COVID Masculinities and the Meat of the Matter

On Super Bowl Sunday, households across the nation ignored Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice to only enjoy the iconic game with their immediate household. Instead, Super Bowl parties are expected to be ‘mini super spreader’ events with COVID-19 infections projected to grow exponentially because of these gatherings. Like cockfights in Bali (a case study often used by anthropologists to understand gendered politics in the region), Dr. Jan Huebenthal has argued that the Super Bowl similarly says something about masculinity in America. The potential for Super Bowl parties, often facilitated by men, to increase COVID-19 infections is not the first time toxic masculinity has been criticized for exacerbating the harm caused by COVID-19. Salon has written that “toxic masculinity has become a threat to public health,” the New York Times has argued that men’s “aversion to common sense protections” is inherently intertwined with men’s fear of seeming weak, and Wyoming News has simply stated that “toxic masculinity [is] a big reason for spread of COVID-19.” However, the implications of toxic masculinities and pandemics does not stop at COVID-19; toxic masculinity also increases the risks for future infectious disease outbreaks caused by animal agriculture.

Though the origin of COIVD-19 remains unknown, it has been argued that there are “many unshakeable links between modern animal agriculture and COVID-19.” COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means that it originates in animals and can jump to other species, such as human beings. The root cause of zoonotic diseases is  often animal exploitation;  modern agricultural practices, such as factory farms, are involved in high-risk interaction between humans and animals and pose a serious risk for future outbreaks, such as avian flu. This is why organizations, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, have published white papers on the relationship between COVID-19 and animal agriculture in the hopes of reducing the likelihood of a future global pandemics.

In addition to necessary policy changes that the white papers discuss, we must also interrogate the relationship between toxic masculinity and meat consumption, specifically in the context of COVID-19. Toxic masculinity has been a hot-button term for the past few years and is used to describe how what society deems ‘being manly’ is can be harmful to women, as well as the men themselves. Similarly, hegemonic masculinity is the practice of structures and institutions that legitimize men’s dominant position in society and encourage toxic masculinities. In the autumn of 2020, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies posted a call for papers concerning the masculinities of COVID-19 in which the journal contended that “political and social appeals to act responsibly seem to be intertwined with different assumptions of what a good man should and should not do, not only among politicians but also in everyday encounters between obliging and obstructing citizens.” It asked scholars to research why men are dying at higher rates than women from the COVID-19 pandemic, how toxic masculinities played out on the federal level through policy creation, and in which ways fear of seeming weak and vulnerable have affected some men’s usage of commonsense COVID-19 protections, such as wearing masks.

These traits of what being a strong man means, which Salon described as “individualistic, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric,” has been reified by Trump’s re-election campaign. As the Washington Post reported, Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be “This potentially deadly illness is something to dominate or be dominated by.”  These anxieties about seeming ‘weak’ are an example of toxic masculinities that directly affect public health, especially as men have refused to wear masks in fear of being seen as weak and have “turned mask wearing into a battlefield in the culture war,” as argued in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. This threat of emasculation by something as simple as wearing a mask has made “flouting public health guidelines became synonymous with manliness,” as reported on in Mother Jones.

Not only do toxic masculinities put people’s physical safety at risk, but COVID-19 has also exacerbated mental health crises. In “Men, Suicide, and Covid-19: Critical Masculinity Analyses and Interventions,” Khan et al. found that “Excessive pressure to conform to traditional modes of masculinity increases the risk of men’s suicidal behavior.” Over 75% of men in a Cleveland Clinic survey reported increased levels of stress and worsened mental health. As Healthline reported, “When asked about their own health priorities and stressors, the men surveyed cited the economy and their family’s well-being ahead of their own personal health.” This is troubling, especially as men attempt suicide at higher rates than women and that suicide rates are increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is well accepted that toxic masculinities hurt men themselves and that this harm has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic itself—as well as the potential for future pandemics—can also be blamed on hegemonic masculinity. The connection between meat consumption and masculinity has been well researched, and have inspired books like Carol Adam’s keystone work, the Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she argues that “white supremacy and misogyny together upheld meat as white man’s food.” Simply, men consume more animal products because meat and masculinity are inherently intertwined because meat is seen as a stand-in for power and strength. Not only does this form of masculinity have an ecological and ethical footprint, but it also hurts the men themselves who face health risks connected to meat consumption, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  

In an interview concerning COVID masculinities conducted by history PhD student Matthew Sparks, an interviewee explained the anxieties COVID-19 created for their masculinity:

Men are supposed to be the protective, providers, go out and hunt the boar and bring back the meat, go out and fight and defend the home, protect the home and the hearth and all that kind of stuff, it’s kind of ingrained in us, even if we don’t necessarily relate to that kind of behavior, it is ingrained in our way of thinking and in our society…So, here we are in survival mode, and those perceived gender roles are just sporadically going everywhere…We’ve redefined and rearranged our roles in the household to where it’s like “what the fuck are we supposed to do right now?”

This confusion over identity and purpose illustrated above, as well as the perceived failing many men currently feel for not being able to provide for their families as unemployment rates rise, is another example of toxic masculinity harming men themselves. However, as explained earlier, toxic masculinity has a body count—when men see wearing masks as ‘feminine,’ people get sick and masculinity literally threatens public safety and health. When eating meat is seen as manly, zoonotic disease outbreaks can occur that can detrimentally harm our global community, when men feel pressured to uphold the ‘right’ kind of masculinity, men’s mental health suffers. In order to mediate future pandemics, it is imperative that we as men question what it means to be ‘manly.’ Toxic masculinity isn’t helping any of us—give yourself the freedom to pursue healthy forms of masculinity and let’s redefine what being a ‘man’ means together.  

