Can You Be a Vegetarian and a “Real Man”?

vegan men

If Joel Stein wants to be troll-y, usually I’d just let him. But his piece in last month’s Playboy, “Stop Picking on Vegetarians” (not available online), taps into a larger cultural problem—the pressure on men to kill things—so I feel I should say something. It doesn’t matter how many manly men become high-profile vegetarians and vegans, from Bill “Blow Jobs” Clinton to, most recently, Jay-Z, at least for a few weeks. Brad Pitt, James Cameron, and Don Imus are vegans. But type “vegans are” into Google, and the autofill suggestions are: annoying, crazy, stupid, unhealthy, and fat.

In a survey reported by Psychology Today, 15 percent of people who try vegetarianism and gave it up did so because of social stigma. The magazine quotes philosopher Gary Steiner: “What were once the most straightforward activities become a constant ordeal.” At least they do when those around you are the kind of dime-a-dozen dicks you find in comments sections. Ironically, I became a vegetarian because of social pressure, or at least influence: in college, I had friends, classmates and bartenders who made rational and coherent arguments as to why I should give up eating meat. They made sense to me, so I did. (To those who say vegans are jerks: I mean, sure, I bet some are, but stop being so sensitive. It’s possible to discuss ideas without having to take everything so personally. Lots of non-vegans are also jerks; lots of people are assholes.) I was lucky to have accommodating people around me: I didn’t have the kind of parents, for example, that you find on sitcoms, who tell you if you’re not eating chicken like everyone else you’re assed out if dinner.

But I know this isn’t even close to everyone else’s experiences. People really do have those mean sitcom parents. And even meaner friends, or at least people in their social circles, whose attitudes might be nicely captured in that Burger King advertisement from the middle of the last decade, “I Am Man” (take that, Helen Reddy!), a “manthem“:

I am man, hear me roar,
In numbers too big to ignore,
And I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food!
Cause my stomach’s starting to growl,
And I’m going on the prowl,
For a Texas Double Whopper!
Oh, yes, I’m a guy!
I’ll admit I’ve been fed quiche!
Wave tofu bye-bye!
Now it’s for Whopper beef I reach.
I will eat this meat
‘Till my innie turns into an outie!

On the YouTube page, there’s of course an enlightened, reasonable debate. “all the dislikes on this video are from chicks,” writes one commenter. “Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here,” writes another one. “Whatever man, come back when you’re not a nerd or a girl!” goes another. And so on. I know, I know: what’s the point of writing a thinkpiece combating YouTube trolls? But this kind of thinking is more pervasive than that—even from Joel Stein in the pages of Playboy!

Stein’s problem is that men have allowed vegetarianism to be feminized, even though it’s pretty masculine. (Once men hunted and women gathered, but “now that supermarkets rotisserie cook our factory-farmed chickens, there’s not even the danger of cutting a finger with a kitchen knife.” This leaves out the millions of hunters in America, but whatever.) The problem is that you can’t get lentils at sports bars, that names like “tofurkey” and “fakin’ bacon” make it sound “like you’re having dinner with Hello Kitty.”

Men aren’t helping… Male vegetarians never ride around blasting Gwar from Hummers outfitted with gun racks (for skeet shooting). They always have ponytails and girlfriends who boss them around, and they listen to Phish.

You might say he’s “joking,” but I think that fails to understand the essence of jokes, of humor, of comedy, and of making people laugh. I guess at my most-generous, he’s being “jokey,” in that he wants to frame his thoughts in unserious language and therefore not say anything worth saying? (Someone defend this sentence: “Hitler was a vegetarian, and though he had plenty of foibles, he certainly was manly.”) Though he claims to be fighting for the legitimization of plant-based diets, he spends most of the piece reinforcing problematic stereotypes:

Whenever I’m in a manly situation, which is basically never, I’m going to order something vegetarian. As my chin drips with the blood of pomegranate seeds, I will tell my poker buddies, hockey fans or Rush concertgoers that I sustain myself with the earthy toil of farmers. Unless there are some hot chicks nearby. I don’t want them to think I’m a wimp.

Ba dum ch! But, really everybody, you’re never going to get anywhere fretting about these outward signifiers of masculinity. If you want men and women to see you as “a man,” just be decent: be strong not just in your body but in your convictions, in your sense of right and wrong; help other people when you can, and animals, too. Read, be kind, stick up for yourself when it matters. Be the best person you can be, and no one but the trolliest losers will challenge your legitimacy.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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  1. “I have here a prospectus from another [socialist] summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian’. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.”