Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers could change the way we think about masculinity

Changing minds, one meatless patty at a time.
Changing minds, one meatless patty at a time.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Beyond Meat wants to change the way we eat. That means the plant-based protein company, currently in the midst of planning an initial public offering expected to put its value at $1.2 billion, needs to ensure that its products appeal to all kinds of people—including men.

That’s a tall order, given that meat-eating has long been associated with masculinity. And so the Los Angeles-based company, in its mission to make meatless choices mainstream, has leaned into the manliness of a hearty, red-liquid-dripping burger (even if that liquid isn’t blood). Its marketing strategies avoid potentially off-putting words like “vegan” or “veggie burger.” As Fast Company’s Rina Raphael puts it, both Beyond Meat and its biggest meatless competitor, Impossible Foods, “entice men where they can be found—in sports, at popular burger joints, and in the BBQ meat section at stores.”

Beyond Meat’s Instagram feed features endorsements from the NBA’s Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul (both also investors), while promoting deals with fast-food joints such as Del Taco and Carl’s Jr. (You can also chow down on an Impossible Burger at White Castle and Red Robin.) And both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods both boast that their burgers “bleed,” a choice that serves no purpose other than to more closely imitate the viscerally satisfying, caveman-like experience of biting into a juicy beef patty.

The strategy is a practical one: Rather than trying to push men to eat less meat and embrace plant-based diets, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods want to expand the definition of what meat is. “What consumers value about meat has nothing to do with how it’s made,” Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown told Quartz last year. “I mean, animals have just been the technology we have used up until now to produce meat, which is a food that is defined by its flavor profile, its sensory profile, its nutrition, utility, and stuff like that.”

If Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods succeed in instilling this new idea of meat, the cultural link between meat and masculinity may well remain intact. “We can’t just eat our way out of toxic masculinity,” says Max Elder, the research director at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research center in Silicon Valley.

Elder, who has a background in food ethics, thinks Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods won’t necessarily challenge gender norms. He points out that because these companies emphasize how similar their products are to meat in taste and texture, they may be less likely to make people question their meat-eating habits and engage in deeper reflections about the relationship between food and gender.

“Are these plant-based meat alternatives sufficiently different that they will challenge existing ideologies?” he asks. “I’m sort of skeptical that we can both preserve everything that these companies want from meat, and get rid of everything these companies don’t want from meat at the same time.” 

But there’s also a far more optimistic possibility—that the rise of meatless meat could be part and parcel of a broader cultural shift. Whether this will happen turns on a question of causality. We know that ideology shapes our behaviors. But can changing our behaviors—say, by chowing down on a meatless burger that looks and tastes just like a regular one—shift our ideology over time?

The social pressure to eat meat

The gender politics of meat-eating can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age. One 2017 analysis of the bones of 175 people who lived in China found that both men and women ate a combination of meat and grains during the Neolithic period. But by the Bronze Age, meat was off the menu for women—a change that corresponded with a downgrade in women’s social status. Meanwhile, the Book of Leviticus details how sacrificial meat was reserved for priests and the sons of Aaron, as Carol J. Adams explains in her 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat.

In the modern era, women in wealthy countries have far greater access to meat. Nonetheless, eating meat continues to be seen as a particularly macho thing to do, a concept that shows up everywhere from Hungry-Man frozen dinners to macho fast-food ads and Jordan Peterson’s all-meat diet (a mode of eating so on-brand with the controversial psychologist’s vigorous defense of the patriarchal order that it verges on self-parody).

There are certainly plenty of men today who have no qualms about swapping out steak or pulled pork for legumes, eggs, fish, and tofu. But research shows that making vegetarian choices still carries a certain gendered stigma. One 2011 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, published in the journal Appetite, found that people who eat vegetarian diets are perceived as both “more virtuous and less masculine” than their meat-eating peers.

“Manhood is still considered a precarious state, easily lost and requiring constant validation,” the researchers note—and because social conditioning has taught us that meat-eating is manly, ordering steak at a dinner date is a way to reaffirm one’s strength and virility.

And so, at a time when scientists and public-health experts are urging people around the world to eat less meat (pdf) because of health and environmental concerns, some men have been loathe to change their habits. One nationally representative survey (pdf) of over 1,000 Americans, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, found that men were less likely than women to reduce their meat consumption and more likely to say that meat was part of a healthy diet and that meals were boring, incomplete, or insufficiently filling without meat.

Emma Roe, an associate professor in human geography at the University of Southampton in the UK, suggests that the key to changing this mindset is to normalize vegetarian choices for men.

