When Women Make Porn:
Using Food to Destabilize the Heteronormative Sexualization of the Female Body
Kondomeriet on Twitter
On April 18, 2019 twitter user “ASH” (@ashwanikapoor_) posted a video captioned “A sexshop [sic] from Norway, one of the most famous in the world, completed 30 years and decided to make a celebration commercial. But how to advertise this business without nudity, without presenting your products and still reach the target audience ???” The linked video was a commercial made for Kondomeriet, the self-proclaimed number one sex shop in Norway, with an as-of-April-23-2019 whopping 5.02 million views. The 39-second video set to Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s baroque concerto “L’inverno” eroticizes food as a woman’s hand caresses a yellow yolk while the egg-white drips through her fingers, a man’s two thumbs split open a peach’s skin while the juice puddles out of the stem’s depression, and various other stiff and sticky foods are pictured in dynamic allusions to sex. ASH put it best when he asked how to advertise sex without showing sex at all, and Kondomeriet epitomized the phenomenon of food-porn in their ability to do just that: advertise sex using only food products, a few hands, and a momentary glimpse at a woman’s mouth. There is, however, a larger question ASH is asking: how is this Kondomeriet commercial able to invoke gendered sexuality and pornographic allusions in its depiction of food? What does that association reveal about the visual depiction of sex, specifically pornography? How are such visual representations and their movement across media types indicative of tensions and negotiations at the gendered identity of the sexualized body?
This paper seeks to locate this Kondomeriet commercial as a window into an understanding of the pornification, eroticization, and sexualization of gendered bodies. This Kondomeriet commercial represents the ‘food porn’ phenomenon that emerged from a spectrum of amateur-made to professionally-produced social media posts and advertisements that visually layer depictions of food with allusions to sexuality. Food porn is defined by OED as “Images that portray food in a very appetizing or aesthetically appealing way,” however definitions from the crowd-sourced online UrbanDictionary hint at the intimate and indulgent imagery with the definitions (1) “close-up images of juicy, delicious food in advertisements,” and (2) “taking mouthwatering pictures of delicious foods and proliferating them throughout various social media websites as status updates, thus tempting all those not even currently hungry into getting a food hard-on and getting food-horny and blowing all of their heroic dieting efforts to hell.”
The intensely erotic and temptation-based rhetoric of food porn invokes a heightened sexuality that entices a quick association of pornography to the hypersexualization of women, and now, food as well. As Anne Fausto-Sterling explain, “…labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision” (3). It is because of this social force that I argue that female-producers are able to distort the misuse and abuse of such labels. This paper attempts to understand this disruption of a visual gendering process by asking how food porn strategically invokes and presents pornified visuals, and to what end those visuals serve. By tracing a historical arc of the ‘porn-chic’ visual phenomenon, this paper locates the Kondomeriet commercial within the general ‘food porn’ trend and maps how it is used to both reconstruct and disrupt a gendered narrative of the sexual body. I will conclude by proposing a reading of the 2019 Devour frozen food Super Bowl LIII food porn ad campaign in order to posit that the food porn community has become an active space for renegotiations of gendered sexuality and sexualized gender. Food porn media has become a site for the expression of tensions regarding female sexuality in relation to the female body and to the generally pornographic social moment of the early 21st century.
‘Porn-chic’ (or ‘porno-chic’) is a common classification of the aesthetic trend of mainstream media toward pornified or sexualized imagery. Feona Attwood, author of Sex Media defines porno-chic as “mainstream media texts that are said to borrow from, refer to, or pastiche the styles and iconography of the pornographic’” (102). Elemental to Attwood’s definition is the variety with which porn-chic mainstream media dialogues with pornography: it can comment upon, converse with, and cheekily corrupt dominant pornographic narratives, trends, and symbols. Examples like “open, moist, and lipstick-red lips, half-closed eyes, or hands suggestively placed” which dominate fashion and cosmetics advertising join the disproportionately porn-chic collection of music videos in demonstrating the pervasity of pornography-bearing media (Attwood 102).
Porn-chic in the music industry has had an especially fraught relationship with censorship as mainstream culture attempts to reconcile the hypersexualization of women in media with an increasing deregulated and individualistic moral social code. The Rolling Stones’s 1976 release of their album Black and Blue released an advertisement in the July 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine with model Anita Russell bound in ropes, arms tied and suspended above her head, legs spread open to expose her black-and-blue bruised inner thighs, and her painted-dark lips open, emphasizing the black bruise on the hollow of her cheek (Zaleski). The ad campaign and a billboard reading “I’m ‘Black & Blue’ from the Rolling Stones—and I love it!” (and later graffiti’d to read “This is a crime against! women”) faced backlash, feminist intervention, and eventually commercial censorship because of its pornographic and exploitative connotations (Zaleski). The music industry as a site for the congregation of pornified visual representations demonstrates the historical reworking of the reworking of those representation boundaries on male/female-gendered musical spaces, bodies, and performances.
