MasterChef what are you thinking?

24 April 2013

A still from the new Masterchef promotion.
A still from the new Masterchef promotion.

The upcoming new series of MasterChef Australia is a groundbreaking examination of gender politics in the kitchen.

In the new promo, this year's contestants are resplendent in baby pink and powder blue. They are partaking in the battle of the sexes - the final frontier of humanity. A particularly astute contestant observes: "If you look at all the top chefs in the world, they have one thing in common: they're all men." A sassy lady counters with, "Women can multitask!" as she sprouts extra limbs (we are also witches, obviously).

Let me give you a moment to bang your head against the wall/scream into your pillow. Done? Great, now let's consider the implications of the abominable exercise in television that is Masterchef Australia 2013. More than any other Australian program, MasterChef has brought food, cooking, and chefs to the forefront of popular culture. Since its first season in 2009 audience numbers have been dwindling, but lucky for us some genius at Shine Australia thought it would be a brilliant idea to shove tired, boring gender stereotypes down our throats in order to revive the franchise. As awful as it is, MasterChef does and has reflected deeply embedded myths about gender in the kitchen - the concept of "girls" versus "boys" assumes there is an inherent difference in the way men and women cook. These myths exist even in the professional industry.

In a 2011 review of the all-female kitchen at Bistrode (no longer trading), columnist Terry Durack muses, "It looks like the Bistrode team has the strategy right: send the bloke off to earn a crust in the city, allowing the girls to stay at home and look after the family (business)." In a ladies' kitchen, "There is a lack of banging and crashing; it feels calmer, less testosteronic. The girls on the floor have a skip in their steps and a blithe spirit." Such gendered (condescending) commentary underpins perceptions of chefs in the industry. Analiese Gregory was executive sous chef at one of the country's most acclaimed restaurants, Quay. She is currently in France after being offered a job cooking at three-Michelin-star fine diner Bras. She says, "Yeah, I cook with love but ... I cook the way I do because I've spent 12 years working in some of the best kitchens in the world, not because of any other reason."

One of the industry's most innovative and exciting chefs, Christine Manfield, recently announced she will be closing her restaurant, Universal, to pursue travel and writing. The Australian industry is bereft of female role models; internationally, it's not much different. Jonny Lake, head chef at the internationally acclaimed UK restaurant The Fat Duck, notes, "There's not as many women to start with. They're [women chefs] still gonna probably have to double-take, you know, like think twice every time they do something. How should I play this? Should I play it as the girl? Or should I play it as the tough… you know?" Professional chefs are often depicted as aggressive and egotistical - see Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, and even Marco Pierre White, host of the recently concluded MasterChef: The Professionals with his booming voice and general alpha-male vibe.

Not only does MasterChef shape how we view contestants, it manipulates how we view guest chefs, potentially shaping the way the industry is perceived. The audience responds to the media's gendered representation of the chef: male chefs have their aggression glorified, while women are portrayed as gentle and nurturing. The reinforcement of the importance of masculine traits in a chef produces an audience that values male over female chefs. Yes, it's a television show, but this shouldn't mean that we don't question the gender stereotypes we are exposed to in mainstream media that potentially affect careers and the way we see ourselves.

The backlash has already started: on YouTube, comments are echoing disgust and eye-rolls; Twitter is full of snide remarks. Not only does the promo belittle women as primping domestic goddesses ("Women are better at presentation - we're used to grooming ourselves!") but also reduces men to bumbling dullards - "Men should stick to barbecues. You know, the simple stuff." Lord knows what dire straits MasterChef ratings are in for someone to scrape the bottom of the barrel like this, but the audience isn't having it. The ad culminates in a pie being thrown in the face of judge Gary Mehigan. Surely this is what awaits the execs who have produced this ridiculous rendition of what was once a popular television series promoting positivity, fairness and encouragement.

Nancy Lee is a PhD student and teaching fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She is researching media and celebrity chefs.

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