the female employment rate reached its all-time high of 57.4% by the end of the decade (Statista). Her ever-present box of chocolate bonbons signaled to the audience that she was the quintessential self-indulgent housewife who did not “produce” anything. Today, many online articles about the character, published by news and tabloid outlets like Time, Newsday, and Us Magazine mention her love of bonbons in describing her laziness and self-centeredness. Clearly, bonbons have been largely recast as an affordable, indulgent treat for the lazy housewife rather than handmade luxury items at the pinnacle of haute-patiserie. Peggy Bundy embodies our contemporary anxieties around the role of women as housewives as many women seek employment outside of the home, as well as our understanding of once-expensive goods as mass-produced commodities in the industrial era.

This popular association between one of television’s most dysfunctional mothers and the chocolate bonbon has sparked an online movement among housewives. The “housewives and bonbons” stereotype has become a reference point for many discussions of the value of women’s domestic work, like an Ohio housewife’s blog Bonbons and Martinis: The Diary of a Modern Housewife (BonBons & Martinis); satirical articles on housewife-oriented media outlets like the article “Children Removed From Home Where SAHM Eats Bonbons And Watches TV All Day” on SammichesandPsychMeds.com (Sammiches and Psych Meds); and practical columns in women’s magazines, like the article “9 Things Not to Say to a Stay-At-Home-Mom” in Women’s Day. This rejection of the “housewives and bonbons” stereotype isn’t necessarily an anti-feminist paean to the virtues of motherhood. Rather, they can be understood as a feminist reclamation of the value of traditionally-female domestic labor, whether the authors of these articles would label themselves feminists or not. In the same way that I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo refused to let her husband degrade her work as a housewife and Married… With Children’s Peggy Bundy embraced her box of bonbons instead of becoming a picture-perfect stay-at-home-mom, these housewives are rejecting the stereotype that they are either a Lucy Ricardo or a Peggy Bundy.

Works Cited

“The Life and Times of Chocolate, Part 4.” Chocolate Noise. http://www.chocolatenoise.com/the-life-and-times-of-chocolate-part-4/

“French Bonbons.” France Today. https://www.francetoday.com/food-drink/french_bonbons/

“How BonBons are Made.” YouTube, uploaded by Insider, 2 May, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHTcrK0NGv4

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1985.

“Product: Ice Cream Bonbons.” The Nibble: Great Food Finds, 14 November, 2010. https://www.thenibble.com/blog/2010/11/14/product-ice-cream-bonbons/

Feder, Barnaby J. “Carnation’s Big Ice Cream Bet.” The New York Times, 1988. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/27/business/carnation-s-big-ice-cream-bet.html

Shah, Khushbu. “Americans Will Spend $18.9 Billion on Valentine’s Day.” Eater, 9 February, 2015. https://www.eater.com/2015/2/9/8004991/americans-will-spend-18-9-billion-on-valentines-day

“Televising Masculinities: I Love Lucy: Expectations of the Sitcom Husband in the early 1950s (Part 2).” This Was Television, 11 September, 2002. https://thiswastv.com/2012/09/11/televising-masculinities-i-love-lucy-expectations-of-the-sitcom-husband-in-the-early-1950s-part-2/

“I Love Lucy: Job Switching.” YouTube, uploaded by calvin Fx, 16 January, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvYZ3gpZMpY

“I Love Lucy’s Famous Chocolate Scene.” YouTube, uploaded by History104WWU, 19 May, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NPzLBSBzPI

“Peggy Bundy’s Lazy Day Coconut Bonbons (Married With Children.” Eat Out Loud, 12 February, 2017. https://eatoutloud.com/peggy-bundys-lazy-day-coconut-bonbons-married-with-children/

“Employment Rate of Women in the United States from 1990 to 2017.” Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/192396/employment-rate-of-women-in-the-us-since-1990/

“Top 10 TV Moms June Cleaver Would Hate.” Time, 18 October, 2010. http://entertainment.time.com/2010/10/19/top-10-tv-moms-june-cleaver-would-hate/

“Memorable Moms in TV and Movies.” Newsday, 13 May, 2018. https://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/memorable-moms-in-movies-and-tv-1.1887347

“Sofia Vergara Gets a Sexy Peggy Bundy Makeover and Asks, ‘Do You Like This Look, Ed O’Neill?’” US Magazine, 3 September, 2015. https://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/sofia-vergara-gets-a-peggy-bundy-makeover-teases-ed-oneill-picture-201539/

“About.” BonBons & Martinis: The Diary of a Modern Housewife. https://bonbonsandmartinis.wordpress.com/about/

“Children Removed From Home Where SAHM Eats Bonbons And Watches TV All Day.” Sammiches and Psych Meds. https://www.sammichespsychmeds.com/children-removed-from-home-where-mother-eats-bonbons-and-watches-daytime-soaps/

“9 Things Not to Say to a Stay-At-Home-Mom.” Women’s Day, 30 January, 2012. https://www.womansday.com/relationships/family-friends/a6293/what-not-to-say-to-stay-at-home-moms/

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s