Department of Theatre and Film
When a Weirdo Stirs the Pot: Food and Masculinity in Ratatouille
In the summer of 2007, an unusual new character joined the selected elite of celebrity chefs, making a sudden and remarkable appearance on the silver screen and in the imagination of audiences interested in food and cooking: the rat Remy, the protagonist of the smash hit Ratatouille (Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava). Within a two years period, four other feature-length animated movies hit theaters in the US and all over the world, apparently sharing a similar focus on eating and ingestion: Bee Movie (Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith, 2007), Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008), The Tale of Desperaux (Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen, 2008), and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009). Their plots develop around common themes of masculinity, coming of age, tensions between parents and children, and food as a tool of self-expression and personal assertion, unfurling against backgrounds and dynamics affected by not overtly addressed but nevertheless significant class issues. Through their focus on food preparation and consumption, these stories also deal with powerful and widely popular topics such as friendship, love, and community. These elements set them apart from other successful animated works from the same period, including the sequels and spin-offs of already established franchises like Toy Story and Shrek, the visually groundbreaking Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007), and the academy-award winning Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) and Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009). Furthermore, Ratatouille and the other food-related animated movies introduced an original visual approach to products, dishes, and cooking, illustrated with extreme care and attention to detail that signals food’s centrality in the plots and in the protagonists' personal growth. To a certain extent, these movies display the popular aesthetics referred to by some critics as “food porn,” which favors extreme close ups, amplified sounds, and the attention to glistening and textured ingredients (McBride).
This article aims to unpack the connections that narrative and visual elements in Ratatouille establish between food, status, and different models of masculinity, and the ways the film engages viewers about what it means to grow into being a successful—and, more specifically, male—adult. Cooking and eating offer viewers untapped opportunities to reflect on the ideas and behaviors that constitute acceptable masculinities, also in terms of prestige and respect. What matters is not only the food that protagonists enjoy and ingest, but also the norms, values, and practices about eating they embody, especially in terms of gender and class identity.
It is in fact the reflection about what can be considered normal, and to what point society can deal with disruption and unique individuals, that constitutes the core of the movie. Food assumes important emotional values, allowing a weird character to express himself, but at the same time to participate in the advancement of his community. By dealing with an aspect of life—eating—that is often perceived as simply innate and motivated by biological needs, Ratatouille naturalizes cultural bias, social dynamics, and power hierarchies by turning the negotiations and the tensions that underpin them into entertaining adventures. This ideological move is particularly relevant as an important segment of the target audience is constituted by children, who might mimic some of the behaviors they see performed by their beloved characters.
A Spectacle for Foodies
In Ratatouille, as in the other food-related animated movies of the same period, not all the protagonists are actually human. Far from being surprising for filmgoers, the presence of animals has been quite common in animated films since their inception, from Winsor McCay’s charming Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914 and George Harriman’s 1916 shorts featuring Krazy Kat (Bendazzi). Their appearance did not constitute a huge cultural break, as traditional children’s fables and folk stories often feature talking and thinking animals (in particular rabbits, rats and mice) due to their familiarity and their enduring presence among humans. However, it wasn’t until the arrival of Mickey Mouse, created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928, that a rodent acquired a definite personality and stole the scene. Over time, the mouse became the symbol of a whole media empire (Giroux and Pollock). While the Disney character presents heavily anthropomorphic traits, the rats in Ratatouille maintain their animal shape and movements. At the same time they are endowed with opposable thumbs and very expressive eyes and mouths that allow viewers to better understand their actions and feelings. By projecting conflicts and tensions onto sentient beings that are not human but are similar enough to allow identification, the movie maintains its dramatic energy and its emotional impact without forcing viewers to directly address uncomfortable issues.
The other defining element in Ratatouille, food, is also a mainstay of animated cartoons. It has been used not only to create funny situations and provide for unadulterated physical comedy, but also to push the plot ahead, outlining characters, and allowing emotional interactions among them. Eating is a truly universal activity, with enormous emotional and cultural power, and it is able to elicit visceral reactions and passionate opinions. The familiarity of food and the practices related to it facilitate the viewers’ identification with the characters and events they see on the screen. In particular, children can immediately relate to food out of personal experience even when other topics and jokes—directed to the adult viewers who take them to the movies and buy DVDs for them—might go over their heads.
