Horizon organic whole milk was my favorite childhood drink. I loved its subtle thickness that coated my tongue and the creamy, silky texture as it moved across my palate. Although I had never been on a farm until eight, in my imagination, cows were happy and carefree, wandering on pastures and enjoying the beautiful sunshine.
I saw dairy cows for the first time when visiting my uncle in Texas, who took me to a local farm. The farm stretched out across acres of lush green fields with oak trees and patches of wildflowers. At the center was a barn. Inside it, I saw rows of individual concrete-floored pens with a metal roof that allowed sunlight to sneak in. Cows spent their entire life in these pens, not on the pasture as I believed.
My uncle taught me to milk cows. He connected teat cups with pumps and hoses, attaching them to cows’ udders. Then a single click on the control panel would prompt the machine to extract milk. From the cows’ mooing, I could sense their agony of being separated from calves only hours after giving birth. We stole their milk intended for the babies. I felt guilty and declined to try.
“Don’t be afraid! We have cut their horns,” my uncle wanted to persuade me. “This is what men do: rear cows, milk them, and turn them into beef after they can no longer milk.” The experience on the farm was my introduction to masculinity. I didn’t like the notion that equated manliness to physical strength and a desire for dominance, but it stopped me from taking up plant-based diets until recently. In American culture, meat consumption has long symbolized manhood. This ingrained association pushes vegan companies to affirm hegemonic masculinity when marketing their products. Nevertheless, men’s adoption of veganism epitomizes our burgeoning effort to revolutionize gender norms.
Animal slaughtering arose as a hallmark of masculinity during the westward expansion in the 19th century. White settlers and cowboys conquered the frontier by expulsing Native Indians from their ancestral lands and hunting buffaloes, which native people relied on for food and clothing. In his book Red Beef Republic, Joshua Specht, a History professor at University of Notre Dame, depicts the cruel incidents committed by cowboys. They enjoyed chasing a buffalo around before shooting it down with a rifle. They would then tie up the buffalo (often not dead after one shot), cut its tail as a trophy, and watch dogs devouring it alive (Specht, 2020). Cowboys could have shot the buffalo dead, but they instead tortured the animal to showcase their virility and emotional stoicism. These traits emerged as the definition of conventional masculinity.
Cattle ranching prevailed in the American West after cowboys eliminated buffaloes from grasslands. The cattle industry employed sturdy men to take on strenuous tasks. On the Texas farm, my uncle showed me the milking process, yet beef production was even more ruthless. In the early 20th century, once the animals entered a slaughterhouse, male workers struck their skull with a hammer or plunged a spear into their spinal columns until they died (Specht, 2020). Workers fastened the legs of the carcasses, suspended them upside down from hooks, and transferred them to the skinning station through an overhead rail. The animals were then stripped and exsanguinated before a butcher dissected them into pieces. All these tasks were physically demanding and similar to what cowboys had done to the buffaloes. Products of the cattle industry—milk and beef—thus became symbols of manliness.
Advertisements from the culinary industry reinforce this association. After WWII, companies like McDonald’s pioneered the convenient and affordable fast-food model that catered to American working-class men. Dishes such as burgers are heavy on meat. In a McDonald’s advertisement for the Big Mac in 1970, a boy savors the huge burger that he holds with both hands. McDonald’s emphasizes that the burger is “100% beef.” As cowboys assert their masculinity by slaughtering cattle and grilling steak on an open flame, we expect modern boys to build muscles by consuming the two large, juicy beef patties in a Big Mac. In contrast, salad commercials often feature girls holding bowls of fresh veggies and fruits with dressing drizzled over the top. This portrays veganism as feminine and reflects the stereotype that women should prioritize their appearance.
