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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Relentless Sexism of Top Chef

The third season of the Bravo cooking game-show "Top Chef: Masters" differed from seasons past in most of the franchise's manifold variations by featuring strong, talented, engaging women throughout and usually doing so without punishing them endlessly for being "conniving bitches" if they are actually competitive on the show or humiliating them as "passionless doormats" if they are actually co-operative in team competitions, and then even actually allowing them for once to prevail quite often over the usual lot of bullying and tantrum-throwing superannuated adolescent male chefs whose banal bad behavior typically enchant the judges of the program to no end for whatever reason.

But, fear not! The winner last Wednesday night, perfectly true to form, was, nevertheless, and for the third time running, the only male chef who had managed to squeeze through the whole season to the Final Three of the competition.

This victory blossom on a "Top Chef" branch should be contemplated in the context of the main trunk of the "Top Chef" tree -- the popular "Top Chef" series itself -- in only a single one of eight seasons of which has a woman won the title. As it happens, in the eighth season of the show, in a special "All Star" format, the winner was not only the usual male, but more particularly and rather flabbergastingly, the very man who had lost to the only woman winner so far. His eventual victory had been framed the whole season long not only as his vindication (as a man and, we were reminded with nauseating incessance, a freshly minted paterfamilias) but also as the rectification of the "mistake" of his loss to her, as though a woman chef's victory was some kind of crazy fluke or obvious clerical error.

That women obviously cannot cook well enough to be expected to pass muster in the high-stakes high-standards world of existing and would-be celebrity chefhood is not only a surreally hilarious fantasy belied by the real-world reality of restaurants and cookbooks all around us, but even more hilariously at odds with the commercials airing alongside these shows. In most of these, women are featured as housewives doing all the cooking (apart from the occasional Dad indulging in manly mucking about at the grill) for freshly-scrubbed nuclear families of the kind ubiquitous in the television of the 1950s -- representations already at odds with 1950s realities, but by now so out of touch they truly take your breath away.

On the dreary daydream world of televised cooking competitions, it would seem that a woman's place is in the kitchen, unless the kitchen is a professional one where money and fame might be made. In such professional kitchens the one indispensable utensil would appear to be, quite contrary to purpose or sense, of all things, a penis.


Chad Lott said...

I totally get where you're coming from on this, but I would like to mention Ruth Reichl's post on judging the competition:

By all accounts, Top Chef judging itself is extremely fair and focused on the food itself. Other judges, like Anthony Bourdain (king of the banal bad behavior you mention), have also commented on how surprised they were by their autonomy.

The editing of the show deseres the usual criticisms of television.

Dale Carrico said...

Well, in my view, skewed actual outcomes in respect to sex or race demand an ever more conspicuous and rigorous burden of proof in respect to allegations of sexism or racism the longer the actual outcome remains so skewed -- "all accounts" about "extremely fair and focused on the food," notwithstanding. And as you say, the editing... gawd don't even get me started.