To optimize the impact on younger consumers, cross marketing promotes popular cartoon characters through figurines in fast food meals, gadgets, food packaging, food advertising, and commercials. 1 An interactive website was dedicated to Ratatouille, which was also promoted through social media (Gutiérrez San Miguel, Acle Vicente, and Herrero Gutiérrez). The toy company Mattel marketed a Kitchen Chaos playset including culinary instruments and accessories, and a less gastronomic Sewer Splashdown playset focused on Remy’s adventures in the underbelly of Paris. LeapFrog® Leapster® released a Ratatouille-themed learning game aimed at helping children learn to “sort food by color and food group” and “learn recipes to help Linguini prepare a great meal,” while THQ issued Ratatouille: Food Frenzy for Nintendo DS and Ratatouille for the other game systems, to mediocre reviews. The well-planned transmediation, motivated by commercial interests, multiplies the interactions between children and the movie’s character, potentially reinforcing the impact of the gender and class dynamics embedded and naturalized in the story.
Ratatouille was popular beyond children. Released by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney, the movie became an immediate global hit, earning over 47 million dollars in its opening weekend in July 2007. Produced with an estimated budget of 150 million dollars, it grossed a total of almost 616 million dollars at box offices worldwide (IMDB), which suggests that adults—who ultimately pay for movie tickets—reacted positively to its content, narrative, and visual style. The movie does contain situations, puns, and double entendres that most children would not necessarily understand or find interesting, indicating the filmmakers’ intention to connect also with grown-ups as important targets. We see similar adult-oriented material in most successful animated movies released in the past few years. In fact, in the last two decades adult audiences have shown growing interest in cartoons as a visual medium, as the establishment of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature category in 2001 and successful TV series such as South Park, Family Guy, and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming demonstrate. This echoes the role of cartoons in the early days of cinema, when animated shorts were produced as adult entertainment and often used as accompaniment to the main feature movie.
At the same time, food—the main focus in Ratatouille—has enjoyed a renewed and sometimes novel interest across all media, reflected in the success of TV celebrity chefs—incidentally, mostly male.2 Food is increasingly visible in contemporary Western popular culture, influencing the way we perceive and represent ourselves as individuals, as consumers, and as citizens. A growing literature is dedicated to explore how food frequently finds itself at the center of communication and of significant social interactions, functioning as a relevant marker of power, cultural capital, class, ethnicity, race, and gender.3 Movies are not exempt from a growing presence of food, cooking, and eating, to the point of prompting discussions among critics, scholars, and moviegoers about the possible emergence of a “food film” genre.4 Ratatouille’s narrative reflects the growing relevance of media in the culinary world by including a starred restaurant, a celebrity chef and his TV shows, a popular cookbook, and a powerful food critic.
The movie, besides generating innumerable reviews in newspapers, magazines, and websites, has been analyzed as reflecting the relevance of cooking in the civilizing process (Brandes and Anderson), as an instance of the complex relationship between haute cuisines in France and America (Simpkins), as an introduction to the historical dimension of French culinary culture (Lair), and even as an example of how movies have been dealing with business failure around the global financial crisis of 2008 (Bitetti). In this article, I will focus primarily on issues of gender, and in particular masculinity, as among 15 main characters in the movie, only one is a woman (Michael et al.). Furthermore, many of the emotional and dramatic elements of the narrative hinge around father-son and male mentor-mentee relationships. I will also explore the movie’s negotiation of cultural norms and class, particularly in relation to gender.
