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Emily Contois 2020's Covid Thanksgiving is the perfect time to relax the holiday gender binary

Even at holiday meals, the patriarchy places men atop a hierarchy that subordinates women. But it creates expectations that are bad for men, too.
Enough For All
A Thanksgiving that resists the patriarchy is a better day, and a more just day, for all of us.Getty Images/Fototrove

Thanksgiving amid the coronavirus has necessarily changed a lot of things about the holiday. For one thing, dinners and gatherings are going to be smaller, hopefully. This more chill Nov. 26 may provide the perfect moment to break down the gender binary of the holiday table. Relaxing the patriarchy can give all of us — women, men, everybody — something to be grateful for.

This more chill Nov. 26 may provide the perfect moment to break down the gender binary of the holiday table.

Even at holiday meals, the patriarchy places men atop a gender hierarchy that subordinates women. But it creates expectations that are bad for men, too. Gender norms demand that men be competitive, especially at Thanksgiving. One of my college students told me that her parents engage in a friendly turkey competition every year. Her mom has perfected a traditional oven-roasted turkey with a salt brine, while her father tries new methods like smoking and grilling, often winning the day with his confident experiments. If culinary competition brings you a genuine rush, go for it. But you can also take your foot off the gas.

Nowhere is this double-edged sword sharper than when boiling vats of oil are involved. Masculinity can push men to take risks and court danger unnecessarily in all sorts of activities. The culinary arts aren't immune to masculine bravado. Deep-frying a turkey purportedly produces a moist bird with less cooking time, but not without hazards. A still slightly frozen or wet turkey can catch fire and cause an explosion within seconds. Deep-fried mishaps land dozens of folks in the emergency room every November, causing needlessly injured bodies, and egos, especially for men.

Even as families increasingly share culinary duties, Thanksgiving can also be a day for embracing, and reverting to, tradition. Even if a woman procured and prepared the turkey, gender norms often put a man at the head of the table to carve the bird. Norman Rockwell's famed "Freedom From Want," one of the more famous depictions of all-American (albeit outdated) family life, puts the family patriarch at the apex of the illustration. But again, some men might not be suited for, or want, that role. If a man in your family is an excellent carver, sure, give him the knife, but it's best to assign this duty based on actual skills. As a friend told me: "At my house, we do not let Dad carve the turkey. It would look like a crime scene." And that's OK.

Beyond how and by whom it's cooked and carved, the turkey boasts masculine prowess as the meaty king of the holiday menu and the centerpiece of the table. The bird's symbolism necessitates negotiation for vegetarians and vegans, particularly for men. More women are vegans than men, in part because our culture links meat with masculinity. Whether conjuring histories of hunter gatherers, cavemen cooking over fire or the diets of contemporary strength athletes, meat is an archetypal masculine food. Because of this, some men still feel that eschewing meat appears effeminate.

Although gendered stereotypes about male vegans are thankfully waning, just in the last year The Atlantic, The Washington Post and Fox News all published stories to address the unfounded rumor that the soy in Impossible Whoppers could cause men to grow breasts. An inclusive holiday table is one that welcomes all guests, letting anyone decline to eat the turkey (or ham, or whatever) if they want to.

The problems don't end with turkey. Thanksgiving enthusiasts gush over their favorite side dishes, whether stuffing, rolls or macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, our culture reinforces the idea that men have large appetites that demand satisfaction with plates piled high. On one hand, think of Hungry-Man frozen meals, once marketed on the front of the package by their weight — "over 1 lb. of food" — with options like homestyle meatloaf, fried chicken and Salisbury steak, each accompanied by mashed potatoes and gravy. On the other hand, gender stereotypes demand women to be dainty eaters, to restrain their appetites, to order a salad rather than steak. Luckily, these stereotypes are loosening their holds.

It’s one thing to genuinely express love through food. It’s another to feel that such actions are required.

The idea that "food is love" has guided women's cooking and feeding behaviors for decades, maybe centuries. But it's one thing to genuinely express love through food. It's another to feel that such actions are required, that this culinary effort exemplifies good womanhood itself.

And many home cooks, who are disproportionately women, are feeling particularly burned out right now after preparing three meals a day since March on top of work, schooling and all else. Obviously, plenty of men do their part, but the gender politics of home cooking — day to day and especially on Thanksgiving — dictate that the majority of this labor often falls to women. One of my students told me about his grandma, who starts Thanksgiving preparations days ahead of time. She may genuinely like doing it, but women aren't born cooks, nor are they born to cook. Another student wakes up at 4:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving with her mom to start the holiday pies. Yet another student told me that the women in her family do all the cleanup, too, while the men sit at the table to talk or watch football on TV.

This Thanksgiving, lots of things are in flux, and society faces an anxious and uncertain winter. If you think cooking an elaborate, delicious menu and dressing up in your holiday best to eat it will help recapture a sense of normalcy, that's great. For others, sweatpants and takeout might fit the bill. And that's great, too. What's more, ordering in this year — whether a traditional Thanksgiving feast or something else entirely — provides an opportunity to support local restaurants who need us, now more than ever, given the pandemic's effects.

A Thanksgiving that resists the patriarchy is a better day, and a more just day, for all of us.