Chocolate! The mouth watering, universally loved treat that has a special place in all our hearts. Want to be romantic? Buy a heart shaped box of chocolates! Time to get down and dirty? Make some chocolate covered strawberries! Having your period? Eat all the chocolate! Want to learn about how the patriarchy maintains its power in society? The answer is still chocolate! Here comes a (hard & dark) bite-sized story.
Fictional chocolate characters have faced their fair share of sexism and homophobia. M&M’s spokescandies (yes, spokescandies) for example recently caused outrage in the United States when an all woman packaging with the message, “supporting women flipping the status quo” was introduced. On the packaging the green M&M had been changed to make it less sexualised. In light of the new packaging, Fox News called the Green M&M an “opportunistic little bitch” and a petition was set in motion to bring back the sexy green M&M. This recent controversy is not the first time M&M spokescandies have faced such backlash. A few years back, two of the candies sitting on a bench with a caption stating that they were a queer couple sparked quite the controversy. These examples are just to give a little taste (pun intended) on how the patriarchal system works at a very visible level. It seems that even chocolate cartoons need to abide by heteronormative and sexist gender norms. Now let’s explore the more systematic issues at hand.
Let’s take a trip down the cocoa-chocolate value chain (I promise it will be interesting). The chocolate we consume starts off with cocoa farming, a production that is mainly undertaken in Africa and Asia. A study on the cocoa sector in Ghana and India found that cocoa is generally considered a “male crop,” which is related to socio-economic norms because men ownership of cocoa farms is usually passed to men heirs and the farming itself is considered physically demanding and risky since tools like machetes are involved. Besides being old fashioned, calling cocoa a “male crop” because of the physical, risky work involved, is blatantly wrong because women actually take part in most activities, even the ones involving machetes like the badasses they are.
In Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire approximately 18-25% of cocoa farmers are women with small-scale farms but in most cases women in the sector are assigned unpaid family labour such as caring for subsistence crops, drying the cocoa, and young plant care whilst men focus on the market (like so often the studies are binary). Moreover, research in Côte d’Ivoire found that women who own farms earn circa $1,000 per year, which is $700 less than men. Although women are arguably worse off, no one really wins at this level in the production chain as the wages are really low and most young people try to find a better life in urban sectors.
Unfortunately, it gets even worse as child labour is still persistent in the sector. In 2022, the food giant Mondelēz International (owner of Cadbury) faced accusations of child labour at cocoa farms in Ghana where children as young as ten were working. This horrifying news came 20 years after the chocolate industry pledged to eliminate child labour. I will let that sink in. Other cases have demonstrated that children as young as five are working up to 14 hours a day with dangerous tools and exposure to agricultural chemicals. Approximately 40% are girls and some end up working in the sector throughout adulthood.
Further along the chain we meet the chocolate makers and chocolatiers, a trade dominated by Europeans which can be traced back to colonial times with Europeans taking up what Mesoamericans were already doing, and exploiting the trade. By the way, colonial narratives engendered chocolate which in pre-Columbian times wasn’t really gendered. One reason is because during colonial times there was a shift towards sweetness in chocolate which is attached to femininity. Moreover, chocolate was considered something that particularly affected women, their beauty and fertility (chocolate has for example often been considered an aphrodisiac) and was even considered a tool for women to control men in a witchcraft related manner. Overall, women had and still have a great influence on the chocolate industry, however it is not reflected in their wages and high-level positions, especially in “big chocolate” where commodification is key. They are however making up an increasingly larger share of chocolatiers in the craft chocolate business where each step in the value chain matters and is thus usually more ethically sound.
When we take a better look at the consumer, men and women (again only binary) have been found to have different preferences when it comes to chocolate consumption: Women use it instead of sex and men don’t… Just kidding. Interestingly enough, women are more likely to buy higher quality than men as well as healthier and lighter chocolate, this is for example because they are more likely to have a debit-credit system for themselves so when they indulge they better get that mouth-melting top notch chocolate. I feel like this study really demonstrates beauty standards and the pressure put on women’s bodies to look a certain way and how they are expected to monitor what they eat in order to fit certain standards created by the good old patriarchy.
So is there something we can do? At a consumer level it is unfortunately a bit tricky. Certifications on products can’t guarantee exploitative labour, for example in 2017, Mondelēz International stopped using Fair Trade and started with their own ethical scheme titled Cocoa Life and we know from this article that they aren’t a very ethical company. So, make sure to be critical when you buy your next delicious little chocolate bar and think about how angry the patriarchy is as you devour it.