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Share, read, explore! I’m sure most of us are all too familiar with these overt encouragements conveyed by smiling faces in children’s media. What is less obvious are the many themes interwoven into children’s media as a product of the society that created them, speaking to millions of children during their most impressionable years and creating intensely relatable worlds, even when populated by aardvarks like “Arthur.”
In stories for young children, food is inherently positive and encouraged, such as in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and even in “Green Eggs and Ham,” despite the food’s odd appearance. Young children are encouraged to explore whatever foods they desire without concern or restriction. But, as we graduated from the youngest sections of the library and fought to show our parents just how old we were, Jeff Kinney masterfully captured some of the thoughts running through all of our heads in the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” novels, some of which were new relationships with food brought about by our society.
Despite his mom’s extensive efforts, Greg Heffley, the main protagonist, ultimately has a three-track mind: video games, girls, and food. You’d be hard-pressed to find a middle school where the student body doesn’t share most of these interests, but Greg’s relationship with food is more focused and influences his narrative more than anything else. In “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the characters’ relationships with food become far more complicated than in books for young children. Greg spends time with his grandmother purely to put himself in close proximity to her fridge stocked with soda and cake, all the while avoiding other elderly relatives. When his mom packs him two fruits for lunch instead of his usual sugary snacks, he panics and spends hours playing bingo in an effort to earn the money to keep up his habit. He devotes a significant portion of each book to seeking out junk food, often in a compulsive way, and even notes that “ALL of my current problems can be traced back to when someone in my family started stealing the lunch snacks.”
Perhaps this habit isn’t simply a product of teenage growth spurts, as his father displays similar tendencies yet, ironically, is often the butt of Greg’s jokes for it. His dad ends up being the snack thief, of course, as he sneaks around to eat them as if they were the forbidden fruit. Greg’s mom is unabashedly opposed to their dietary habits, restricting the snacks available to the family and assigning moral values to their consumption. This imparts a taboo status upon snacks, making Greg and his dad desire them even more and leading to their desperate nature. Kinney’s illustrations also emphasize this urgent way food is devoured, with Greg’s dad crazily wide-eyed as he noshes and the inclusion of onomatopoeic words like “gobble,” “smack,” and a personal favorite, “slork.”
Greg devotes most of his daily thoughts to food, and his family’s eating habits place food on a pedestal. He is certainly enthusiastic about background pleasures like comfortable clothing (read: fuzzy robes) and comics, but exhibits no compulsion related to them. Perhaps Greg’s attitudes towards food have never been of note to us, or seem as exceedingly average as Greg is. But his obsession with acquiring certain foods above all else is a product of the moral value assigned to them and the restrictions placed on him by his mom, who is also portrayed as an average, overbearing presence that any one of us might recognize. In our society, the restriction of certain foods through feelings of guilt is a subtle voice in the backs of our minds encouraging us to put that cookie down. Greg reflects, and perhaps encourages in developing minds, a broader culture of viewing certain foods as a guilty pleasure that must be consumed obsessively and in secret.
In a reversal of Greg’s broad enthusiasm for food, some of the most iconic images from the entire series are food-related, such as the career-ending Cheese Touch. The perversion of a favorite comfort food, cheese, as it grows moldy on the blacktop, renders it all the more shocking to food-engrossed Greg. When Rowley (spoiler alert) eats the cheese, it is a horror that Greg might never have imagined. In a milder form of torture, Greg forces Grandpa’s watercress salad down in order to spare his feelings. The half-page sized image of amorphous vegetables dripping in vinegar inspired true disgust in a generation of readers, and the way Greg’s description drips with despair as he eats underlines how important food is to him, and how bad food can shape the plot of his story much as the pursuit of food drives most of his day.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is iconic and timeless—Greg could be any kid from your school, or maybe even you. The relationship he has with food, and the way it is elevated to a forbidden commodity that he constantly pursues could also be many of us. It’s a surprisingly large part of the way Greg is, and perhaps forms just as large a part of why he is so relatable and fascinating to us. He often puts thoughts to words that many youngsters never would, or at least would never admit to. It is his diary, after all.
Nour L. Khachemoune ‘22-‘23 is a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Anthropology in Dunster House. Her column “Nostalgia: What’s it Hiding” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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