The Secret Sexism and Racism of Food TV

(Alexa Strabuk • The Student Life)

The ironic part about writing this article is that I’m currently watching an episode of "Chopped," with all its testosterone-fueled competition and dramatic commentary. The sole woman in this episode is portrayed as an underdog, while the men around her are frequently interviewed during the round for their plans, and the judges chime in on their chances.

A half hour later, and "Pioneer Woman" comes on. Forget excitement and tension, now I’m watching a very tame cooking show hosted by an older white woman, on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. The dichotomy is striking and rather telling.

While many people might be hooked on shows on Food Network and the Cooking channel, the reality is that very few of them realize that these channels and their programs help perpetuate a subtle form of sexism.

Take, for example, the numerous competition shows such as "Chopped," "Iron Chef," and "Cutthroat Kitchen." The hosts are almost always men, and a significant number of the judges are men as well. There’s an intensity to them that mirrors a sport game or a fight, an appeal to a largely masculine target audience.

"Iron Chef," for example, emulates a somewhat gladiatorial feel. Flashing lights, special effects, even fog and the occasional jets of flame, topped off with dramatic music and a theatrical entrance for the defending Iron Chef are indicative of this attempt to appeal. In addition, their time slots are usually during evening hours, when their intended audiences would typically be home from work.

Meanwhile, domestic cooking shows such as "Barefoot Contessa," "Martha," and "Everyday Italian" are the complete opposite. Female hosts with soothing background music, very practiced smiles, and homes with décor that emulates the showroom of an Ikea are typical. Not to mention their time slots are during slow daytime hours, when their intended audiences of homemakers are busy tidying up the house and preparing dinner.

Another worrying facet is that the vast majority of domestic cooking shows perpetuate a climate of heteronormativity. This is most blatantly evident in commentary by female hosts who say that they hope their husbands enjoy what they’re whipping up for dinner, shown step by step in rather sterile language and on a set with a serious lack of color.

While networks such as the aforementioned Food Network and Cooking Channel are not blatantly racist or discriminatory, the unfortunate fact is that they still perpetuate a great deal of gender roles, the ideal of a heteronormative household and the woman as the homemaker, and the concrete divide between the target audiences of competition and domestic shows.

I personally enjoy cooking and baking, and have been doing both since I was barely walking. There is a distinct lack of male hosts for domestic cooking shows. While I appreciate the presence of any domestic cooking shows to begin with, it does get dry and even a little irritating when the only interesting recipes I see on television on a given day are relayed to me by a very plastic-looking white woman with an unnaturally huge smile gushing about advice that is guaranteed to “please your man."

This divide between 'normal' cooking shows for men and women is noticeable enough that there are YouTube-based web shows that both blow up and mock the differences. Case in point, "Epic Meal Time." Hosted by Harley Morenstein and his friends, the drama and featured dishes have been cranked up to ridiculous levels; one famous episode is The Fast Food Lasagna, where, as the title suggests, the crew makes a lasagna comprised of fast food items, capping out at 71,488 calories and 5,463 grams of fat.

Even the host has commented that part of the premise for "Epic Meal Time" was inspired by the “food porn” culture of the 2000s, and the rather mundane shows that air on television. Seriously, if I ever host a cooking show, it’s going to be half wisecracks and stand-up comedy, and half international cooking. Maybe I’ll call it "Subversive Eats with J-Kim." (Brought to you in part by Pepto-Bismol and Mott’s® Natural Applesauce.)

I’d also like to see ethnic cooking shows as well, while we’re on the topic of a lack of diversity. There is a noticeable lack of shows focused entirely on non-Western dishes, not to mention a lack of non-white hosts.

In fact, if you go to the TV schedule for Food Network, almost every show, if not all of them, for the next week are hosted by white hosts or only have casts of white individuals. While I’d always felt somewhat mystified while watching Food Network and the Cooking Channel as to why shows seemed to share too many characteristics, the racial homogeneity of hosts was actually surprising and a little shocking to me as I did some research.

Unfortunately, much in the way that a large number of Hollywood stars are white and movies feature main stars who are mainly white, Food Network and the Cooking Channel are unlikely to change soon. Their target audiences are more often than not mainly white, heterosexual households.

As pessimistic as it sounds, most likely things will remain this way unless these and other cooking networks are persuaded to look past mere profits, so as to be more inclusive. I only hope that one day, I can watch an Asian cooking show that never makes any mention of General Tso’s Chicken. Seriously, c’mon people.