Women have been especially prominent in food movies since the mid-1980s, starting from the seminal Tampopo (Jûzô Itami, 1985), Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) and Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992). However, the connection between men and food has recently come to the foreground. Movies like Big Night (Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, 1996), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989), Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994), Vatel (Roland Joffé, 2000) and Dinner Rush (Bob Giraldi, 2000) complicate the connotations of food preparation in both domestic and professional environments. Men prepare food in comedies (Spanglish [James L. Brooks, 2004]), gangster movies (Goodfellas [Martin Scorsese, 1990]), and romantic dramas (Mostly Martha [Sandra Nettelbeck, 2001] and its 2007 remake No Reservations [Scott Hicks, 2007]). They eat alone and with other men before a killing spree (The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972]) and after multiple murders (Pulp Fiction [Quentin Tarantino, 1994]). In countless movies, adult and young men share the family table, destroy it, make it into a battlefield, or impose their rule over it. This trend is particularly interesting because, despite the traditional prevalence of men in high-end professional cuisines and the appeal of male celebrity chefs in TV shows, magazines, and books, cooking tasks connected with care work are still often perceived as a feminine and possibly emasculating.5 Arguably with the exception of the occasional outdoor grilling or weekend breakfast, domestic food procurement and preparation tend to be considered as women’s work.6 In the case of Ratatouille, filmic representations of practices, norms, and values about food can establish, reinforce, reproduce, or question cultural assumptions about masculinity and gender relations.
There’s a Rat in the Kitchen
The movie manages to combine two elements that would appear otherwise mutually exclusive: rodents and haute cuisine. Country rat Remy is gifted with innate culinary good taste and uncanny cooking skills that put him at odds with the rest of his community, in particular his father, who prefers to steal and feed on garbage. Although he cannot speak to humans, Remy can understand them and read their writing. He is attracted to the humans’ ability to approach eating in creative and refined ways, quite removed from simple appetites and instincts. He is especially fascinated by the motto “everybody can cook” from the late celebrity chef Gusteau, whose books and TV shows increase his love for food. When his colony has to abandon its lair because of his culinary mishaps, Remy gets lost in the sewers but ends up in Gusteau’s restaurant in Paris. Here he befriends the clumsy Alfred Linguini, a young man devoid of any culinary flair who is content with working as a garbage boy and whose inept culinary attempts allow Remy to reveal his gift. Remy learns how to control Linguini’s movements by hiding under his toque and yanking his unruly red hair. The young man can finally cook, although vicariously, and his (but actually Remy’s) culinary creations manage to muster attention from both patrons and critics. The restaurant’s current owner, chef Skinner, who is only interested in banking on Gusteau’s name to launch mass-produced ethnic frozen products, discovers that Linguini is actually Gusteau’s son, a fact that not even the youngster knows. Despite Skinner’s attempts to hide this fact, the truth comes to light and Linguini becomes a media star, with help from Remy and the tough-but-honest Colette, the only female cook at Gusteau’s. Unnerved by the challenging attitude of food critic Anton Ego, Linguini quarrels with Remy and is forced to reveal the existence of a secret animal helper to all the cooks in the restaurant. Everybody abandons him but Colette, while Remy tries to get back at him by allowing the rats from his colony into the restaurant pantry. Eventually, with the collaboration of his fellow rats, Remy saves the dinner service and prepares a ratatouille for Ego. The simple but perfectly executed country dish reminds the food critic of his childhood, when his mother used to make it to comfort him. Despite Ego’s glowing review, the health department shuts Gusteau’s down due to the presence of rodents. In the end, the critic finances Colette and Linguini’s new hip bistro, where Remy can finally express his talent and the rats can enjoy their own space, where they dine on good food rather than stolen garbage.
This brief plot outline reveals the relevance of food as well as its pervasiveness and visual impact. To ensure detailed representations of dishes and restaurant work, the producers made sure that all talent involved got a good grasp of the material aspects of cooking. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “For six years, members of Pixar Animation Studios took classes at Bay Area cooking schools and channeled the artistry of Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of Napa Valley's critically acclaimed French Laundry restaurant” (Finz, n.p.). Keller also created the film’s modern version of the traditional ratatouille. Sub-surface light scattering, a technique that had been used on the characters’ skin in The Incredibles makes the ingredients appear translucent, and new CG techniques render the food appetizing and realistic (Neumann). According to a promotional podcast, graphic simulations were conducted on pictures of actual dishes prepared in the studio so that artists could make food relax and drape on itself. Great attention was paid to the textural and optical qualities of steam, heat waves, and bubbling sauces (Ratatouille Podcast #7). Ratatouille also experiments with the visual representation of sensory experiences, such as when Remy and his brother Emile taste food and attempt to pair various ingredients. In this occurrence, the movie shifts from lifelike images towards more abstract, but still very accessible graphic renditions of personal perceptions of flavors and aromas.
