Teenage Boys, Masculinity And BBQs


It was the summer after my last year at school and we were just teenagers ready for festivals, celebrating the ‘end of an era’. Some people threw outrageously large parties, some people invited their peers over to relax with cans of beer in their gardens. My summer, however, ended up being a long string of BBQs—people would drop in throughout the day, have a few drinks and inevitably, as is the case with most groups of eighteen year olds with new found freedom, get messy. At the age of eighteen, I never thought much about the gendered dynamics of these BBQs. I was just constantly accosted by comments from boys which went like, “you’re just one of the boys,” or “a bit too much into that feminism thing”. 

At every BBQ I hosted, I thought it appropriate to take the tongs and cook. Looking back, so many of the comments thrown my way were matched with statements on how “girls don’t usually BBQ,” and “maybe you should go help the girls inside with salads”. What I realise now is that every time I was taking the spatula and flipping those burgers, I was ‘emasculating’ those teenage boys in their own eyes by creeping into their traditionally masculine space.  

As Kristen C. Sumpter explains in one of their papers, people “do gender”, they display behaviours or traits that are perceived as either masculine or feminine. So, doing masculinity requires a certain kind of performance. When we look back in history, cooking and the domestic parts of life are traditionally viewed as “feminine”. Masculinity, on the other hand, has often been plagued with the ‘breadwinner’ stereotype—the idea that because your feminine counterpart is back at home, incharge of the domestic space, you are to support the family financially.  

So where does the BBQ come into this? Bill Osgerby in his book ‘Playboys in Paradise’ explains that post World War II, when the world was moving into the Cold War, there was an American sense of crisis and uncertainty where “…family life was configured as a vision of reassuring certainty in an unpredictable and threatening world.” After 1945 there was an increased demand from war veterans which spurred a vast new construction programme and this growth was concentrated on suburbia. The home life became comfortable and reassuring—it upheld the masculine as the breadwinner, opposing the feminine as the domestic. However, during the war the ideas of ‘femininity’ changed because of the increased need for a female workforce due to the men being busy fighting the war. Femininity, thus, moved into the workplace and masculinity began to move into the home. This new domesticated man can be seen, most obviously, by the rise of the weekend BBQ: as Levenstein puts it in their 1993 text “…presided over by Dad, the barbecue was an arena where men could act out their role as beneficent family figurehead, exhibiting a domestic proficiency that was safely reconciled with their sense of masculine self because the barbecue took place in the ‘great outdoors’ whereas the kitchen remained clearly designed as a space for Mom.”  

As I reflect upon the BBQs I hosted as an eighteen-year old, I realise that I felt obligated to cook back then because I was the host. I had never considered the history behind the BBQ and the idea that masculinity calls for people to flex their cooking muscles publicly. Do I regret taking over the BBQ at eighteen and emasculating some of my peers? No. But now with an understanding of its history, I can see why their “get back to the kitchen” comments were more than just “boys being boys”. They, instead, reflected a taught and entrenched feeling about the boys wanting to publicly show off their master skills. As Swenson puts it, “the private kitchen was not their lair.”

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