Madonna, the “figure who more than any other can plausibly be said to have made porno ‘chic,’” released her music video for “Justify My Love” in 1990 (Atwood 102). In black and white, Madonna stumbles down a sexually-electric hotel hall where she succumbs to the erotic and is then pictured in a bedroom with a man. As he and she strip, touch, and visually allude to a sex act, there is very little that protects the video from a classification of pornography. Madonna’s ability to “appropriate the transgressive qualities of porn in a mass market context,” in comparison to the Rolling Stones’ questionable invocation of similar imagery, demonstrates how the same pornographic visual terms can be renegotiated when revived and performed based on male or female sources of agency and creative direction (Attwood 102).
Women in pop culture have continued to enact porn-chic in explicit terms (Rihanna’s dominatrix fashion during her 2011 Billboard Music Awards performance of “S&M”) and the reenactment of pornographic behavior in adapted settings (Miley Cyrus’s phallic sledgehammer in her video for “Wrecking Ball”). However, any invocation of pornographic iconography done by and on the female body is tempered by the socially-embedded proclivity toward the sexualization of the female body. Cyrus responds to this quick-classification of women’s use of pornographic iconography in media as a statement of sexuality or an operationalization of sexuality for capitalist ends when she responds to reactions toward her “Wrecking Ball” music video:
If people can take their minds out of the obvious and go into their imagination a little bit and see kind of what the video really means and the way it's so vulnerable and actually if you look in my eyes I look more sad then my voice sounds on the record it was a lot harder to do the video then it was to record the songs. It was much more of an emotional experience. (Garibaldi)
Therefore, the movement of women into a space of expression and articulation along pornographic borderlands allows for the corruption of pornographic associative imagery. Cyrus’s use of pornifying visual cues was meant to undermine their validity. By curating a misassociation of imagery and song tone, Cyrus demonstrates the underlying instability toward sexualization’s truth. This appropriation of pornographic imagery into the porn-chic aesthetic renders pornography itself uncertain—what is and what is not pornography is destabilized by the outright usage and mass-application of pornography itself.
What is 'Pornography'?
A trace of the word ‘pornography’ and its uncertain definition reveals the term’s status as a contextually-dependent classifier that is more poignant it its ability to act upon subject matter than it is to describe it. A search in the Oxford English Dictionary indicates the fracture of the term’s modern usage from its origin. From the literal Greek translation of “writing about prostitutes” to the OED’s current definition of “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement,” the dynamicity of ‘pornography’ is evident. Defined in the mainstream, the current definition reflects pornography’s current tendencies toward the visual, the corporeal, and the sensorial.
In XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography, controversial self-identified “ifeminist” or “individualist feminist” Wendy McElroy proposes a redefinition of ‘pornography’ in logical terms as “the explicit artistic depiction of men and/or women as sexual beings” (51). According to McElroy, such a definition excludes the motivation of the material’s producer and the reaction of the consumer in order to establish a “new and neutral starting point for a more fruitful discussion of pornography” (52). McElroy thus conserves the visual (“depiction”) and corporeal (“as sexual beings”) tendencies of pornography while exorcising the sensorial tendency from an understanding of the term ‘pornography.’ McElroy, however, misunderstands the active role of the term ‘pornography.’
Attwood qualifies McElroy’s definition, “Although ‘pornography’ appears simply to describe particular kinds of content, it is part of a process of grouping things together in order to regulate them” (45). Attwood rewrites pornography as a procedural remaking of content into a state of being, not a descriptor. It’s useful here to reference Michel Foucault’s notion of discursive formations, in which the subject of important is not the statement, but the nodal conditions that allowed for that statement and only that statement. In applying that concept to pornography, we can seek to understand pornography as a discourse in which sexual representation is constantly being renegotiated in their historically unique terms. It is from this framework that Attwood’s proposal on how to ‘read’ pornography gains salience. Attwood asserts, “The differences between pornography and other forms of culture are less meaningful than their similarities” (103). In other words, how can pornography be watched rather than defined as we trace its iconography through patterns of redefinition that are coded by greater questions and tensions regarding representing sexuality.