This gendered dichotomy is breaking down as men adopt veganism. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on building a plant-based agricultural system, reports that 19% of American men today often purchase meat substitutes, and 42% regularly buy non-dairy milk (2022). This represents a more than 20% growth from five years ago, while the sales of their conventional counterparts have been declining. Veganism has transformed from a niche, feminine lifestyle into a more mainstream one. Fast-food companies, despite marketing themselves as “dude food,” are expanding their menus to accommodate these preferences. In 2020, Burger King introduced its first meatless burger, the Impossible Whopper. It replaced beef in classic burgers with flame-grilled soy patties and was topped with lettuce and tomatoes. The Impossible Whopper’s commercial success among young men challenged the stereotype that plant-based dishes were exclusively for women.
Although male diners might embrace the Impossible Whopper as a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative, defenders of traditional masculinity feel upset that vegan food feminizes men. Paul Watson, a British right-wing YouTuber, coined the word “soy boy” to insult herbivorous men. In his 2.5 million views video “The Truth About Soy Boys,” he spread the myth that soy products reduced testosterone (the male sex hormone) and therefore made men less “manly” (2017). The hashtag #Soyboy soon went viral on Twitter. Many tweets expanded the word’s definition to encompass all men who didn’t conform to the cowboy archetype. After a high school shooting that killed 17 people in Florida in February 2018, Michael Ian Black, an American comedian and writer, tweeted about how hegemonic masculinity stimulated gun violence. Critics flooded the comment section, mocking his meekness and calling him a “soy boy” (2018). For them, a “soy boy” was not a real man because he wasn’t strong enough to survive the physical or mental trauma of violent crimes.
When creating the term “soy boy,” Watson assumed that men went vegan only because they embraced “feminine” traits such as compassion. This idea was rooted in the legacy of “real men eat meat” from the cowboy culture. However, the definition of meat is changing as food producers invest in animal-free protein alternatives.
Burger King attempts to demonstrate that neither the appearance nor the texture of the Impossible Whopper differs from that of regular products. Its TV commercial begins with a close shot of the vegetarian patty being roasted to golden brown and flames burning in the background. Heme, an ingredient extracted from soy-based food, gives the patty a reddish-brown hue that mimics the animal blood. The plant-based burger is visually pleasing and indistinguishable from a real one. The video then shows a group of men, all wearing cowboy hats and self-describing as beef lovers, taste test it. The camera captures their delighted expression. One man exclaims, “Damn that’s good!” while still chewing with his mouth full. These men are paradigms of modern cowboys—philistine and voracious. Their satisfaction indicates to the audience that Burger King designs the Impossible Whopper for male carnivores.
The commercial ends by presenting the burger along with a slogan “100% whopper, 0% beef.” This is in contrast to McDonald’s “100% beef” Big Mac ad, but both companies portray their burgers as men’s food. In an interview, Max Elder, a food ethics expert from Food Futures Lab (a Silicon Valley based research institute), remarked that “meat” is a socially constructed concept (Todd, 2019). Our perception depends less on whether a patty is made from the flesh of a cow than how it gets advertised. Burger King promotes the Impossible Whopper as a meaty dish—same tender texture, same “bloody” appearance, and made for the same male consumers, though no actual animal flesh. Such strategies affirm men that plant-based meat is another kind of meat and does not weaken their virility. If men adopt veganism for this reason, they are not subverting the gender norms in eating.
To be clear, a variety of animal-free food options are available beyond meat-imitation products. David Carter, a former NFL defensive lineman, switched to a vegan diet in 2014 for health reasons, years before meat substitutes became readily available in grocery stores. In an interview with GQ, a men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, he said that he obtained protein from soybeans and drank smoothies for vitamins (Darby, 2015). We wouldn’t expect him to be herbivorous when seeing him on the field. At 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing over 300 pounds, he towered over most other players. His large size and muscular physique made him a formidable opponent for anyone who lined up against him. Sturdy male plant-eaters like Carter can disentangle our perception of masculinity from dietary patterns.