The movie’s worldwide success can be partly attributed to its reception by captive audiences who are fully attuned to the urban foodie culture thriving on media hype, the vast popularity of star chefs, and food-related issues such as local sourcing, sustainability, and safety.7 Critic Ego’s explanation of the movie’s motto “everybody can cook” confirms this connection, which also reflects the dreams of many food lovers to become professionals: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Remy fully embodies this democratic approach to cuisine, represented in real life by many contemporary celebrity chefs who were not classically trained but use their creativity to explore new paths. The perspective clearly resonates with all those who, feeding on the media frenzy, fancy themselves advanced domestic cooks or want to turn their passion for food into a career (Ketchum). Banking on the widespread interest in kitchen and the cultures that sustain them, as indicated by the ever-growing numbers of TV shows, magazines, and websites dedicated to the topic, the film documents the functioning of a classic French restaurant, the structure of the kitchen brigade, and the role of each of its members with great detail. It pays attention to the intricacies of ingredients and preparations, both from visual and technical points of view. These representations appeal to audiences that have become familiar with these elements thanks to reality shows, books, and social media that erode the front- and backstage nature of the restaurant business, allowing the general public to see what happens inside professional kitchens, where patrons are usually not allowed (Fine). As Gwen Hyman successfully argues, this lack of boundaries empowers customers and food lovers, reducing the prestige that separates them from the stars of the culinary world (Hyman).
Beyond a seemingly democratic approach to food and cooking, the movie embraces French culinary traditions, both haute cuisine and cuisine de pays, as the epitome of good taste and refinement. Remy, despite being a rat, embodies these superior qualities: he is clean and refuses to walk on all fours to avoid soiling food with dirty front paws, a behavior that all well-behaved children should identify with. On the other hand, Remy’s rat colony comes across as belonging to a working-class status. Besides being apparently all male, the rats live in close quarters, near humans but hidden in abject places (under roofs, in the sewers), and proliferate in huge numbers, literally dwelling on top of each other. They are dirty and uncouth, as they feed on garbage, leftovers, and stolen food. They need to be steamed clean and purified before they are allowed to help Remy prepare food in the restaurant. While they understand humans, they are not able to speak to them. This silent and efficient—although unskilled—labor force can be taught repetitive and mindless tasks whose precise completion allows the civilized, creative chef to take on the role of guide and leader. Without a big stretch, one could see in the rat workers a reflection of the quiet, omnipresent immigrant workers who allow the American restaurant industry to thrive, but are often treated as foreign and inscrutable. The embedded message clearly points to taste and food-related behaviors as markers of class distinction.
Eat your Way to Masculinity
In the movie, there is nothing domestic or ordinary about food. Even common dishes like soup and ratatouille allow the protagonist to assert himself as extraordinary in the public sphere of a professional kitchen, traditionally a male domain (Druckman 2010). Remy achieves legitimate and socially acceptable male adulthood by pushing the envelope of established norms. In mainstream popular culture, and in particular in Hollywood blockbusters, masculinity tends to be ideologically presented as an essential, immutable trait that certain individuals possess and others do not. As such, it can also be conquered or taken away from other men. Many movies embrace the narrative of the young man trying to succeed in his goal while proving his worthiness to be considered a “real” man. Scratching the surface of narratives and characters, it becomes immediately clear that masculinity is far from being a solid, unchangeable quality, but it is rather socially and culturally constructed through negotiations that hinge—among other experiences—on food preparation, food provisioning, eating, and even the fear of being eaten (Parasecoli 2011).
