One is not born, but rather one becomes a woman – Simone de Beauvoir, 1953
This well-known assertion of Simone de Beauvoir, pointing toward the social and cultural mores that form and regulate an individual as a ‘woman’, is especially apt in light of the controversy surrounding the finalists of BBC2’s Great British Bake Off. The three female finalists have been variously castigated for being too miserable, too opinionated, too confident and too feminine. The repeated characterisations of the women in terms of inflexible, binary gender roles, alongside the criticisms of them for either failing to live up to these or – bizarrely – for adhering to them too closely, invites further analysis of the presentation of womanliness and femininity in the media. Moreover, the presence in the criticism of underlying suspicions regarding the race and class status of the women finalists demonstrates the increasing need for more fine-grained examinations of how we approach the still-troubling and troublesome category of ‘woman’. In this co-authored blog post, CelebYouth’s Kim and guest blogger Sarah Burton discuss the relationship between the structural context of GBBO and the individual presentations of gender therein, with a particular focus on the interactions between media, Britishness and public space.
Happy housewives, feminist killjoys and Great British Bake Off
GBBO ostensibly stands as a multiplicity of signifiers of bourgeois middle-class Britain. Baking is traditionally the preserve of the Women’s Institute, of the home, and of the family business. It is conventionally viewed as safe, secure, homogenous and heteronormative. GBBO plays on these signifiers – the bunting, countryside, beautifully furnished kitchens in pastel colours, recipes that have longevity, food history all stand as evocations of a particular form of bygone Britishness. In some ways GBBO could be interpreted as representing a broader socio-cultural regression and conservatism in terms of configurations of gender. Neoliberal modalities of female selfhood which fetishise traditional gender roles – the happy and thrifty housewife – and celebrate domestic retreatism are seemingly upheld within the framing of the programme (see: Gold, 2013; Jensen, 2012; Negra, 2008). In the same vein as the now-ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan, GBBO arguably plays on current anxieties of austerity: the happy housewife does her bit by baking efficiently, thus helping to take care of the household finances on a domestic front. Women are able to show patriotism through the performance of conventional gender roles.
However, it is not as simple as this apparent re-inscribing of conventional gender roles and privileging of middle-class ideals and romanticised notions of Britishness. As both avid consumers of television and feminist academics interested in representations of class, gender and race in contemporary popular culture, we find GBBO a complex and multi-faceted text. The diversity of contestants – male and female – alongside the choice of judges and presenters, challenges such a straightforward reading, thus demonstrating the space GBBO offers to perform gender in a way which is queered and subversive – albeit in ways that are partial and fragile. The three finalists, Ruby, Kimberley and Frances (though to a lesser degree), do not easily fit the image of the happy housewife that GBBO seemingly celebrates.
As feminist academics we’re familiar with the traditional boundaries of successfully performing ‘woman’: passivity, virginity, silence and meekness all figure highly in accomplishing the role, and the apparently conservative space of GBBO would seem to be the natural home for these practices of womanliness. As we describe in more detail below, Ruby and Kimberley, conversely, act outside of the formal tropes of femininity and of the space they inhabit on GBBO. In doing so they show that, just as womanliness can be subverted and challenged, so too can the space in which it occurs. In this context Ruby and Kimberley can be read in terms of Sara Ahmed’s ‘affect aliens’ and feminist killjoys. Ahmed notes that such bodies do not even need to act to a specific cause in order to ‘kill joy’ but that,
you can be affectively alien because you are affected in the wrong way by the right things. Or you can be affectively alien because you affect others in the wrong way: your proximity gets in the way of other people’s enjoyment of the right things, functioning as an unwanted reminder of histories that are disturbing, that disturb an atmosphere (2010: 67).
Thus, as Ahmed notes, Ruby and Kimberley ‘kill joy’ not only through the individual action of refusing the mantel of the happy housewife, but also in their affect on the space of the traditional home purportedly shown in GBBO. Their presence goes to reveal the ways in which the conventional staging of the programme has in fact been queered in and for contemporary society. In doing so the heteronormative becomes the ‘other’ and the threats presented by women such as Ruby and Kimberley to patriarchal and capitalist domination become more apparent.
Doing woman: activity, labour and ‘acceptable’ performances.
However, despite such ‘queering’ of gender, we can also see how these contestants – and indeed the show – were subject to practices which sought to undermine any attempts to ‘do woman’ differently. A philosophy student and psychologist respectively, Ruby and Kimberley are not solely defined by their abilities in the realm of the domestic – these women have choices: they choose to bake as much as they choose their career. In this regard, with their freedom to shift between economic, professional and domestic forms of labour and to control the context in which they perform this labour, Ruby and Kimberley could be understood as representations of (feminist) privilege. Yet despite this apparent liberation, the critiques of both women remain mired in fears regarding their unconventional or ‘incorrect’ performances of gender and race. Ruby and Kimberley, in taking pleasure in the domestic, may be able to make certain choices unavailable to a great many women, but despite this freedom, their choices in performing ‘woman’ still appear to be circumscribed by a culture which dictates stagnant binary practices of gender.
