Wheaties Fuels a Breakfast of Stereotypes

How about some stereotypes with that morning bowl of cereal?

After 80-plus years on the market, Wheaties has put more muscle in its brand by launching Wheaties Fuel. Billed as a cereal “By Champions. For Champions,” the re-branded carbfest  has the distinction of being the first cereal aimed intentionally at men. Each serving contains 210 calories and 5 grams of fiber, but General Mills left out folic acid–which was deemed too girly because it is used as a common pregnancy supplement. At the same time, General Mills touts Fuel’s five B vitamins for their key role in those gender-loaded nouns endurance and stamina.

Now look at the faces on the new Wheaties boxes and you’ll find more than your recommended daily allowance of race and gender stereotypes. There’s only one woman–Sports Illustrated bikini model and, oh yeah, Olympic ski champion Lindsay Vonn–and the rest are men.

There’s Shaun White, the Caucasian, titian-haired snowboarding champ with the harmless, likeable grin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5Tn1SlrQnQhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5Tn1SlrQnQ

There’s Caucasian football great Peyton Manning, posing with his chin up, looking solid but not overly aggressive.

Dominican-born baseball star Albert Pujols rates lower on the friendliness scale, with a semi-glaring visage that is more “I dare you” than “Tell me your tender secrets.”

iii

And finally, here comes the box featuring African American Boston Celtics basketball star  Kevin Garnett. He straight-up glares in a don’t-mess-with-me pose, appearing menacing, unapproachable and threatening. This stereotyped image of black masculinity serves nobody well.

iii

OK, it’s just breakfast cereal, right? But picture Garnett’s Wheaties box on the grocery store shelves, nestled among Fruit Loops mascot Toucan Sam, the goofy (and white) Cap’n Crunch, or the innocent (and also white) Snap, Crackle and Pop of Rice Krispies fame.

iii

Imagine a child wheeled down the aisles gripping the sticky handle of a grocery-store cart, skimming by at eye level with so many shiny products and images designed to grab her allegiance. That child’s brain soaks up her surroundings like a sponge. The buy-me message is wrapped in powerful messages about gender and race.

Some people wonder where we learn racism, gender ideology and narrow images of black masculinity. We learn them everywhere, including the seemingly innocuous cereal aisle. With its repurposed Breakfast of Champions, Wheaties Fuel may as well be called the Breakfast of Stereotypes.

CORRECTION: This post originally identified Albert Pujols as Cuban-born; he is in fact from the the Dominican Republic; post updated to reflect.

Comments

  1. Wait a minute…I think this is a little too much of an exageration. I was raised eating cereals and now at 40 + woman, I still “gotta have my pops”, and as far as I can remember, cereal ads have always been aimed towards children and women. I don’t see a problem with Wheaties aiming their ads towards the male gender, or with the fact that they left out Folic acid as an ingredient. As for myself, I welcome the fact that there is finally, a cereal that men can feel ok with taking to the cash register. For that case, what about” Special K” with its pink box and forever sponsoring breast cancer ribbon. Nothing wrong with it, but its the same ” gender aiming” marketing. Then there’s “Smart Start” and it’s women friendly “iron enriched” formula..we know, women need more iron than men. And let’s not forget the fruity, yogurts, chocolate, vanilla flavorings of the other so-called adult cereals like like “Total” and “Honey Bunches of Oats”…..SO YES! The cereal companies have always been “gender aiming” mostly towards the female gender….WELCOME WHEATIES FUEL!

  2. Ben Rogier says:

    Excellent. Now my manly morning rituals can be completely manly. I can wake up and take a manly shower with my Axe shower gel so that the ladies will be all over me, like their ‘Axe effect’ commercials show (add to that the fact that I am using Axe’s new shower tool, because we all know that what a man wants is to use a loofa in the shower, but that’s too girly, so thank you Axe for butching it up for me). After, I can go eat some manly cereal now (don’t even think about putting that pink-capped skim milk in there)thanks to Wheaties. And to top it off, I grab a Pepsi Max on the way to work, because it’s about time a diet soda came out marketed to manly men like me.