Remy’s father, who embodies the resistance to change and the attachment to the past, initially opposes his efforts. Viewers, including the younger ones, can identify with the trials and tribulations of the hero, a growing individual who feels to be different but believes that eventually he will show the world he was right. After all, negotiating one’s identity between the ideas and perceptions about oneself and the world’s expectations and judgments is an important part of personal development. Ratatouille embraces a narrative arc that is quite common in contemporary feature length animated movies, based on characters that achieve self-realization and personal growth outside social expectations. We can identify this trajectory from rejection to total acceptance and from pariah to hero also in animated movies that do not focus on food. For example, in Happy Feet (George Miller, Warren Coleman, and Judy Morris, 2006), where the little penguin Mumble cannot sing as he is expected to by the social norms of his colony but can dance really well, and ends up saving the day and, incidentally, conquering his romantic interest. Also in The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) a young lion, who chooses self-exile and congregates with herbivorous animals such as warthogs and meerkats, eventually claims what belongs to him, embracing “the circle of life” of Broadway fame. Interestingly, plots built around heroes asserting themselves as individuals and as males against social pressures often include food, even when it is not the main narrative motif. The ant Z in Antz (Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, 1998) cannot accept his role as worker and guides his community to Insectopia, a place that many thought imaginary but which turns out to be a picnic place where humans leave great amounts of leftovers. Lenny, the vegetarian shark in Shark Tale (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, and Rob Letterman, 2004), cannot force himself to eat shrimp and other sentient creatures, embarrassing his mobster father and his masculine, no-nonsense brother.
Remy the gourmet rat’s passion for French food and his determination to become a chef reinforce the notion that those blessed with special talents have the moral obligation to fully develop them, even if this endeavor makes them go against the advice of their elders and turns them into the laughing stock of their communities. Individuals are presented as sole judges of their own uniqueness, and self-reliance as the core value that can ensure success. This ideal seems deeply embedded in American culture, to the point of being recently critiqued in a much discussed article in the New York Times Magazine as a “fetish for the authentically homespun and the American affliction of ignoring volumes of evidence in favor of the flashes that meet the eye, the hunches that seize the gut” (Anastas, n.p.).
The Food Adventures of a Social Misfit
As expected in a story about a hero who asserts himself through a series of obstacles, not everybody appreciates Remy’s gift. His father acknowledges his sensitivity for smells and aromas, but only as a way to avoid poison in the garbage and in the stolen foods the community eats. The movie cautions against the use of extraordinary faculties only as tools towards practical and convenient results, rather than as gifts meant to achieve creative and original results. Remy’s brother Emile embodies a certain openness to both approaches to talent: he possesses an inkling of what his brother is talking about in terms of flavors and sensations, but at the same time is quite content with his lifestyle. “Food is fuel,” Emile states. “If you get picky about what you put in your tank your engine is going to die.” Remy has a different relationship with ingestion. We do not see him gorging himself, or simply giving up to appetite. When he first arrives in Paris and he is so hungry he is tempted to steal, the spirit of Chef Gusteau—in many ways, the voice of his own conscience—convinces him to stop. As a matter of fact, eating for Remy seems mostly connected to tasting rather than to actual consumption: he is not moved by the need for fuel or by hunger, but by the desire to develop his creativity for creativity’s sake.
Remy and his brother Emile are also visibly different in terms of their physical appearance. Emile’s rotund body does not only suggest his excessive interest in food. In the animated movies that were released at around the same time as Ratatouille, including Kung Fu Panda and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, plumpness functions as a symbol of lack of backbone, reflecting insufficient will power and scarce investment in the advancement of one’s community. Scholars have linked these negative associations between body image and moral character to modernist Western culture, which values efficiency and self-control.8 Body obsessions among males are not a secret any longer, as a trim and well-defined body is increasingly perceived as marker of powerful masculinity and of success.9 For Remy, girth is not an issue, as eating serves a higher end and conveys creativity and determination. In a way, the rat chef is the fantasy embodiment of the perfect consumer, who can ingest without suffering any consequence.
