Last night was the 2013 final of the Great British Bake Off, a show the popularity of which it’s hard to overstate for all of you reading from outside the UK. A baker’s dozen of talented home chefs competed over 10 or so weeks to be crowned the star of all star bakers, and to see their own profiles as artisans rise exponentially as they appeared next to their gorgeous creations on TV. There aren’t many television programs I watch religiously – and most are US cable dramas – but the Bake Off is one of them. This might surprise those of you who know me as a feminist and an activist scholar-teacher. It’s just a bit of baking, yes?
And: there’s nothing more retrograde than a woman (seeking praise) in the kitchen, right?
A few weeks ago I probably held at least some of this very prejudice, but right now I want to dispute both of these claims. For one thing, although the Bake Off features healthy numbers of both men and women each season (6 and 7 respectively in 2013), this year the men dropped off early, leaving the final few weeks to the women and leading up to a final starring three exceptionally skilled female bakers, each of whom showcased her own distinctive, impressive style. Each week I got a sense of these women as artists, as technicians, as performers with very clearly framed personalities (partly down to the structure and shaping of the show, sure, but also very clearly down to these womens’ own performance personas), as friends, as competitors, and as human beings. Effectively, the Bake Off became for me a reality drama about a group of women at work, aiming to exceed their own personal bests each week; the fact that it was work in a kitchen became, simultaneously, both crucial context and beside the point. But more on that in a minute.
The real reason I wanted to write in this space about the Bake Off is nicely articulated in this morning’s Guardian by one of the three finalists, Ruby Tandoh. Ruby, a university student and the target of some of the most vicious gendered commentary on this year’s competitors in the media, both social and popular, notes her surprise over how much “vitriol” the show has attracted; in the process, she excavates the several ways in which the Bake Off is, in 2013 more than ever, a feminist issue. Here’s a bit of her (excellent) column:
The criticism ranged from the gently cynical to the downright obnoxious, but as the series went on I noticed an increasing degree of personal vitriol and misogyny. We (female) finalists are supposedly too meek, too confident, too thin, too domestic, too smiley, too taciturn … My self-doubt has been simultaneously labelled pathetic, fake, attention-seeking and manipulative. … Kimberley’s self-assurance – a character trait so lauded in men– has been rebranded as smugness, cockiness and even malice. There have been the sadly predictable comments on the bakers’ weights (as though it’s unfathomable that anybody could enjoy food and yet be slim), and charming debates on which of the finalists is the most “shaggable”.
And then there’s the broader background of misogyny and gender politics against which this has all played out. It’s a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses. Food has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens.
To dismiss the Bake Off is, I’d argue, to buy into more than a little of this stereotypical, sexist framing, and to fail to recognize the hard work as well as the impressive achievements of the (mainly, in the end, women) participants. Further, to dismiss the show is to oversimplify the nature of that work and those achievements. While I’m hardly suggesting here that baking is where the revolution lies, smacking down the women for whom the kitchen is a workshop, a studio, a laboratory or a canvas is hardly a feminist gesture. And the three finalists this year – Frances Quinn, Ruby Tandoh, and Kimberley Wilson – demonstrated that, in fact, their shared kitchen was all of these spaces and more.
Quinn, this year’s winner, is a designer, an artist as well as an artisan; she was the dark horse and something of a surprise winner, as she was also, repeatedly, the target of the judges’ claims that she favoured “style” over “substance”. What impressed me about Quinn was her refusal to change her methodologies or her presentation style to bend to this criticism; she clearly learned from useful feedback, but she wasn’t about to reshape her practice, to be less a designer and more a cook, to suit the program or the judging team. In the end, I read in this quiet reticence a concomitant refusal to admit the implied, gendered critique that “style” might be all a girl can muster, or that girls who take style seriously can’t be serious cooks (perhaps what Raymond Blanc meant when he decided, with both arrogance and rather poor judgement, to weigh in on the show on Twitter). Finally, Quinn revealed her “style” to be “art”, and her art to be substantial indeed.
Kimberley Wilson, one of the favourites going into the final (and my personal favourite, as a viewer), took a very different but equally compelling approach to the work of the competition. A psychologist, Wilson brought a scientist’s rigour to her baking: she demonstrated a clear understanding of the chemistry behind the cooking, had obviously studied some of the most technical aspects of the craft in detail, and was often the only contestant to know the intricacies of what was expected from the blind, “technical” bake challenges (she had clearly done a lot of studying). Further, she exuded the confidence of a woman who works hard and knows she can succeed, yet brought with that confidence a charm and sense of humour that made her a pleasure to watch (and to watch succeed). Alarmingly, as Tandoh notes in her column, plenty of tweeters and social media users found this (to me heartening) mix of charm, confidence and skill “arrogant” or “smug”; such ham-fisted, retrograde assessments of a generous, talented, and plainly fiercely intelligent woman only goes to show, once more, how much of a feminist concern the work of the Bake Off need be.
Finally, Tandoh, the odds-on favourite to win going into the final, created the greatest social media stir simply by appearing on-screen as most university-aged women often do in real life: self-deprecating and sadly lacking in confidence. As a viewer, I found this behaviour (like many on Twitter et al) hard to watch and frustrating at times, but as a teacher of young women I am profoundly sympathetic to it. I’ve seen this kind of routine, almost knee-jerk self-deprecation a thousand times before, especially in the smartest women; when my female students get up to speak in front of the class, or even when they take a risk and try to voice a contrary opinion, they often (at least initially) struggle to do so. And why should they not struggle? After all, they are navigating a paradox: trying to find a strong and assertive voice that will somehow not compromise the meek-sided, gendered self-image they cultivate outside the classroom (and have been encouraged, consciously or not, to cultivate for many years, by parents, other teachers, friends, and the media). Tandoh reminded me each week of the advice I’ve given before, and will give again, to these young women: do not be afraid to take up space. And work harder at it. You’ve earned every right to do so.
Quinn, Wilson, and Tandoh bake very differently, but they all clearly have incredible chops. They are also similar in another, crucial respect: they are intelligent, creative, hard-working women who love to bake, do it to a professional standard, yet take pleasure from both cooking AND eating. I consider this combination of professional attributes and a love of food – both making it and consuming it – to be in itself an activist, feminist gesture: it counters the perception that serious people don’t make cake; that serious women don’t make cake; and that women shouldn’t eat too much cake, full stop. In other words, this year’s Bake Off finalists together reveal rather neatly some key patriarchal fault lines: that smart women can’t cook; that women who cook and bake can’t love to eat; that the stuff of domestic drudgery can’t be pleasure and artistry and foster women’s public success; that smart women who are ace bakers can’t be doctors, artists, philosophers, food bloggers, and pleasure seekers all at the same time.
I know the Bake-Off is, of course, a flawed endeavour, not least politically; in another version of this post, I might have dwelled at length on the way it functions as another of those irritating bread-and-circus shows that helps to deflect attention from the social and fiscal crisis in which the UK remains mired. A significant part of me is indeed upset that so many of us have taken such pleasure in the program while record numbers of Brits are struggling to feed their families, as the Cameron government’s misguided, often blatantly classist austerity measures drop large portions of the lower middle class into food poverty (in 2013!). Even as I remember that context and stand firm in my political concerns, however, I see no reason not to celebrate the positive, productive social models the show offers, especially for the young men and women watching. And for me, those models are the finalists: strong, impressive women who deserve our thoughtful appreciation, not our scorn.
In the hope of plenty of cake for all,