From Unisex Staple to Dainty Dessert

How chocolate was reconstructed to feed modern ideas of gender

Cacao fruit and chocolate were largely gender neutral in their original, cultural hub of Mesoamerica (Martin & Sampeck 46). Within the social scenery of pre-Columbian civilizations, men and women participated alongside each other in chocolate production, consumption, and ritual use. They picked cacao pods from household orchards and ground the beans by hand using the traditional metate. In the Mixtec pre-marriage ritual of tac haa, the aspiring groom poured chocolate drink for the bride’s father. Similarly, women consumed chocolate as part of fertility rituals. If anything, chocolate leaned masculine, particularly in its use as a pre-battle energy drink for Aztec warriors (Coe & Coe). Perhaps as a relic of ancient times, the word, chocolate, is grammatically masculine in the modern Spanish language.

In contrast, contemporary associations around chocolate, and particularly chocolate consumption, are overwhelmingly feminine. Advertisements often feature alluring, model-like women to convey themes of sensuality and indulgence. Furthermore, women make up the vast majority of chocolate’s consumer base, while men dominate in spheres of chocolate production and distribution (Coe & Coe). This dramatic shift begs the question of how the relatively gender-neutral Mesoamerican fruit found its new place in male-dominated Western society.

woman in modern Godiva chocolate ad
https://markfisherfitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/godiva_zpshdaqiizr.png

man in modern Lindt chocolate ad
https://d2z1w4aiblvrwu.cloudfront.net/ad/7_99/lindt-lindor-truffles-master-of-irresistible-large-4.jpg

It’s difficult to pin the gendering of chocolate as we know today on a handful of key events. However, examining the history of chocolate through a social perspective can help us better understand where our modern ideas of chocolate and gender come from. Both chocolate’s new social role in European society following conquest of the New World and its rebranding as a candy bar greatly facilitated its feminization.

Staple to Supplement

In pre-Columbian Mayan society, the cacao crop was a both a dietary and cultural backbone (Coe & Coe). In oldest known Mayan cultural narrative, the Popul Vuh, cacao is featured alongside corn as a staple crop from which the human body was believed to have originated.

However, 16th century European colonizers did not come to the New World in search of a new staple food to replace the meat and wheat of their motherland. They instead searched for exotic spices and treasures from which they could amass profit. The inability of the cacao tree to grow in the harsh European climate further cemented the status of cacao as an exotic import (Coe & Coe). Thus, chocolate never found a place as a main dish in European culture and instead played a supplementary role as a snack and dessert.

Ultimately, how and by whom chocolate was consumed was dictated by gender roles in European society. Men were expected to find work in the public sphere and traditionally held jobs as blacksmiths, farmers, etc., while women were expected to maintain the household. As the family’s economic providers, men were given priority for eating grains and meat, and women were expected to stave off hunger with snacks. As chocolate became more widely available to Europeans, as was the case in the Industrial Revolution, it adopted the role of a snack/dessert food and become associated with the domestic realm (Mintz). The chart below summarizes additional changes in how chocolate was used in Mesoamerican society versus European society.

Sweet and Sinful Rebranding

The sugar cane was discovered by European powers several centuries prior to cacao (Mintz). Though sugar was sometimes added to chocolate in traditional Mesoamerican recipes, other additives such as chili and flowers were much more popular (Mintz). To the Spaniard palate, however, sugar was needed to cleanse the palate of cacao’s bitterness, and the two soon became inseparable in the European re-imagination of chocolate (Miller). This combination was not only the beginning of the chocolate candy bar we know today but also significantly affected how chocolate related to a gender.

From a sustenance standpoint, sugar made chocolate a more calorie dense snack. Cycling back to the point made earlier of women finding alternative energy sources, chocolate sweetened with sugar became an ideal food for women. As mass production was popularized in the Industrial Revolution, women and children became a regular part of advertisements from major chocolate companies such as Fry and Cadbury (Mintz).

The relationship between women and chocolate became so intimate that chocolate adopted a paradoxical character which mimicked society’s perceptions and expectations of women. On one hand, chocolate became tied to ideas of purity and docility. The implication of the advertisements pictured above is that chocolate is the food of well-behaved women. On the other hand, chocolate also started to reflect society’s fears of femininity, such as entanglements with lust and indulgence. We see this sinful side of chocolate today in advertisements from major chocolate brands, such as Ferrero Rocher, Godiva, and Dove. At least in terms of its public image, chocolate – once a unisex food – ultimately became a woman in the modern world.

The Consequences of Gendering Chocolate

Modern gender associations surrounding chocolate are so deeply ingrained in our everyday life that they feel innate to the food itself. People automatically accept stereotypes such as the masterful male chocolatier and the sex-crazed woman who lusts after a piece of chocolate. Though there is arguably little harm in women buying and eating more chocolate because of society’s expectations, there is danger in allowing sexist ideas promoted by the chocolate industry to go by unquestioned.

A quick internet search reveals a surprisingly large number of research studies investigating the effects of chocolate on women’s health. Websites ranging from PubMed to Cosmopolitan have published reports claiming positive correlations between chocolate consumption and pregnancy, mood control, and sometimes even physical appearance. Though some of these studies have a scientific foundation, their results are often twisted to fit popular social beliefs. For example, people have taken research showing that chocolate improves PMS mood swings to imply that women are worse than men at controlling their temper. Not only is there a gender bias in the types of questions these studies pose but the results are also twisted in a way to fit pre-existing social beliefs. Their conclusions often fuel the idea that women are unable to control their own impulses, needing chocolate as a type of pacifier.

The stereotypes surrounding food have far-reaching consequences. Food is never just an energy source, and chocolate cannot be fully understood in isolation from society. Unpacking how chocolate became gendered throughout history allows us to not only better understand our own biases but also stay mindful of how these biases can give and take agency from the people implicated.


Citations

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D, and Kathryn E Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, Jan. 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Miller, James C. “Cacao Cravings: Europe’s Assimilation and Europeanization of Chocolate Drinking from Mesoamerica, 1492-1700 C.E.” Inquiries, vol. 9, no. 10, 2017, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1669.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

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