Cereal Boxes are Getting a Subversive Rebrand

New-York Historical Society celebrates Women’s History Month with “Tasty Characters” panel on food, gender and media

| 16 Mar 2021 | 12:13

Breakfast aficionado and food writer Emily Miller is eager to shake up the food industry with her healthy cereal brand, OffLimits — and her moment is now.

“I feel like the timing is right,” she said during a New-York Historical Society panel discussion on March 12, “and we’re facing a lot of challenges that I think might have crushed us any earlier, doing this. But now, we’re really fighting through it.”

Miller’s new brand is lighthearted and spunky, and features two pioneering mascots: Dash is an energetic and “over-achieving” female-identifying bunny, while Zombie is chilled-out and non-binary. Cereal mascots before the inception of OffLimits, according to the founder herself, have never been female.

Miller spoke about her business venture — and about the history of gender in the food industry more broadly — with “Diners, Dudes & Diets” author Emily Contois, moderated by author and longtime former Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin. They talked about diet culture advertising, the different forms of masculinity tied up in food consumption and the future of the industry, folding in tidbits from their recent projects and research. The talk, titled “Tasty Characters: Gender and Marketing in the Food World,” coincided with the Historical Society’s Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History, which this year revolves around the theme of women in journalism.

The switch to online events last spring was itself a major change of pace for the New-York Historical Society. Normally, the group would host panel discussions and other events in one of three spaces, which could seat anywhere from roughly 50 guests to over 400, according to Senior Vice President and Chief Historian Valerie Paley. During the pandemic, the New-York Historical Society has expanded its reach with free Zoom events, like the “Tasty Characters” panel discussion, and more flexible timing, since live events are also posted online after the fact.

“This was really kind of a boon to our larger mission to bring women’s history to a broader public,” explained Paley, who is also the director of the Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History.

“Diners, Dudes & Diets”

The theme for this year’s celebration of Women’s History Month — which would normally be condensed into a single day at the Historical Society but now spans the spring — unites a range of events, from a panel on “soft news” to a discussion with “She Said” author Megan Twohey and fellow journalist Irin Carmon on the #MeToo movement. The Center for Women’s History, which Paley said at the beginning of the panel discussion is the “first initiative of its kind in the nation within the walls of a major museum,” was launched in 2017.

During the “Tasty Characters” talk, Contois drew upon information from her 2020 book “Diners, Dudes & Diets” — which explores how food brands market traditionally feminized products, like yogurt or diet plans, to men — to investigate the deep-rooted historical ties between food and gender.

Specifically, she noted that while women have long been the ones to purchase food for their families, it’s men who risk jeopardizing their masculinity by consuming certain products. “The foodscape has done a lot of damage,” she said, “in really assigning very binaristic understandings of what femininity is, what masculinity is.”

“Even though I’m studying the twenty-first century, right, the crisis that we’re in right now,” Contois said in an earlier moment, “the way you really understand it is to look back.”

“Dude” Persona

The marketing-created persona of the “dude,” which Contois explained denotes a lax, “insincere” attitude, allows men to dip into more stereotypically feminine food choices without calling their masculinity into question.

She also pointed to a history of longing for simpler, more traditional interactions with food (and ways of life) during moments of social and cultural upheaval. Even looking at the current moment, both Contois and Cowin agreed that the growing interest in plant-based foods in the U.S. reveals a lasting tinge of gendered expectations in the food industry.

“There are cultures who have eaten nothing but vegetables, you know, for millennia, but we seem to need to make substitutions,” Cowin said. “And, you know, I think there is something gendered about that ... that you need a ‘burger.’ Do we really need an Impossible Burger?”

With OffLimits, Miller hopes to break away from gendered food industry norms — and reimagine outdated modes of advertising, while she’s at it.

“Our tagline is ‘We’d never put you in a box. Boxes are for cereal.’ very intentionally, because we don’t want to tell you what to do,” she explained. “You deserve to have something sugary, sweet, delicious, amazing!”

In addition to tackling themes of gender, Miller’s cereal mascots speak to more modern-day understandings of mental health. She believes that young people — often the primary targets of cereal marketing — speak more freely today about anxiety and depression than in years past.

When Cowin asked about the consumer response thus far, Miller didn’t hold back; sometimes, she senses that people don’t relate to her mission. These are the same people, she suspects, who aren’t game to challenge gender norms in “real life,” either.

But the good stories are promising.

“People start talking to the characters,” Miller said. “They’ll send us DMs, they’ll send us emails, and they’ll address it to Dash or Zombie. They really get it, and it just — it warms my heart so much.”

Author Emily Contois noted that while women have long been the ones to purchase food for their families, it’s men who risk jeopardizing their masculinity by consuming certain products.