Observing the Twittersphere over the course of the series, we witnessed Ruby be accused of being ‘too miserable’, of flirting with judge Paul Hollywood, and of being ‘inauthentically’ self-deprecating – variously positioned as everything from a stroppy teenager to a scheming Lolita, using her attractiveness to win over viewers and judges alike. Such responses reveal the gendered double standard and double bind to which women in public are subject, where women’s sexual attractiveness precludes them from the realm of intellect, reason and esteem. At the opposite end of the spectrum, focussed and confident Kimberley, at first popular, soon drew accusations of – ironically – being ‘too cock-sure’ ‘unappealingly smug’ and overly competitive. Such reactions are deeply racialised and gendered, being rooted in a broader anxiety and fear of the ‘strong and agentic black woman’ whilst also revealing the risks women encounter when they come forward as powerful and confident – especially in a context which still demands adherence to (heterosexual) gender regimes
Elsewhere, critiques of these contestants’ performances – and the show itself – reveal the deeply gendered evaluations of cooking as an activity and form of labour and the differential value attributed to this. Key among Ruby’s critics was French chef Raymond Blanc who deemed the show lacking ‘skill’ and saturated by ‘female tears’. Blanc’s remarks speak to the implicitly gendered ways in which ‘cooking’ is constructed – while Blanc and shows like Masterchef are claimed as representing ‘skill’ and ‘real work’, GBBO is relegated to the realm of the feminine – an ‘inferior’ and ‘trivial’ form of labour at best, a ‘pastime’ or ‘hobby’ at worst. Further more, Blanc’s emphasis on Ruby’s tears, recall the gendered Cartesian dualism which underline such evaluations: the hard, aggressive male rationality of the professional male chef pitted against the ‘emotional’ and ‘fragile’ female baker.
The hostility generated by Kimberley and Ruby on GBBO perhaps reveal that it is not the activity itself (baking, home-making, mothering) which denotes women as powerless but their engagement with that activity. Thus, when such activity is performed and claimed in a way that becomes agentic, it becomes threatening: as much a threat to certain forms of feminism as it is to the patriarchy.
Being ‘women’ in public
The criticisms of the GBBO finalists on the basis of their gender performance is merely a microcosm of the increasing misogyny in evidence in public spaces – something that Kim has observed and written about elsewhere. Even more worryingly, it is further indication of an attitude which holds that, instead of rejecting the validity of misogynist views and putting the responsibility to change on those who oppress, that women instead must be prepared to defend themselves against it – to arm themselves and to make decisions that do not position them as potential victims of misogyny.
This prompts the question of how far women have a legitimate and secure stake in public space. To what extent do women access possibilities to claim power, authority and self confidence? Why is it, when we talk about women such as Ruby and Kimberley, that we still refer to them as ‘unconventional’? Ruby and Kimberley may be unconventional when judged against historical paradigms of gender but in 2013 they are certainly not unusual. In analysing the contestation of gender performances and practices in GBBO we are left with the heavy notion that non-dominant groups are still expected to be ‘grateful’ for the space they are ‘allowed’ in the public sphere. In the moments in which they protest their precariousness we see how the hegemony reacts through bullying the groups into silence and voicelessness. It was important, and heartening, to see Ruby ‘shouting back’. As academics, feminists, activists, and perhaps most significantly, women in public, we recognise the need to continue tackling the structural and conceptual factors that allow the continuation of these forms of (intersectional) oppression that even apparently ‘throwaway’ popular culture draws to our attention.
Ahmed, Sara. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Berkeley: Duke University Press.
De Beauvoir, Simone. (1953). The Second Sex. Random House: London.
Jensen, Tracey. (2012). ‘Tough Love in Tough Times’ Studies in the Maternal 4 (2)
Negra, Diane, (2008). What a girl wants? Fantasizing a reclamation of the self in Postfeminism. Oxford and New York: Routledge.
About Sarah Burton: Having completed a BA (2007) and M.Litt (2009) in English Literature at Newcastle University Sarah spent several years dabbling in various artistic projects before returning to academia. Sarah completed her PGCE at the University of Cambridge in 2012, during which she undertook research into the notion of authority and writing in the English Literature canon, and completed her MRes in Sociology and Research Methods at the University of Glasgow in 2013. Her doctoral research investigates the value system(s) underpinning the production of knowledge in contemporary social theory. It examines ideas of power, authority and validity via a negotiation of the concepts of science and mess. In addition, Sarah is also co-convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Forum and Activism in Sociology Forum.
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