  3. I found this blog to be un-researched, offensive and ridiculous. This is the first time in 30 years I have been ashamed of Ms. It is commentary like this that makes wider media to regard feminists as “wackos” and women who find fault with everything. The author makes no mention of whether or not any women were approached to participate in the development of the cereal (maybe they declined) and glosses over the long history of Wheaties and female athletes/public figures. Wheaties was decades ahead in terms of female endorsement with the first woman appearing on the box in 1934. That woman was Elinor Smith, a controversial stunt pilot who never bowed to public pressure despite the uproar her flights generated. Since then Wheaties has gone on to feature female gymnasts, soccer players, even hockey players. If anything Wheaties is a breath of fresh air in todays advertising climate. Even worse, the author bases her argument for racism on one interpretation of a photo. Was there any consideration that some might view that photo as empowering for a minority… not only to appear and endorse such a product but to do so with a sense of ferocity! In fact I intentionally purchased the Garnett box because well I thought he looked commanding not menacing. Personally I think a product conceived by (if you read the box it claims that all the athletes consulted on and helped develop the cereal) men and marketed to men is not a critical issue in gender inequity. I can tell you what is… the development of products for women that intentionally keep women insecure by men-that is an issue!

  4. An excellent blog. I enjoyed the commentary and the obvious humor. The naysayers above don’t get it – they’re trying to piss on the prose while totally reinforcing the message of the post. Gender and racial stereotyping are everywhere. They’re the air we breathe. These people don’t get it because they’re swimming in an ocean and can’t see the water (or maybe they just don’t want to). Great job Shira and kudos to Ms. This is no polemic, it’s a small window on the world that’s worth taking a look through. Thanks.

  5. Agree with Karlin.

    I’m offended by what the writer says about Kevin Garnett. “Stereo-typed image of black masculinity” Why is that? Because he’s a strong man who happens to be black? Are you at all familiar with Garnett or his game? That’s how he looks when he plays: serious, intense, and a champion. As a huge basketball fan, I’ve always admired him for his determination, and his highly emotional game. I don’t like the taste of Wheaties, but I wanted to buy the cereal just because of the picture of Garnett on the box.

  6. I just scrolled down from Peyton through Albert to Kevin, and I’m with Shira on this: As the skin darkens, so does the scowl. Kevin Garnett has a great smile; did he have to be shown looking like he’s just about to go ballistic? Peyton Manning, in comparison, looks like he’s barely restraining a grin. Is this just accidental? Or does this choice of images, as Shira suggests, reflect societal stereotypes?

  7. Jessica Stites says:

    Wouldn’t this have worked as an image of Garnett that is intense, serious and athletic but not scowling?

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_Jmv4oU5K4LM/SksX32hcRGI/AAAAAAAAAyM/mX7reFOpf8Y/s400/kevin-garnett3.jpg

    I think Wheaties was quite deliberate in picking a pose that makes him look like a thundercloud–and thereby exploiting stereotypes of black men as hyper-masculine.

  8. Yes, this is just a cereal box and no, there’s no problem with marketing cereal directly to men and yes Wheaties has been especially fair in its representations of women BUT when a cereal markets to men, its representations of dark-skinned black men in particular do not have menacing and foreboding and hard and unapproachable. Wheaties is making a choice to capitalize on stereotypical representations of (black) masculinity as potentially threatening. We all know that men are much more diverse than they’re being represented on the cover of these boxes. Shira points that out and asks us to consider why Wheaties made the choices it did within the context of racism and hegemonic masculinity. We don’t have to agree with her, but we owe it to ourselves to consider the possibility that there are many more ways to represent strength and competence than those presented by Wheaties Fuel.

  9. I sure hope this was intended as an April Fools piece! When I see these images on the Fuel boxes, what they say to me is intensity and the “game face”.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth on the research of this post, Pujols is Dominican, not Cuban.

  10. @Drew — Thanks for pointing out the oversight. Pujols is most certainly from the Dominican Republic and we’ve made that correction.

    For everyone else, this is definitely a lively conversation. Sometimes it’s hard to question the very culture we live in, especially if we feel invested in ideologies (or sports or cereals).

    We’re sold products all day long, but we’re not really taught how to “decode” the ideas about gender, race, class, or sexuality that are wrapped up in this marketing.

    Thanks for the comments. Keep ‘em coming.

  11. Bob Lamm says:

    Having read all the comments above, I’m still 100% with Shira and with those who have agreed with her.

    And does anyone believe that Wheaties asked many, many prominent female athletes to participate in this marketing effort–for which Manning, Garnett, and the rest were no doubt paid a nice fee–but all but one of the prominent female athletes said “no”?
    Please, let’s get serious.