The emergence of athletic men as vegan icons highlights the continued importance of physical fitness and emotional toughness in men’s identity, even when they abstain from consuming animal-derived products. In response to Watson’s insulting YouTube video, “soy boys” reclaimed the hashtag to celebrate their green eating habits. One user tweeted a picture of David Carter with the caption “300 lbs vegan #soyboy.” In the image, Carter was grasping two large barbells, and the veins in his forearms bulged as he lifted the weight. As sweat dripped down his chins, he remained unflinching. Citing Carter as an example, “soy boys” confronted the critics by emphasizing that their diets didn’t undermine their masculinity and in fact helped them build muscles and mental resilience.
Vegan commercials defend the conventional gender expectations because many men still perceive plant-based lifestyles as a challenge to their virility. Hank Rothgerber, a gender psychology professor at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, surveyed 125 undergraduate students on their dietary preferences. While most female students expressed remorse for meat consumption, male carnivores justified themselves on the ground that caring for animals contradicted their masculine identities (Rothgerber, 2013). To nudge men toward veganism, companies have to affirm their sense of self through customized advertisements. Men find herbivorous diets less threatening when they cannot distinguish vegan patties from real ones and see their macho peers partaking of salads and acai bowls.
Such marketing strategies reflect that we are in the early stage of promoting gender inclusivity. Compared to the students in Rothgerber’s survey a decade ago, we have become more open-minded to unorthodox gender expressions. In response to the shifting attitudes, Starbucks introduced gender-neutral bathrooms in 2016, and Nike will launch its first unisex shoe and apparel collection, the Sabrina 1, in summer 2023. Yet, right-wing politicians rally against this gradual meltdown of gender binary. In a campaign, North Carolina’s representative Madison Cawthorn lambasted the ongoing “emasculation” in American culture and called for mothers to “raise [their sons] into monsters” (Sarkar, 2021). Despite his seeming affinity for traditional gender ideals, ironically, he was caught cuddling with his male staffer on numerous occasions. Cawthorn exemplifies how political ideologies and societal expectations are currently holding men back from expressing their non-conforming identities, even when they have personally unsubscribed from the hegemonic masculinity doctrines.
Recent plant-based food advertisements embody this tension of our time. In a Beyond Meat commercial for its vegan cheeseburger, an old cowboy, dressed in his rugged attire and boots, holds the burger while awkwardly striking multiple yoga poses. He is the only man among a group of yoginis. This light-hearted ad reinforces yoga and veganism as feminine, but it marks a step towards gender-neutrality in comparison to past ads from McDonald’s and Burger King. It conveys that men, even cowboys, can venture into “feminine” lifestyles without jeopardizing their manliness. Transcending the boundary between meat and vegetables, meatless patties metaphorize the blurring line between rigid gender roles.
I’m optimistic that veganism can encourage men to resist sociopolitical pressure and define masculinity beyond the cowboy archetype. After coming back from the Texas farm, I could never forget the prison-like pens and the painful lowing of the cows. For years, I had felt guilty of consuming animal products but was afraid of being the only “soy boy” in a crowd of meat lovers at school. Haunted by the toxic masculinity on the farm, I feared to be judged on my compassion towards animals. I made up my mind to stop drinking dairy milk two years ago and converted to a flexitarian last year. I did so out of my environmental consciousness—at least, this was what I told people initially. Over time, I started to reflect: If I could adopt herbivorous diets to show my care for the environment, why should I feel ashamed of voicing out my concern for animal torment? This mindset has inspired me to reject the centuries-long demand that men must be tough on other creatures.
Last winter, my uncle visited me in Los Angeles. We had dinner in a steakhouse, where I ordered Beyond Steak, the beef-free steak from Beyond Meat. I shared a few slices with my uncle, who had never eaten “fake” steak. He was surprised by the meaty texture and the smoky flavor. Though he concluded that real beef tasted better, he came to agree with me that men could eat vegan and be compassionate without compromising their masculinity. He might never bite into another vegan steak again, but this was the start of a conversation to dismantle the dichotomy between cowboys and soy boys. Herbivorous men could spark up a similar conversation every time they order a meatless patty in front of their peers, sons, or dads. The message is clear: there is nothing wrong with a soft cowboy or a robust soy boy, as both are valid representations of manhood.
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