Feminist Food Utopias in the Digital Age: Tasting Through Our Eyes (Food and Technology Special Series, Part 1)
The internet is not utopia. An algorithm is not a substitute for human interaction.
This piece serves to continue the conversations begun by the 2014 piece, "Regarding the State of Scholarly Food Blogging." It is also part of a special series on Food and Technology.
While the rise of popular internet usage in the 1990s and twenty-first century has allowed lesbian, straight, and queer women new places to network, the loss of physical intentional women’s space is noticeable. The simplest example is the loss of the women’s/lesbian bar scene in the United States and Canada—a phenomenon decried in think pieces over the last few years. Concurrently, not only food communities, but marked feminist food communities, are spreading and have been bolstered by digital technologies such as social media platforms. How do we reconcile the paradoxes inherent to building online feminist food communities during the digital age?
The internet has its flaws. While once conceived as a utopian solution it has let down feminists. The hierarchical power differentials that exist in the physical world are often replicated in the digital realm. Furthermore, while the internet is useful in connecting queer identified peoples and feminist activists that may be physically isolated, users must know what they are looking for to begin the search and have access to that technology. This question of online/offline communities and even questioning that binary distinction has been analyzed by media scholars such as Ann Travers in “Parallel subaltern feminist counterpublics in cyberspace,[i]Amy Jo Kim with Community Building on the Web,[ii] and John Croate in “Cyberspace Innkeeping.”[iii] The general consensus is that the general idea of communities remains consistent but the tools used for communication influence the flavor of the communities. As Fred Turner argues in From Counterculture to Cyberculture,[iv] the internet and its technologies grew out of countercultural movements and community building efforts and I am neither attempting to denigrate the libratory and community building potential of the internet and likewise I am not a techno-utopist. None of these technologies provides a single solution, rather they offer tools to create spaces online and offline in which community building can form.
Facebook groups and pages; Instagram accounts; and personalized websites dedicated to feminist food discussions, including Food, Feminism, and Fermentation; The Feminist Food Club of Berlin; and Parebere Forum, invite and welcome new audiences. These platforms create new communities that may never all share a dish together but can digitally dish about the new restaurant a user tried or the trick to making a recipe work. The food communities in the digital age are thus built on the visual rather than taste or the tactile. This new kind of relationality around food is not limited to the feminist food sites, yet it is the intentional marking of the space as “feminist” that adds another layer of complication.
In the physical space of a lesbian bar or feminist restaurant, women can push their plates to their companions and say “taste this and tell me what you think;” in the digital realm, photographic evidence of a meal, a dish, a carrot pulled straight from the ground or the produce bin serves as the conduit through which to share the experience. Rather than the male gaze, feminist food communities rely on a kind of feminist food gaze, sensually consuming produce and dishes alike through their eyes rather than their tongues. Do digital technologies not just change how we relate to one another—a sociological question plaguing us during the past two decades? Do these technologies impact our relationship with food… and thus our relationship with consumption… and thus the ability to participate in feminist consumption? How do digital platforms impact our roles as eaters, producers, and as feminists?
The internet is not utopia but it is not dystopia either. All of these technologies for community building have their attributes and their drawbacks. So I will return with the question that I started with: How do we reconcile the paradoxes inherent to building online feminist food communities during the digital age? Do these technologies not only change how we conceive of feminist food but of how we believe ourselves to be human?
[i] Travers, Ann. "Parallel subaltern feminist counterpublics in cyberspace." Sociological Perspectives 46.2 (2003): 223-237.
Travers argues that the historically exclusive nature of public spaces and discourses is beyond dispute. She continues, that “while feminist and “other” counterpublics have provided alternative ways of organizing public interaction and dialogue, these have remained largely invisible to nonparticipants. New information technologies afford new possibilities for feminist counterpublics to influence the norms of participation and boundaries between insiders and outsiders in mainstream public spaces.”
[ii] Kim, Amy Jo. Community building on the web: Secret strategies for successful online communities. Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc., 2000.
[iii] Coate, John. "Cyberspace innkeeping: Building online community." Reinventing technology, rediscovering community: Critical explorations of computing as a social practice (1997): 170-172.
[iv] Belasco, Warren J. Appetite for change: How the counterculture took on the food industry. Cornell University Press, 2014.