Chef Gusteau, whom we only see in a TV show and as a figment of Remy’s imagination, is instead overweight, reflecting the popularity of portly culinary professionals like James Beard, Emeril Lagassi, and Mario Batali, now increasingly supplanted by a new generation of celebrity chefs who bank on their fit physical appearance to increase their sex appeal. Despites his softness and gentleness, Gusteau offers an acceptable model of masculinity. Besides having a child (although illegitimate), he was also a businessman who ran a successful restaurant, published cookbooks, and expanded his aura of celebrity through the media. On the opposite end of the body image spectrum, the skeletal appearance of the critic Anton Ego points to a more problematic relationship with food. While his professional authority would safely place his masculinity within the mainstream, his excessive preoccupation about ingestion evokes the eating disorders whose growing incidence is now also acknowledged among men.10 He angrily barks: “I don’t like food. I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” Allowing him to display intellectual acumen and social power, food is not about the pleasure of the table and social interaction. Only when Remy’s ratatouille breaks all his defenses, does he become a happier man who can finally enjoy eating. Ego eventually finances Linguini’s restaurant, and in the last scene the former critic enjoys the food prepared for him in the establishment he owns. His emotional transformation does not question his masculinity, ultimately confirmed by his new professional role as successful restaurant entrepreneur.
The theme of masculinity, although not immediately apparent, is woven into the movie’s plot, sending not-so-subliminal messages to the viewers. The main events do not take place in a domestic kitchen. Gusteau’s restaurant is not a nurturing place, but a well-oiled machine that produces high quality food for discerning clients. He declares to Remy: “Great cooking is not for the faint of heart. You must be imaginative, strong hearted. You must try things that might not work, and you must not let anybody define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say it’s true, anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.” Thriving in a restaurant requires masculine attributes such determination and nerve. Remy and the other chefs, who seem to hide mysterious past lives, do not express any supposedly feminine traits by using food to nourish others. They embrace professional cooking as the exclusive domain of trained experts, which historically constitutes the basis of the expansion and success of French cuisine.11 Restaurant kitchens are a testosterone-driven world. As the only female chef at Gusteau’s, Colette angrily acknowledges that “haute cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world.” Colette has been forced to adapt to these rules, as many female chefs do when they attempt to achieve success in a male-dominated environment (Druckman 2012). Her vehicle of choice is a motorbike. When she rides it, she wears a black helmet and sleek leather gear, attire that reflects her toughness and differentiates her from women who feed families in domestic environments. When she is given the apparently nurturing task to train Linguini, Colette expresses her resentment. Being the only woman in the kitchen, she cannot commit errors or lose her focus by wasting time educating the young man. Despite his goofy attempts at charming her, Linguini is quickly castrated and put in his place as a loser. Colette feminizes him by comparing his cooking style—slow, confused, and without skills—to that of his mother:
You are wasting energy and time. Do you think cooking is a cute job, like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush when the orders come flooding in, and every dish is different, and none are simple, and all with different cooking times but must arrive on the customer’s table at exactly the same time, hot and perfect. Every second counts and you cannot be Mommy!
The gender politics of this kitchen clearly privilege a tough, all male, and unforgiving approach to food.
The professional chef’s masculinity, strong but refined, is not the only one presented to the movie audience. Within the kitchen, alpha males—whether executive chefs or line cooks—define themselves against weaker ones, in particular the hapless Linguini, who is not able to deal with the sudden transition from garbage boy to celebrity chef and eventually ends up in the more comfortable role of waiter. His being raised by a single mother indirectly suggests the absence of a solid male role model, a plausible explanation of his weakness and lack of professional drive, easily exploited by the evil Skinner, the short and wiry executive chef at Gusteau’s. He embodies the stereotype of the French culinary professional, haughty, highly strung, and convinced of his cultural superiority—a cliché also reflected in the royal chef André in The Tale of Despereaux, one of the food-centered animated films released around the same time as Ratatouille. Ridiculous and money-driven, Skinner is obsessed with status, a social trait that in the movie is closely related with acceptable models of masculinity.
