Why We Still Think Grilling Is for Men

Unpacking a decades-old stereotype that may be less accurate than we think it is

A presumably male griller checking to make sure he seared in the juices
A presumably male griller checking to make sure he seared in the juices
Nik MacMillan/Unsplash

Of the many, many gender stereotypes that still plague society, very few link men to any kind of food preparation. Grilling is one rare and notable exception.

While traditional gender codes dictate that anything happening in the kitchen is women’s domain, as soon as those duties step outside and onto the barbecue, it becomes men’s work.

With peak grilling season in full swing, Vox staffer Rebecca Jennings took a deep dive into the world of men and their grills in an attempt to unpack the bizarre stereotype.

As it turns out, the conception of grilling as masculine behavior is largely a 20th-century notion. Back when our earliest ancestors began cooking meat over flame, that particular practice was largely women’s work. After the hunting, men sat back and let the ladies of the hut handle the preparation.

So when did the switch occur that turned men into the uncontested grill masters? Citing a 2010 Forbes article by Meghan Casserly, Jennings links this stereotype like so many gendered practices still prominent in society today back to 1950s suburbanization. As homes with backyards became more popular, so did backyard barbecues. Meanwhile, parenting books at the time were beginning to emphasize the importance of paternal involvement. Add in a heavy dose of advertising designed to drive men into the backyard by promoting grilling as a sign of masculinity, and a pervasive stereotype was born.

While the connection between man and grill remains prominent, today the stereotype can’t help but carry a layer or two of irony. “Nearly every time I’ve attended an event where meat has to be grilled, not only are the men the ones doing the grilling (regardless of their actual meat-preparing prowess) but someone is always pointing out the fact that the men are doing the grilling,” writes Jennings. Aware of the legitimately weird gender essentialism that underscores the behavior but without any particular impetus to challenge it, we’re left to deal with any vague discomfort by merely cracking jokes about it. You know men and their grills.

However, as Jennings points out, the data seems to suggest that we may be joking about men lording over their grills more than they’re actually doing in the first place. The number of women manning grills increased from 20 to 25 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to a study cited in a 2014 Newsweek article. Meanwhile, the same article goes on to suggest that women may actually be better grillers than their male counterparts, which of course just reverses the same binary principles of gender essentialism that we started with.

When you fire up the grill this weekend, just keep in mind that even that act can’t help but either subvert or reinforce bizarre gender stereotypes, because for some reason we live in a world where even slapping a piece of meat on a barbecue is coded with decades if not centuries of tangled and nuanced gender implications. Happy summer!

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