Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eating on Camera: The Politics of Female Consumption and Cooking Shows

I watch a fair few cooking shows. I love to cook, I like having something on in the background when I'm reading or grading, and the TV keeps me company when the hubby's not home from work yet. My favourites are Everyday Italian/Giada at Home (hosted by Giada di Laurentiis, final image above), Barefoot Contessa (hosted by Ina Garten, first photo above), French Food at Home (hosted by Laura Calder, second image from right above), and anything Nigella (hosted by Nigella Lawson, second image from left above). I do seem to enjoy cooking shows hosted by women, it seems (although I will always have a soft spot for Tyler Florence.)

These female hosts seem to fall into three categories.

They are either a) sexually objectified (Giada, Laura, Nigella), b) skinny (Giada, Laura) or c) quote unquote "fat" (Ina, Nigella). Note that there is a one to one correspondence between thin hosts and sexualized hosts, and a much more equivocal correspondence between fat hosts and sexual objectification. I'll give you an exemplary quote from the U.K.'s Guardian re: Nigella: "Now instead of merely running her finger round the mixing bowl and having a little taste we have scenes of gluttony not seen since the golden age of cookie monster."

This quote brings to the forefront one of the things I've been noticing lately about female cooking show hosts, sex, and eating. When a thin female hosts eats, the act seems to be intended to remind the viewer of sex--oozy, juicy, overflowing, orgasmic. When Giada takes a bite, she takes a bite. Her mouth is usually overfull, and she often ends up biting off the ends of pieces of pasta and letting them fall back onto her plate. She also makes those orgasmic noises we typically associate with women eating chocolate. Sexy, right? Sure, but I've got some issues.

While filming and writing Nigella Express (the program, and the book), Nigella Lawson was at perhaps the heaviest weight we've seen her on television since she became a host. And I think that has a lot to do with why the Guardian characterized scenes of her eating on the show as "gluttony," rather than sexy. For comparison, read this characterization of Giada eating: " I held my hand over my heart and giggled along with her as she cut a hunk of Gruyere cheese and popped it into her mouth, sucking her cheeks in and raising her eyebrows, daring the cameramen to chastise her for sneaking a piece. I just adore this woman. I love everything about her, from her positively sparkling eyes to her excessive use of the words "pretty" and "yummy" to her penchant for closing her eyes and lips, then running her tongue over her top row of teeth, making her mouth into the perfect pout" (From Sexy Girls Eat). Note that this description is written by a woman--there isn't even the hope of sleeping with Giada to influence her description, for Giada is straight (although, there may be the fantasty).

I haven't gotten to Ina and Laura yet, and Laura I'll save for last, as I think she's a bit of a special case. But Ina's case is the quote about Nigella's gluttony taken to the extreme. It would be one thing if Ina were to eat on camera and have it be slammed as gluttonous. However, what actually happens is quite different--she doesn't eat. Well, let me equivocate. The only thing I've seen Ina eat on Barefoot Contessa recently is a piece of arugula. No seductive swipes of the finger through the bowl of icing. No cheeky nibbles of cheese. No tearing into a juicy piece of meet with sharp white teeth, juices running down her chin. Nada. The fat woman, the one whose eating is the most visible to the world, isn't allowed to eat, or is only allowed to eat lettuce, which is probably the least sexy food in the world.

The suggestion is this: when fat women eat, it's gluttonous, grotesque, overdone. It is something to feel guilty about, not glory in. When skinny girls eat, it's sexy, seductive, excessive in a good way. It's something to objectify, to fantasise about. If food shows=food porn, then skinny hosts are the nubile porn stars, and the fat hosts are the BBWs whom only a specific segment of the population have a preference for. Therefore, fat women either don't get to eat on TV, or eat and get criticized for it.