Remy’s contrast with his father, articulated around the fearless pursuit of creativity as opposed to the stubborn attachment to safe and stolid behaviors, is also built around food and class. Happy with garbage and stolen food, and clearly at ease with dirt, Remy’s father is content with establishing colonies in hidden places. Remy would like instead to eat food in human kitchens, which his father considers dangerous. The difference between the two is not only a question of adherence to tradition, but once again suggests a class tension between the young rat, bent on achieving his lofty goals, and the older one, represented as unrefined, ignorant, and uninterested in improvement and change.
When finally meeting after a long period of separation, Remy’s dad complains that he had lost a good poison checker, and he makes fun of his son, telling him he has lost weight either out of lack of food or excess of snobbery. The father attributes this change to his proximity to humans, who in his mind are not only different but also belong to a superior, although resented, social group. Eventually, Remy’s openness carries the day. The whole rat tribe stops stealing food and accepts being steamed clean, undergoing a not-so-symbolic process of purification that allows them to follow the proper—and hygienic—way to relate to food. The rats are no longer starving proletarians feeding on the scraps of the better-off, but they become participants in the bourgeois project of French cuisine. Their scruffy, undisciplined, and underworld style is turned into a more urban, sophisticated masculinity (we are not introduced to any female rats). In fact, in the final scene of the movie, we see them sitting around proper tables eating proper food that has been properly prepared. In the end, Remy’s father realizes the potential and value of his son’s gift. The presence of the whole rat community in the new bistro displays complete acceptance and even respect for the rat chef and his newly acquired status. From this point of view, Remy and the model of masculinity he embodies manage to be accounted as socially acceptable through paternal approval.
Future Meals to Come
In the world of Ratatouille, successful males define their primacy against the background of lower status males, just like celebrity chefs establish their position by asserting his preeminence over line cooks and armies of busboys and dishwashers. The chef’s initiative and creativity acquire visibility when contrasted with the repetitive tasks of kitchen staff. This allows for a seemingly domestic and manual occupation to achieve higher status and social respectability. Interactions around food suggest an alignment between higher social class and successful masculinity, based on prestige and professionalism. Eating and cooking allow unusual characters to express themselves as thriving males, while participating in the advancement of their communities.
The relationship between male characters and food in animated features is a rarely examined aspect within the realm of gender representations in American popular culture. However, it can offer unexpected insights into a dimension of material culture—the complex connections between food and masculinity—that has only recently begun to elicit the interest it deserves in academic circles. By discretely superposing ideological elements onto eating and cooking, movies can naturalize values, norms, and practices that are far from being neutral, simply innate, or motivated by biological needs. Entertaining narratives and catching visuals can disguise cultural bias, social dynamics, and power hierarchies, providing conservative undertones that are increasingly—and dangerously—common in food media and contemporary culinary discourses. Unpacking these dynamics in an important aspect of daily life that everybody experiences, constitutes a relevant theoretical and civic endeavor, allowing a better understanding of behaviors and ideas informing material culture, and the influence that media can exert on them.
1. See, for example, Montgomery and Chester 2009; Harris, Schwartz, and Brownell 2010; Otten et al. 2012).
2. See Adema 2000; Julier and Lindenfeld 2005; Ray 2007; Swenson 2009; Rousseau 2012.
3. See Inness 2001a, b; LeBesco and Naccarato 2008; Parasecoli 2008; Cramer, Green, and Walters 2011.
4. See Lindenfeld 2003; Bower 2004; Baron 2006.
5. See Hollows 2003; Cairns, Johnston, and Baumann 2010; Scholes 2011.
6. See DeVault, 1991; Shapiro, 2001 and 2004; Avakian & Haber, 2005.
7. See Johnston and Baumann 2009; Lebesco and Naccarato 2012.
8. See Klein 1996; Stearns 1997.
9. See Pope, Harrison, and Olivardia 2000; Parasecoli 2005.
10. See Bordo 1999; Drummond 2002; Gough 2007; Gal and Wilkie 2010.
11. See Trubek 2000; Ferguson 2004.
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