On an unusually cold Sunday afternoon, a crowd of roughly 20 people gathered near a stack of boxes full of chips on the steps of the state capitol in Austin, Texas. A half-circle of shivering journalists with cameras, mics, and notebooks formed around 28-year-old Lexie Cooper, who stood beside the boxes, waiting.
On Facebook, 1,168 people said they would attend the event, which was officially titled “A bunch of women eating chips in public.” Nearly 8,000 additional people opted for the non-committal “interested,” some commenting from out of state that they would eat their chips from afar in solidarity. Selfies and Instagram-filtered videos with bags of chips proliferated on the page. Internet trolls arrived on the event’s wall with their most biting quips: “If y’all are going to be eating chips, who’s going to make me a sandwich?” wrote one. Another took a more classic route, calling the chip-eaters “liberal feminist bitches.” (Cooper later deleted those posts.)
Cooper created the event following comments made by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi last week, which implied the company might be making a new kind of chips specifically marketed toward women.
“They don’t like to crunch too loudly in public,” Nooyi told the interviewer on the Freakonomics podcast. “And they don’t lick their fingers generously, and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth.”
Nooyi later clarified that the company had no intention of making gender-specific chips, but the internet had all the ammunition it needed. “Lady Doritos” were born. The fake news was too good to resist. First picked up by a British tabloid, the story spread rapidly. The social media backlash and chip think pieces followed.
Cooper, who is the leader of the Austin chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), said she was working late last Monday night when she created the event as a joke.
“I put my phone down for two hours, picked it up and looked at it and was like, ‘holy shit,’” she said. Roughly 500 people had responded. “Then I thought okay, I guess I’m going to have to buy a couple party packs of chips.”
I asked a woman opening some of the chip boxes (donated by Paqui, a local company) why she decided to attend the event. “A lot of it is because Lexie’s my roommate,” she said. “But the fact that women have to be like, attractive while eating food is pretty absurd. So I guess the point today, at least for me, is to be as unattractive as possible.”
On the other side of the boxes, four young women sat in a row happily munching on free chips.
“It’s ridiculous,” 24-year-old Sarina Ghani said of Nooyi’s comments. “What are chips if they’re not crunchy? Something that no one asked for. I mean, are they stale? I’m confused.”
Ghani’s friend, 23-year-old Taylor Fredrikson, told me she was there because she likes “to get angry about a lot of things. Mostly men.” I asked them what their favorite kinds of chips are, and the four groaned.
“I mean, we like PepsiCo chips, which is kind of shitty,” Ghani admitted. “Hot Cheetos. Lays, sour cream and onion or cheddar.”
Still, no one there was eating PepsiCo chips — the stack of boxes had been donated by Paqui chips, a local company whose name would now appear beside Cooper on every local news station.
A few feet away, a local Fox news reporter approached a lone woman holding a bag of tortilla chips and asked if she could “keep crinkling it.” A cameraman held a mic to the bag as she slowly scrunched it, then dropped the mic inside the bag as she removed a chip and loudly ate it.
At this point, my notebook was covered in Cool Salsa Verde dust from the non-Doritos I had sampled. I wondered if I had breached the journalism code of ethics. I ate more.
Kathleen Conti’s reasons for loudly eating chips in public were more serious than some of the other attendees. Conti, 28, arrived at the event with her large golden retriever mix, Maggie, who she explained was too excited to eat chips.
“It’s just part of the general culture of protesting that we have to do under the new fascist Trump regime,” Conti said. “They don’t pay attention to us when we’re serious, but they might pay attention to us when we’re eating chips.”
Conti suggested chips should be priced lower for women to match the wage gap, “and even lower for people of color. I’d be okay with that.” I asked if she was suggesting chips be subsidized by the government. “First let’s start with tampons, then we can move on to chips,” she said.
Conti’s politicized approach to chip-eating was in line with Cooper’s. Even though the protest began as a joke, she had bigger ideas.
“It was never just about the chips,” Cooper said. “This is an opportunity for us to have a dialogue about how women and girls are expected to fit into the box of feminineness when we’re in public, and to really address the micro-aggressions we face every day.”
Off to the side of the crowd, a tall man in a long black overcoat stood by himself, eating a bag of ranch-flavored Paqui chips.
“I just wanted to see who showed up,” he told me. “I’m not a big Doritos fan unless it’s in a Taco Bell taco.” (The Facebook event was not limited to women: “Non-women may also wish to attend and crunch chips in solidarity,” read the description.)
“It was never just about the chips.”
“We want to raise our girls to be themselves, and if that means getting stuff on your fingers that you have to lick off, then there it goes,” 51-year-old Cami Joy-Rocha told me. Her 11-year-old twins sat solemnly beside each other on the steps with their chips. They did not want to talk to the press, but confirmed that the chips were “good.”
After about 40 minutes, the camera crews left and the small crowd thinned, but a few hardcore chip enthusiasts remained, sitting on the capitol steps. The sun came out. They weren’t there for the publicity, after all. They just wanted to eat some chips.