Turkeys, sexuality, and culture. A thanksgiving reflection.

Who cooks and who cleans reveals a great deal about who we are as Americans and how we approach traditions and evolving mores in our society. Thanksgiving, as a holiday is an opportunity to examine these long held ways of taking care of household responsibilities. And in the interest of full disclosure, I readily admit that I’m a traditionalist when it comes to these divisions of labor, mostly for the practical reasons that involve my ineptitude in the culinary arts. I doubt anyone would enjoy cereal, toast, and coffee for the Thanksgiving meal. My personal challenges aside, the holiday does provide an opportunity to reflect on how even our most basic traditions are influenced by prevailing attitudes governing gender and sexuality.

Luanne Roth’s essay Sexing the Turkey: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality at Thanksgiving explores the human capacity to impose on objects and circumstances (involving just about anything) our own proclivities for fetish. Roth writes, “Thanksgiving represents ‘a day of intensified patriarchy’ in the majority of American households, that is, when the division of labor between males and females becomes more pronounced than usual.”

Although my Father was involved significantly in the cooking responsibilities in my household, it was generally accepted that men gathered in the living room or outside, while women congregated in the kitchen cooking or preparing to serve. And cleaning was certainly the domain of women. But Roth takes the Thanksgiving holiday to a whole new level in her analysis as to how it serves as a symbolic tool of patriarchy. She writes, “the prerogative to carve the Thanksgiving turkey remains the patriarchal right of only heterosexual males.” And she goes on to point out, “Like football and the western genre, both reactions to the industrial revolution, the turkey-carving ritual emerged during the height of the ‘ideology of domesticity’ to counteract the feminizing influence of the domestic realm and to assert symbolically that men were in charge.”

This ritual repeated in homes throughout America and in the artifacts of our culture including movies, television, art and literature, serve as an act of “Regeneration through violence” that isn’t simply directed at turkeys, but at women through a bizarre set of symbolic actions. For instance, “As a full character in the drama of Thanksgiving, the bird is anthropomorphized and gendered in American culture, and negotiations occurring over its body may prove to implications for both turkeys and humans. Consider how the bird has become a fetish, a point made evident in ‘the elaboration of attention to live turkeys destined for the table’ and representations of full-feathered toms that began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Thanksgiving still remains my favorite holiday, but Roth certainly gives me a lot to think about and I will certainly never view Thanksgiving exactly the same. Roth writes, “The adoption of the gobbler’s sexual display as the national symbol of the holiday corresponds with a societal fascination with turkey sexuality.” But does this sexual fascination have to do with the over sexed nature of our society as a whole or is it indeed specific to Thanksgiving and turkeys? I think it may be the former. Roth observes, “The symbolic slippage between women and meat in Western culture allows for images to be interpreted from a stance of human-centered male identification. From breasts to thighs, ‘the association between attractive human female bodies and delectable, attractive ‘meat’’ has been culturally constructed.” Even in our most beloved traditions there are cultural pressures that exist to reinforce these themes of violence, sex, patriarchy, and further the themes of American exceptionalism. All of which come together nicely at Thanksgiving. These themes “when viewed through the lens of a feminist critique highlight the cultural association between turkeys and women, [where] such seemingly benign scenes are imbued with power dynamics that hint at sexual violence.”

While I found this essay to be intriguing, I wonder if there isn’t some perceptual vigilance involved here, where what one desires to see is more than what is actually there? Roth concludes “If one of the central mechanisms of patriarchy is to disguise male domination as a natural phenomenon, then an interrogation of such Thanksgiving moments is crucial to expose the murky underbelly of the holiday…such bizarre cultural moments-when the turkey is gendered, sexualized, and dominated – point to a profound cultural anxiety about masculinity, subjectivity, and nationhood, creating fissures in the ideology of Thanksgiving and suggesting that ultimately, the act of consumption may prove to be an act of aggression and sexual domination.

Roth makes a compelling argument, certainly one that gives me pause as I rethink my relationships with people and food. But I have to wonder is this just too much of a stretch? Echoing Freud, when is a “Cigar just a cigar,” or in this case when is a turkey just a turkey? And while there are themes of marginalization at play in every aspect of our society, themes that must be critically examined and dismantled when necessary, we must also recognize that being grateful and giving thanks is a moment that we can all benefit from, especially in these divisive times. Thanksgiving should give us perspective that while nothing we do isn’t without cultural consequence, ultimately we are responsible for crafting culture and changing traditions when necessary for the greater good of all humanity. So in addition to carving turkeys we need to always give consideration as to how we carve culture, including what we discard and what we choose to keep.

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