To eat a banana, you need to get a banana. To get a banana, you need to produce a banana. So here we are the production of bananas and… Guess what? Gender has a lot to say about it. (And yes, this goes much further than the sexualisation of the fruit).
The production of bananas is gendered. The banana industrialisers decided that to clear the land and harvest the fruits they were going to use a workforce composed of men. However, this workforce was only able to do the job because of mothers, wives, and in certain cases sex workers sustaining them. Yes apparently, men working in the plantations are more easily recruited if they are provided with the services of sex workers.
Banana plantations represent self-contained worlds since they are situated in secluded areas. Far from residential regions, plantation workers must live there. Yet, to do so, they need someone that takes care of their home, kids, and needs. This means that men can only work because of women’s unpaid labour maintaining their household. And in the now more common cases where women work on the plantations, they are more subjected to labour abuses, being paid less than men, and sometimes suffering from sexual harassment or exploitation.
But that’s not it. After the production is done, distribution is next and thanks to capitalism, the history of the distribution of bananas also includes the face of Carmen Miranda.
A Portuguese woman raised in Brazil charmed American audiences with her appearance, acting and singing. With a bowl of fruit on her head, Miranda painted a very specific and narrow picture of Latin American femininity. “Like the bananas she wore on her head, Miranda was exotic yet mildly amusing”. She mastered English but maintained a heavily accented pronunciation in her performances. (Sofia Vergara I am looking at you). Miranda personified the Latinx culture as charming, cheerful, and without political ambivalence. In a time when U.S. imperialism was coming under wider regional criticism, Miranda’s charisma was used as a tool to help American banana companies to feel safe on the continent.
In this way, the commercialisation and advertising of bananas became both a gendered and racialised construct reinforcing ideals of femininity and exoticism for the Western/American audience whilst fueling the capitalist machine.
Carmen Miranda helped United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International) accomplish what seemed impossible, creating a brand-name loyalty for a generic fruit. They envisioned their customers would be women concerned about their family’s nutrition. The bananas, rich in nutrients, cheap and available all year round, were a perfect fit for them. Combining Carmen Miranda and a banana was the way to beat their competitors. Their new logo, singing and dancing, explained how to eat, cook and store bananas. In this way, they made sure the customers recognised and remembered the fruit and brand while shopping in the supermarket.
80 years later, the strategy keeps working and was copied by the largest brands. Customers in almost any supermarket can search for a sticker on the bananas with a company’s logo and sometimes the country of origin. And yes, Carmen Miranda is still on Chiquita Bananas’ stickers, wearing a hodgepodge of stereotypical elements of Latin America.
The history of bananas which included a volatile political climate, slave trade in Africa and the West going in and taking bananas originally from India, landed us in a situation where nearly every household has a banana in their fruit bowl, oblivious to its gender inequality and problematic nature.