Academic journal article Western Folklore

Beyond Communitas: Cinematic Food Events and the Negotiation of Power, Belonging, and Exclusion

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Beyond Communitas: Cinematic Food Events and the Negotiation of Power, Belonging, and Exclusion

Article excerpt

Many classic studies of foodways by folklorists and other scholars have effectively shown the sophisticated ways in which food functions to foster a heightened sense of group cohesion. Owing to the ethnographic tradition of representing cultures in a decidedly celebratory manner, as well as the tendency for individuals and groups to self-consciously perform, it follows that most depictions of food within communities fall in line with this paradigm of "communitas" (cf. Humphrey and Humphrey 1988). Recently, a few studies have moved beyond this positive function of food behavior to consider how food may be employed simultaneously to reinforce hegemonic or patriarchal structures, as well as to punish, cajole, or otherwise negotiate power relations.

Looking at cinematic portrayals of food events may be particularly revealing in this regard because, as mimetic devices, they represent aspects of food behavior not generally included in extant ethnographic and auto-ethnographic representations of foodways. As a matter of fact, "scenes which suggest happiness, comfort, or fulfillment are exceptional among Hollywood productions," observes film critic Parley Ann Boswell. "In American movies, food and dining are most often associated with crisis, frustration, conflict, or emptiness. No matter what the food, or what the meal being presented to us, Hollywood shows us not how Americans celebrate an abundance of food, but how this very abundance of food exposes other yearnings and other needs of American culture" (1993:9). As such, I approach popular American films through an ethnographic lens, relying on folkloristic, feminist, psychoanalytic, and postcolonial theories for insight. Moving beyond the obvious examples of food films, those employing food as a central thematic device, I examine mainstream popular films for the brief, subtle, yet powerfully resonant moments when food functions to symbolize racial and cultural identity and, more significantly, to negotiate power, belonging, and exclusion.1

In this schema, the foreign "other"-like the "disgusting" foods the other is presumed to eat-manifests as the "abject." Presented cinematically as defiled and polluting, the other must be expelled, a process painfully evident in Tony Kaye's American History X (1998). In this and other films, there exists a simultaneous desire to consume the other. A negotiation of this conflict is exemplified in Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and John Hamburg's Along Came Polly (2004) where the other is confronted (and confined) safely at the ethnic restaurant-a mediating site that, in the final analysis, serves to reinforce colonialism and complicate traditional approaches to foodways.


People being equated with the food they eat, of course, is not a new idea. In light of the worn adage, "we are what we eat," most people can quickly rattle off a number of foods associated with their own families and communities; food in this sense clearly functions to create "an" ethnic identity. The flip side of creating communitas through food is that it often does so by defining alterity-what is outside, what is foreign-we are what we don't eat. Hence, people can also, if asked, recall stereotypes about the food of other groups, the juiciest being reserved for "foreigners" (Kalcik 1984).

Historically, food has been one of the primary ways in which the other is posited as inferior, and it constituted an integral part of the social construction of race during the early Colonial period. Africans, for example, were seen first and foremost as bodies, and perceived bodily functions were used to differentiate the traveler from the native (see, for example, Fanon [1952] 1967:111-14; Pratt [1992] 1998:52; Spurr 1993:22; Turner 1993:2-32). The construction of the other, above all, as a body, positions the other as an embodiment of filth, something that needs to be abjected. The more "foreign" a group of people are taken to be, the more likely their food behavior will be taken to be repulsive, immoral, or barbaric. …

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