“Even men who don’t like meat, men who find it upsets their digestion, or have been asked by the doctor to eat less meat, still find it hard to choose the vegetarian option in public around other men,” she writes in a blog post. “What we have discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so.” She suggests that the more meatless options become widely available in everyday spaces—at fast-food restaurants and neighborhood cookouts—the less stigma men will feel about giving beef a pass.

Changing minds, one meatless patty at a time

Whatever an individual’s motivation for cutting back on meat, it’s likely to have health benefits. A 2017 article, published in the journal Gender, Place, and Culture, also suggests that when men change their meat-eating habits, they can wind up changing gender norms in their social circles.

Doing vegetarianism in interactions drives social change, contributing to the de-linking of meat from gender hegemony,” writes researcher Anne DeLessio-Parson, who conducted interviews with 23 male and female pescetarians and vegetarians in La Plata, Argentina.

In a culture where meat-heavy asados play a huge role in national identity, the men in the interviews said they’d faced some pushback after going vegetarian. But they fought back, pushing an alternative model of masculinity in the process. “Armed with moral clarity, science, and ‘rational’ arguments, they confronted meat-eaters,” DeLessio-Parson reports. “They redefined meat-eating as a behavior that communicates weakness, rather than strength, and once established, gained respect and in some cases even admiration from others.”

Moreover, she notes that on a practical level, men who become vegetarian upset the traditional gendered division of space at an asado, in which men cook meat on the grill while women prepare salads inside. “If a vegetarian man does not want to be ‘complicit’ and see meat on the grill, where should he go? Will he be accepted in the kitchen, where women traditionally prepare salads? What happens when everyone heads for the shared table?”

One needn’t rely on men giving up meat entirely in order to see how more men eating plant-based meat could spark bigger shifts in gender roles and relations. As Adams explains in a blog post, popular culture often suggests that “refusing meat raises questions about one’s masculinity and sexuality.” She cites a German ad campaign that proposed the slogan “tofu is gay meat” and a Brooklyn deli that peddled a vegetarian sandwich called the “Gayboy.” Similarly, Michael Ian Black recounts in a New York Times op-ed being called “soy boy” as a slur insulting his manhood, after he posted a thread about masculinity on Twitter.

A son who grows up watching his father tucking into a crunchy salad or a vegan sausage, however, receives at least some level of indoctrination against such stereotypes. That’s a big deal, given that boys are still growing up with a rigid model of masculinity. In a 2018 nationally representative survey (pdf) of 1,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 19, for example, conducted by Plan International USA, an overwhelming 82% of boys said that they had heard someone criticize a boy for “acting like a girl.” Parents play a big role in socializing their children’s ideas about gender, according a 2018 brief published in the Journal of Adolescent Health—a power that can be used for good or for ill.

Similarly, a man who feels perfectly comfortable ordering a meatless burger in front of his friends at a restaurant signals to his peers that it’s all right to deviate from strict gender norms—in eating habits, yes, but perhaps in other ways, too.

On that front, Elder says there’s reason for optimism. “Insofar as Beyond Meat is creating the permission space for eaters to interrogate their food in a new way, I’m hopeful and I’m happy,” he says. Most problems with our current food system, he notes, can be traced back to a lack of critical thinking about the alternative possibilities we might explore. The marketing around Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and other plant-based and “clean meat” options will play a crucial role in determining the kinds of conversations we have about meat and masculinity, Elder added.

A recent Carl’s Jr. ad for Beyond Meat burgers may offer a hint at what we can expect. For years, Carl’s Jr. was known for its highly sexualized ads featuring Paris Hilton, Kate Upton, and other scantily-clothed actresses and models biting into burgers—messaging that promoted the idea that “women, like chicken and steak, exist to be salivated over and consumed by men,” as Deena Shanker wrote for Quartz.

In 2017, the company announced that it was forgoing this kind of advertising—not because of any ideological awakening, but simply because sex wasn’t selling the way it used to. Its Beyond Meat spot, which debuted earlier this year, offers insight into its new direction.

In the advertisement, the camera zooms out from a closeup of a tough, grizzled cowboy to reveal that he’s in the midst of a beachside yoga class, a Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star (a burger made with a Beyond Meat patty) by his side. “When the wagon of change comes, you ride along with it,” he declares, striking a warrior pose. While he’s surrounded mostly by women in the yoga class, there are at least one or two men in the mix with him.

The message is clear: The tough cowboy can eat meatless burgers and do yoga, and still be himself.

Much like Carl’s Jr., the ad isn’t perfect. It doesn’t erase the sexist history of the fast-food chain or meat in general. And guys like this cowboy—that is, men who are looking to cut back on meat—are still in the minority. But hey: It’s a start.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here