I think this has a lot to do with North American relationships with food, and this is where Laura comes in. In Feast, Nigella Lawson cites a study, one that Michael Pollan also cites in In Defence of Food, where "subjects from France, Belgium, Japan and America were given several foodstuffs and required to give their immediate associations. To 'chocolate cake' the Americans responded with 'guilt'; the French countered with 'celebration'. (Just as to the word 'cream', the Americans came out with 'unhealthy' and the joyful French, 'whipped')" (268). The enjoyment of food, in North America, has been conditioned to be associated with guilt, and the physical manifestations of the enjoyment of food are to be even more strongly associated with guilt. Nigella remarks that "in this context, I must declare myself firmly allied with the French. If chocolate cake is an indulgence, please don't consider it a sinful one: it is a confection to exult in, not to regret" (268). Nigella isn't the norm, though; her lack of guilt about her voloptuous enjoyment of food and her voluptuous body are unusual. For proof, look at the popularity of the show How to Look Good Naked. North American and British women, as a group, have become so guilty about our bodies and our relationship to food that we must be taught by a sweet British Chinese man, Gok Wan, how not to hate ourselves.

Laura Calder, while she is Canadian, falls outside of this trap. She is, in terms of her views about food, French. One notable thing about Laura is that there isn't the disconnect between her on-screen eating and her off-screen eating that there is with Giada and Ina. Giada notes the question that she gets the most often from viewers is how she stays so thin, and I would have that question too, if her real life eating were the same as her on-screen indulgences. Same with Ina; she obviously doesn't only eat lettuce in real life, but that's what we're led to believe on the show. With Nigella, what you see is what you get--she raids the fridge at midnight, and it shows in her body--and the same with Laura. She often tells herself "that's enough," or slices herself a bite-sized piece of whatever it is that she's tasting. She doesn't do the huge overflowing bites that Giada does either. She both practices and preaches moderation, which is very French, and very sexy. A different kind of sexy from Giada's overt sexuality, or from Nigella's Rubenesque wallowing in seductively buttery sauces and bloody meats. The notion that you can eat what you want, in limitation, is something that North American's don't understand very well. We either have to have no cake, or a whole cake. And I think that if what we see on television better corresponded to that reality--eating well is nothing to be ashamed of, and eating well in moderation is sexy--we'd be much better off.


Margo said...

Two of my three faves as well. I can't STAND Giada, though! Probably for the reasons you state!

A male example that would fit your argument might be Anthony Sedlak from "The Main." The show (I don't know if you watch) is overtly sexy: the theme song tells us (implied: female viewers)"I know what you want, I'm going to make it right for you, here on the main." Gets me every time. I'd put him in the thin, objectified, orgasmic eater category. I'm hungry just thinking about it...ha!

Melissa said...

Giada looks like a bobble-head hockey doll, but her recipes are good. Nigella, however, is my goddess. My copy of Feast is dying a slow and painful death due to overuse.

Anthony Sedlak, you're right, is sort of a female version of Giada (complete with bobble-head), but I'd have to watch The Main to get a sense of how/what he eats. He annoys me, though. I'll take Tyler or Bobby Flay any day.

Melissa said...

One thing that surprises me is the dearth of any veggie programs on FoodTV.

And I forgot to talk about Paula Deen. Oh well; another day.

Margo said...

or two fat ladies!

Margo said...

and agreed-- bobby flay is my fantasy husband.

Melissa said...

I completely forgot about the Two
Fat Ladies! Well, one fat lady now, If I'm remembering right. But if I could find evidence that they were also sexualized, then I'd have to get into the fetishization of BBWs, which is a whole other area. I'd need to consult someone in gender studies for that one. Food is so much fun, both intellectually and gastronomically!

Rochelle said...

A great piece - you're an exemplary writer, and I really look forward to becoming a regular reader! No fantasy of sleeping with Giada on my part, though it is fun to pretend I had her wardrobe! Best, Rochelle of Sexy Girls Eat.

Melissa said...

Thanks, Rochelle! I don't have a whole lot of time for in-dept articles like this, but it's fun when I do. Keep checking back!