In asking the question ‘what is pornography?’ we then have to look toward what it means for something to be considered (or made) pornographic. The first binary that ‘pornography’ organizes along is an implication of (il)legality. To be ‘pornographic’ tends to be subject to legal regulation and restriction. The second binary is “the class basis of the line drawn between high-culture ‘erotica’ and low-culture ‘pornography’ [that] was fairly explicit from the very beginning” (Carol 25). Contained in this statement is the historical narrative of the advent of mass-producible photographic images. As reproductive technology advanced, images of sex became accessible to consumers of any social status and the infringed upon self-proclaimed ‘elite’ had to self-differentiate from the common erotica consumer. The ritual differentiation between ‘erotica’ and ‘pornography’ is reenacted from these capitalistic and elitist origins (Carol 25). Although pornography has therefore been seen as embedded in a narrative of being made pornographic, the content, too, began to engage with the notion of the pornographic itself. Pornography has thus been modernly constructed to “turn the usual order of things on its head, celebrating those things that are usually despised—the physical instead of the intellectual and the ordinary instead of the elite” (Attwood 104). Revealed in this characterization of the innately subversive nature of pornography—it is predisposed to interact, to parody, to pastiche, to borrow, and to reclaim.
Regardless, pornography still holds a stigmatized and coded position in society. Carol J. Clover elucidates this social location:
Pornography’s shame lies in the fact that it has one simple, unequivocal intention: to excite its consumer. We are in general suspicious of forms…that aim themselves so directly at the body…. What is erotica…but a category that moves us less, a form that, as [Lynda] Nead says, ‘allows the viewer to be aroused but within the purified, contemplative mode of high culture’?” (26)
Clover’s statement regarding the unary condition of pornographic motivations and the hyperattribution of pornographic imagery to female-gendered bodies and behaviors creates a body coded with an illusion of stable sexuality importance. The female body accumulates the social personality of a material of inherent temptation, a natural quality of women to be objects of ‘understandably’ uncontainable sexual reactivity. This high association of the female body with an “infliction of primality” vilifies the female body and shames its exposure and acceptance in a U.S. society that demands culture of (female) sexuality shaded in shame. If we can then understand pornography as a process, rather than a classification, pornography negotiates tensions around the essentiality of the corporeal, gendered, and class-coded representations of sexuality and reveals their uncertainty. It is within this fracturing of the stability of ‘pornography’ that the Kondomeriet commercial and food-porn phenomenon become sites for the exposition of these anxieties over visualizing sexuality.
Tisha Dejmanee’s “’Food Porn’ as Postfeminist Play: Digital Femininity and the Female Body on Food Blogs” becomes a fundamental text to reading changes in food porn in the commercial sphere by revealing the amateur community that supports the concept. Dejmanee orients her investigation into food porn’s ability to engage in feminist commentary by defining food porn as “…the act of styling and capturing food on mobile gadgets, eliciting an invitation to gaze and vicariously consume…” (431). She thus frames food porn as prone to interaction, to an excitation across a digital geography that pornography in general seeks to achieve. It is this inter-planar ability of food porn that makes it an automatically prone space for representational dialogue. Dejmanee elaborates on this “feminized genre and community,” explaining its high tendency for a female producer and female consumer. She further characterizes these female producers and publishers as amateurs, who can therefore be assumed to be produce material “less aligned with the emotional manipulation of marketing and more with the agency and digital identity play…” (432). Dejmanee articulates the food porn space as one prone to interaction as well as deliberate identity experimentation:
I find evidence that food blogs and “food porn” have become forums for women’s resistance against the multiple contradictions and limitations of postfeminist cultures…the blogosphere offers a platform for women to strategically, ironically, and creatively play with the representations, limits, and visibility of the postfeminist, female body. (435)
It is from this analytical structure that Dejmanee explicates the ways in which food porn is gendered. She takes specific attention to the concept of oozing—the trademark yolky drip, chocolate melt, or oily drizzle—to demonstrate the gendered imagery. As she indicates, the hyperattention placed on the visualization of a “moment of completion” renders the ‘sexualized’ satisfaction of the food porn as coded male, paralleling a sexual arc ending in visible ejaculation. At the same time, however, “oozing recalls… the leakiness and fluidity particular to ‘the female body, which bleeds, gives birth, and produces milk’” (Dejmanee 438). Pornified depictions of food are therefore able to play along a gendered boundary without regulation. The aesthetic styling of food in the context of food porn particularly plays on giving “’body’ to food over the flat surface of the digital screen through compositions and angles that emphasize height, surface, and depth” (Dejmanee 439). This idea of giving body to food is an important distinction from the inverse, from giving food to body. By playing on the gendering of food, rather than the objectifying of the female body as food (which has been done often: peaches, papayas, melons, etc.), food porn is placed as the site for a largely female producer community to reimagine and displace pornified imagery and corrupt the hegemonic pornographic coding of the female body.
