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Babette’s Feast and Women Eating in Movies

Note: In case you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Cast podcast, which I mention in this post, it uses the Bechdel Test as a starting point to look at how women are portrayed in movies. The Bechdel Test is a way to evaluate the roles of women in movies (and other media). To pass, a movie needs to have two named female characters who have at least a short conversation about something other than men. It’s sad but not surprising that many movies fail.

For someone who writes about food issues as much as I do, you might think I’d pay more attention to how people eat in movies. But I have to admit I didn’t give this a lot of thought until I listened to a recent episode of the Bechdel Cast podcast.

The episode in question discussed There’s Something About Mary (no, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test), and one of the points was around Mary’s eating habits.

The podcast mentioned how Mary talks about eating corn dogs, among other things, but she does it while at a restaurant with some of her women friends. Apparently, all of the women in the scene have ordered salads, and they don’t even eat any of their food. You also never see Mary having corn dogs, although “eating like the guys” is supposed to be part of what makes her different.

This sent me down an interesting rabbit-hole. I did some poking around about women eating in movies, which in turn led me to the movie Babette’s Feast, among other things. (As a side note, that movie passes the Bechdel Test many times over.)

General portrayals of women eating in movies

Women eating in movies usually fall into two categories:

  • Eating light because they don’t want to ruin their girlish figure

  • Eating chocolate or sweets out of depression and/or to show how pitiful they are

And of course, it’s not just movies. I found a great article about women eating chocolate in media that points out all the ways chocolate is aimed at women in advertising, showing it as a way for us to console ourselves. It also mentions how women and food are often linked with witchcraft in movies, whether it’s giving out apples in fairy tales or Vianne’s somewhat mysterious powers in Chocolat.

As far as the salads and lighter fare, I just saw an example of this in an old episode of The Golden Girls. In the episode, Sophia thought she had a heart attack, and towards the end of the show, Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche reflect on the uncertainties of life.

They talked about how strange it was that they worried so much about their weight that they didn’t eat what they really wanted – the chocolate cake in the fridge – even though they could die at any time. They decided to have the cake, at least until they started thinking about the possibility of continuing to live with a few extra pounds. The horrors! In the end they passed on the cake.

I also remember a scene in Scrooged, where the future version of Claire is eating out at a fine restaurant with some of her friends, and their meals don’t look very substantial. I think she might have had a spoonful of soup, and that’s it.

Even during the “eat” part of Eat, Pray, Love, you know that Liz is only eating a lot because she’s still depressed about the end of her marriage.

But more often, women simply don’t eat at all in movies or TV shows.

More positive images

On the other hand, some movies do show women eating more normally. I found another article praising an eating scene in Ocean’s 8, which shows two of the women eating things like potatoes with sour cream. Imagine that! And they don’t once discuss going off a diet or worrying about gaining weight.

I also personally love the scene in The Fifth Element where Lulu goes through at least a couple of huge roasted chickens. When she pulls one out of the oven (or whatever the machine is) and says, “Chicken!” her utter delight and satisfaction make me smile every time. It doesn’t qualify as normal eating, but it’s still fun.

And here’s me eating gelato in celebration of my birthday.

Babette’s Feast

As for Babette’s Feast itself, it offers an entirely different view of eating, for both women and men. It gives a glimpse of eating as a path to being uplifted spiritually – even when that involves eating a massive feast. (Spoiler alert – I talk about specifics of the movie ahead.)

Early on, the very pious sisters and their father’s flock eat very simple food, such as ale-and-bread soup and split cod. This isn’t because they’re trying to stay thin, though. They simply don’t want to spend much money on food, preferring to use their small income to help others who are poor and sick.

You can only imagine how Babette must feel when she arrives on the scene. A famous French chef (although we don’t know this at first), reduced to making ale-and-bread soup! And yet she makes no complaints.

When she has the chance, though, she gives them something completely different, a feast worthy of the finest French restaurant. I did find some of the cooking scenes disturbing, especially seeing the still-alive tortoise sitting on the sideboard sadly awaiting its fate as turtle soup. And the little bird carcasses also made me cringe. Most of it was fine, though, and you can see a short clip with some of the food images here.

But what I loved was watching the progression of the meal among the pious few. One of the older women in the flock discovered how much she loved good wine, returning to her glass again and again with a very satisfied smile.

And even though the General was the only one of the diners who talked about the food, you could see how the excellent fare worked a sort of magic on them.

In the original short story of Babette’s Feast, Isak Dinesen describes it this way: “Most often the people in Berlevaag during the course of a good meal would come to feel a little heavy. Tonight it was not so. The convivesgrew lighter in weight and lighter of heart the more they ate and drank…. It was, they realized, when man [or women] has no only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in the right spirit.” (pp. 51-52 – I added the “or women” part)

This got me thinking how, in the other films and media, when women eat, they’re thinking so much about the food that they’re not in the right spirit.

In a way, this also aligns with mindful eating. When you’ve set aside your expectations of how something will taste or how much you’ll like it, you’re in the right spirit to eat it and discover how it truly tastes to you.

As a side note, I was also impressed with the fact that Babette loved food and cooking so much that she spent her entire lottery winnings on the feast, just to share that experience with the people who had saved her life, and to give herself the chance to cook a great meal again.

Media impact on girls

I bring all this up because these media portrayals impact children, especially girls. Showing women eating salads, or not eating at all, emphasizes the ideal of a slim body.

According to one article I saw, an analysis found that young women under the age of 19 had significantly worse body image “after viewing images of either average size models, plus size models or inanimate objects.”

And in Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West wrote about how she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up, or even what she could be, because she didn’t see any examples. “As a kid, I never saw anyone remotely like myself on TV. Or in the movies, or in video games, or at the children’s theater, or in books, or anywhere at all in my field of vision. There simply were no young, funny, capable, strong, good fat girls…. [Fat] women were sexless mothers, pathetic punch lines, or gruesome villains.” (p. 3)

What we see and hear matters

In short, what we see and hear in movies and elsewhere matters. It would be wonderful to have more examples of strong, capable women chefs who create meals that can uplift people, or just strong, capable women of all sizes who eat normal meals and snacks.

I’m not sure when or if we’ll get there, but at least we can start to pay attention.

How about you? Do you know of any good media representations of women and food? I’d love to hear them. Or have you noticed any impact on yourself because of existing media images?

And maybe we can all start noticing more how women are being presented, especially women in larger bodies, and help others recognize that we need to do better.

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