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar, co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, and the founder of
Sparks & McNeill

Male Entitlement, Meat, and Sports

Not long ago, the Vegan Feminist Agitator published a piece on rape, meat,1 and “taking what is not ours.”  Marla writes:

In both rape and our role in oppressing animals, both can be framed as a birthright (“They were born for me to use as I wish,”) and as what is one’s due (“I spent money and this is what is owed me,”) and also presented in a way that completely belittles the experience of the victim (“Come on, don’t be so melodramatic; it wasn’t that bad.”). Only a sadistic psychopath would use such terms to justify violating another person, but we accept those terms without question on a daily basis involving the animals we consume. Underpinning both rape and eating animals, though, is the conceit that because we can do something, this confers the right to do it, no matter who is harmed or killed in the process.

Under patriarchy, that is, under male rule, feminized bodies (women, nonhuman animals, people of color, the environment, etc.) are understood to be resources.  Under patriarchy, the male ruling class is socialized to internalize their entitlement over their subjects.  Women exist to give sex, if they don’t give it, then it should be taken from them.  Animals exist to use and eat, we take that from them.  People of color exist as cheap or free labor, and that is also taken from them.  The environment is reframed as our “natural resources,” something to be freely taken.  In other words, the world is man’s oyster.  Notice even this phrase frames Nonhuman Animals and the environment as a birthright to men!

Remember in The Lion King when Mufasa explained to baby Simba that everything the light touches is theirs?  That’s kind of how male supremacy works.  It’s an unrestricted entitlement to everything, and it’s an entitlement that is taught.

Mufasa and Simba overlook their kingdom

This afternoon while I was working, football was playing on the television in the other room.  One of the commercials caught my attention.  I was hearing a man yelling at another man, “Are you a little baby boy, or are you a BIG STRONG MAN?”  Hearing this male-on-male gender policing is always disconcerting, but in the context of football, a hyper-masculinized activity, I was especially bothered.  Upon investigation, it turned out to be a commercial from Buffalo Wild Wings, a sports bar and restaurant chain that attracts groups of men who want to watch the game, gawk at young underpaid waitresses, and stuff themselves with the body part of chickens glazed with various sauces (BWW is really just a less sexist, less atrocious version of Hooters).  In this commercial, there was one piece of chicken body left, and the male subject was afraid to take it and offend his friends who were distracted and watching the game.  A football coach had sidled in and was belittling him for not living up to his masculine role.  The man reacts and stands up to reassert his masculinity.  He announces that he is a MAN and takes the piece of chicken.

Jackson Katz has written extensively on the dangers of male gender policing, that is, pushing men into tiny boxes that equate manhood with aggression, violence, and domination.  Not only do fathers, brothers, and other male peers take it upon themselves to teach and enforce “manhood” to other boys and men, but our media is constantly bombarding us with these norms (and the subsequent shame and other consequences associated with failing to uphold those norms).  Katz argues that masculinity (like all gender roles) is something that is taught.  It is not an innate, testosterone-driven tendency towards oppression (oppression is often naturalized, thus making it difficult to criticize).  Rather, it is a socially supported, systematic reinforcement of a male supremacist social rule.  Vulnerable groups are not only taught to submit, but privileged groups are taught to dominate.  Both are encouraged to view it as natural and normal, that is, if this largely invisible power structure is ever jostled into view in the first place.

Football Violent

In the BWW commercial, the coach firmly reminds the male subject, “You know that one’s yours, right?”  He asks if he is just a slow eater or if he is “not man enough to claim what’s rightfully yours?”  This is sending a very clear message to male viewers:  You are entitled, so if you don’t get what is rightfully yours, then be a man and take it.  As men come together to celebrate the highly competitive and violent American football games (with grossly underpaid cheerleaders in bikinis with pompoms happily bouncing around for their enjoyment), the game and the commercials remind them that manhood is defined by fighting for one’s entitlement to absolute ownership.  The chicken is yours, it is rightfully yours.

The preoccupation with meat in this context is not coincidental.  Carol Adams’2 theory on the sexual politics of meat suggests that Nonhuman Animals, a highly feminized group, are fetishized as the ultimate “man food.”  Men kill, grill, and stuff themselves with corpses with great celebration.  It is the taking of something (once a someone, someone who was quite unwilling, though often portrayed as very willing indeed) that gives them pleasure.  Male domination is seen as an entitlement, as something enjoyable and natural. A bonding experience.  Maria Veri and Rita Liberti tackle the sexual politics of meat in the sport wellspring of male supremacy in their 2013 publication “Tailgate Warriors: Exploring Constructions of Masculinity, Food, and Football.”  They write:  “[ . . . ] the mediated pairing of food and football in TWs [a football cooking show] action on the blacktop reinforces hegemonic masculinity as it displaces and marginalizes women and femininity” (242).  Meat, they suggest, is a symbol of this male supremacy and women are largely excluded from sports-related meat rituals (like cook-offs and tailgating).

Stacked plates of cooked chicken wings

In all the hoopla over male greatness embodied in plates of dead chickens, pornified women, football games, beer, and yelling, the voices of the tortured dead are conspicuously silent.  No one hears the hen and no one sees the hen.  She is invisible.  According to Carol Adams, she is an absent referent.  We know we are eating something of course, but we are completely oblivious to the someone she once was.  And who cares anyway?  “It’s” rightfully yours, isn’t “it”?

Sickly looking chickens in a factory farm setting


1.  It is important to note that “meat” is a euphemism for animal flesh.

2.  See our recommended reading section to learn more about Adams’ theory.

Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and is a member of the Research Advisory Council of The Vegan Society. She has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute and has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Environmental Values, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).

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