  12. Mike Murphy says:

    Above and beyond the perpetuation of racist stereotypes of African-American men as angry and menacing (nice catch Shira!) is the masculinist form of the representations _in general._ The use of black and white images, the limited color palette (despite the concerted efforts of Alexander Julian, color is SO fey…), the black backgrounds from which the faces emerge (rape myths anyone?), the direct visual confrontation of the camera by which attitude the pictured subjects refuse to become objects of visual desire–these are all central to the Western history of representing men. So, they’re not just racist, they’re masculinist. And how you can tell is by switching the sex of the subjects and asking if women would ever be represented in this manner to sell cereal (to men or women). But we all know how angry, menacing women are treated in contemporary American pop culture, and it’s not with lucrative cereal company contracts….

  13. Queen and Karlin, the problem isn’t gender marketing, it’s gender stereotyping. I’m fine with Wheaties marketing to men – it’s HOW they do it that concerns me.

    Like Queen, I am in my 40s and a cereal lover – I remember Bruce Jenner being on the cover of the box, throwing a javelin or something.

    Wheaties has always catered to men – I’m hearing the song from an old Wheaties ad “He knows he’s a man…” as a father proudly looks on, his son running the bases. “And he’s ready for a man’s breakfast – fortified Wheaties…”

    Wow, that’s scary how much of that I remember. I think I was that kid Shira was talking about, absorbing everything.

    I live near Boston and I agree with Angel that Garnett usually PLAYS seriously and intensely, but I’ve seen him interviewed with the smile Michele mentioned. And he OPENLY CRIED when my Celtics won the championship a few years ago – the big, strong man laid down on the court floor and CRIED! then gave an interview WHILE CRYING! I wrote about it at the time, I was so moved.

    Now THAT’s the kind of masculinity I want out there – a man who can be strong AND cry, and that’s okay. That’s the kind of image I want staring out from a cereal box – something more nuanced and less “in the box” of traditional masculinity, and of traditional black masculinity.

    Shira, you’re right on as usual. And I think folks can disagree without calling your column “offensive and ridiculous” – c’mon people! This is Ms. here!

  14. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I remember Mary Lou Retton being on the box when I was a little girl.

  15. This totally reinforces stereotypes. Unfortunately we have been so conditioned that most of us can’t directly notice. Though Garnett tries to label himself as a menacing character on the court, he is also known to be extremely gentle off court. A very emotional player. Why he can’t look as relaxed as Manning on the cover of a cereal box is an issue we need to ask weaties and his marketing team. Unfortunatley Garnett’s scoul is his trademark and can be seen on most of his advertisements, from gatorade to his adidas sneakers. Quite the opposite is true for Manning who is always looking regal. An interesting marketing juxtaposition. I wonder if the athletes will ever realize how they are being treated and look past the paycheck.

    Nike’s Chris Paul who plays for the New Orleans Hornets and is African American on the other hand is always portrayed as a leader and can rival any of Peyton’s ads. I am scratching my head however to find a highly marketed angry white man.

    It’s all about the money money money!

  16. @Nathan — To quote you: “I am scratching my head however to find a highly marketed angry white man.” How about a highly marketed angry woman, for that matter? :)

    and @PioneerGrrrl — High five to all the (former) gymnasts in the house! Mary Lou Retton was on Wheaties. Wheaties FUEL, a different cereal (same company), is going after a whole different marketing strategy.

  17. I’m totally with Shira too… I also think that to either ignore or justify racism, particularly after it has been pointed out contributes to the problem in a really unique way. The image of “scary black men” has been used in this country for decades as a way to incite fear into white folk, creating a culture of racism. In this particular instance the the image of Kevin Garnett fills that stereotype in a way that stands out especially when it is surrounded by the cute, white images of Snap Crackle and Pop. Also, let us not forget that the image of men in general as hard, and intimidating is the top of a very slippery slope in how we as a society define masculinity. What are we giving our little boys to look up to? And what does that say to our little girls?

  18. PioneerGrrrl says:

    I think the ‘Fuel’ campaign is bad–because when I think of fuel, I think of gasoline, and I smell it too!

    And for me personally, eating a box of gasoline is not appealing, regardless of who or what is on it. So it turns my stomach.

    Then I think about buying the cereal brand which does not turn my stomach and smells/tastes good to eat!

Speak Your Mind

*