Dejmanee’s analytical structure is thus important for understanding how food porn is able to destabilize heteronormative ideas of gendered sexuality and understanding the components necessary for reading particular cases. To return to the Norwegian sex shop Kondomeriet’s commercial, we must then ask the question of who exactly was doing the production and how that affects an understanding of the video’s food porn content. According to the YouTube upload of the commercial, the credited creative team is disproportionately female: with women holding positions as Art Director, Project Manager, Graphic Designer, Producer, and Food Stylist (POL). The Kondomeriet commercial seems to epitomize the feminized genre of food porn: artistic depictions that evidence great care, precision, and celebration of texture and form.
I argue that this style of food porn effectively destabilizes the oversexualization of the female body. In tracing the movement of pornographic iconography into the food porn setting, the nature of pornography as only formed in its definition reveals itself. Food porn becomes a frustration of how women’s bodies are made pornographic. By women producing media and consuming media that appropriates pornifying iconography, the vilification and attribution of an inherent sexuality gendered to the female body becomes destabilized and weakened. Scholars like Dejmanee who argue that there is a masculinized perspective inherent in food porn do not understand pornography’s persistent ability to be used to engage mainstream associations and turn them on their head. The specificity in which female-produced food porn is able to achieve such a societal critique is evident when another example of marketing residing on the phenomenon of food porn is called upon: frozen food company Devour’s Super Bowl LIII food porn commercial.
Devour in the Super Bowl
Devour’s first Super Bowl advertisement ran for 30 seconds, half the length of their pre-released uncensored version of the same commercial. Devour, a Kraft Heinz brand of frozen food, had been marketing to men since 2016 when its tagline was “Food You Want to Fork” (Brady). The brand was thus built on a rhetoric of the heteronormative sexualization of food. The uncensored commercial centered on the idea of food porn, or more specifically, the tribulations of a woman whose boyfriend is struggling with a frozen-food-porn addiction. As Kyle O’Brien of The Drum summarizes, “The girlfriend tries several tactics to entice him away from his habit, making him a romantic homemade meal and even watching amateur food porn videos, but her efforts go flaccid. Frozen food porn has already made him into a “three-minute man.” The commercial was accompanied by a “food porn hotline” described by Erik Brady of USA Today when he writes, “’Hey, Saucy,’ whispers a women’s voice when you call. ‘Welcome to 1-83-FOODPORN, by Devour.’ You press 1 to hear about Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese, or 3 for Loaded Potatoes with Angus Beef and Bacon.” Devour invokes a clear awareness at the food porn phenomenon and its markers of intentional and artistic sexual depictions.
Devour’s peculiar spin on food porn applies food porn’s commercialization and conversion into a source of instant gratification as 3-minute ready frozen meal to an interpretive structure of porn/sex addictions. This strategy opens the question of where this Devour video falls in the narrative of pornographic iconography. How does it expose the female-generated pointed acts of visual appropriation? This Devour commercial dialogues with the commercial like that of Kondomeriet by showing how food porn, when renegotiated toward a male audience, becomes built around instant availability, immediate gratification, and unfailing reliability. Of note, Devour’s Super Bowl advertisement was creatively spearheaded by David Miami (Monllos). The food porn created by women then reveals its ability to destabilize the sexualization of women, to pointedly use pornifying iconography to show the way that the female body is mistakenly seen as an innate site of contagious temptation and sexual promiscuity.
Food porn isolates and destabilizes the gendering of sexuality. However, food porn’s ability to do so is conditional upon its female productive force and a deliberate invocation of ambiguously gendered aesthetics. Pornography naturally moves toward subversion as it builds itself on its ability to be insecurely classified. As a process, rather than a descriptor, it navigates the discourse inherent to modern renegotiations as to what representations of corporeal sexuality are permitted and in which terms. By decentralizing the sexuality of female-coded bodies, food porn creators demonstrate how the hypercensorship of female bodies codes bodies as inherently sexual, as those are the only images of the uncensored female bodies available. The tendency of “feminine symbolism…toward polarized ambiguity—sometimes utterly exalted, sometimes utterly debased…” is exposed when food porn producers displace that feminized sexuality unto food products (Ortner 86). In that act of symbolic transference, they reveal how female bodies are made to be overtly sexual and promiscuous rather than innately a site of corrupting temptation.
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- Dejmanee, Tisha. “’Food Porn’ as Postfeminist Play: Digital Femininity and the Female Body on Food Blogs.” Television & News Media, vol. 17, no. 5, 2016, pp. 429-448.
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- Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Women, Culture, and Society, edited by M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, Stanford University Press, 1974, pp. 68-87.
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- Zaleski, Annie. “How a Rolling Stones Ad Spawned a Music Industry Revolution.” Ultimate Classic Rock, 23 Apr. 2016.