The Food Network: A Challenge to Gender Equality?

by Kendra Weddle
(with responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

I have a love-hate relationship with the Food Network.

It started off innocently enough, as all addictions do. While chewing my dry and unappealing peanut-butter and jelly sandwich I watched as Graham Kerr (on the local public television station) created a beautiful entrée of seared duck and roasted root vegetables. Later Julia Childs and Jacques Pépin (on yet another public television venue) lured me into their culinary world, though at a distance as I was not ready to invest the time and skill required to prepare their elaborate French fare.

Years later, fully hooked on the televised world of food preparation, I watched Rachel Ray and Tyler Florence, Giada and the Barefoot Contessa prepare dishes slightly less daunting, a trick I later realized, secured my descent into being a Food Network junkie. As each one made tantalizing food look easy to prepare (not to mention there were virtually no dirty dishes flung across the kitchen in the wake of culinary adventures), my former spectator mentality shifted. My watching turned to action: I began to scour my fridge and pantry, looking for similar ingredients, armed with techniques and flavor profiles and an overwhelming desire to be creative.

With my addiction complete, I began cooking—under the watchful eye of my Food Network gurus. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t grown up in the kitchen. I had. In fact, I can still tell you the first dish I ever made: American macaroni of some kind or another, an easy-to-follow recipe straight from my 4-H cooking book, consisting of browned ground beef, macaroni, tomatoes and a few spices. It wasn’t great as I remember, but it was ok, a place to begin, for sure.

The difference between how I learned to cook and my new-found cooking inspiration is that I was given permission to go beyond following a recipe. Rachel Ray became my go to show. In thirty minutes she created not only a complete meal but the feeling within me that if I had similar vegetables or proteins in my kitchen, I only needed a half-hour and voilá! I could enjoy a nutritious meal, one that tasted better than those awful fried chicken nuggets or greasy hamburger that too often substituted for real food.

So, for all my gratefulness to the Food Network for teaching me how to cook better, for challenging the assumption I had that I must follow a recipe, for showing me that cooking can be fun and creative, I am also frustrated with it, to the point of canceling my cable service, ensuring I will quit switching over to channel 52, if only for a second to see, if by chance—by a really small chance—a woman might be winning Chopped or Iron Chef America.

Lured by the current “reality TV” phenomenon, the Food Network has followed suit by creating its own versions of ordinary people having something interesting to broadcast around the world. And, while I lament this shift away from actual cooking I am especially frustrated by the masculine preference portrayed show after show in the judges (consistently two men and one woman), in the vast disproportion of male competitors over female ones, and in the overwhelming result of men winning the competitions.

Clearly embarrassed by this recurring pattern, the producers of Chopped created one all-female show including three female judges and four female chefs competing for the $10,000 prize. So, this, apparently, was their answer to the problem of male dominance: create one alternative show. Then, return to normal procedure.

I wonder what would happen instead, for example, if all of the judges were women, or at the least, if there were two women out of three? How would the negotiations change as the judges determine each winning course? Too, can the Food Network explore how male and female palettes might be different? Is it possible that these preferences continue to determine that men are winning not because they are the better chefs, as the program suggests, but because their palettes conform more readily to the predominant palettes of the male judges?

Perhaps I am being too critical of the Food Network, it is, after all, only entertainment, not intended as serious fare. But it does seem to me an illustration of the pervasive challenge to equality embedded in all aspects of our culture. And, while seemingly identifying the problem themselves, it is clear executives had little awareness about how to address this inequity on a sustained basis, opting instead to embrace a one-time fix and thereby alleviating any guilt they might have in continuing the status quo—a solution not too different from Governor Romney’s “binders full of women.”

The challenge of re-shaping perspective, to move away from a dominant patriarchal model is immense. I’m looking forward to learning how Letha and Melanie think about this struggle, and perhaps what insight they have on my food addiction!

Melanie’s response: Expanding the Conversation to Other Reality Shows

Although I’ve long known about Kendra’s addiction to the Food Network, hers is not an obsession I share. Once in awhile, I watch Food Network shows with my dad (a food show junkie, like Kendra), but I find even the competitions like Chopped to be tedious—and, perhaps more significantly, a reminder of how often I fail as a cook, lacking the motivation, the creativity, and the energy needed to make even the most fundamental meals for my family.

My decision to avoid the Food Network shows is not, however, based on any aversion to television—or, even, to reality television. Because here’s one of my secrets: I am an inveterate watcher of bad reality TV shows, from Dance Moms to Intervention, Real Housewives of Orange County to Breaking Amish.

My excuse for this morally questionable habit is also, in itself, probably questionable: I’m generally doing something else while I watch, riding my stationary bike, folding laundry, or grading first-year student essays. Oh, and, I spend so much of my day reading stuff as an English professor, having some mindless disengagement—a kind of vegetation, if you will—seems like a kind of gift.

I know, I know. I could disengage with healthier fare, like some yoga or meditation. Please don’t judge me—too much.

But the trends Kendra noticed on the Food Network are also manifest in the shows I watch. The “pervasive challenge to equality” Kendra writes about can be seen in a show like Real Housewives, for example, where gross socioeconomic inequities are on full display, but where the women themselves—serving as the show’s protagonists—are filmed as bitches and whores, schemers, liars, princesses in their L.A. castles and angels in glittering houses, kept women whose wealthy husbands make their own excesses possible. So, gold-diggers, too.

Breaking Amish, a reality show premiering on The Learning Channel this fall, is even more appalling in its stereotyping of young women. In the show, five young people—all Amish or conservative Mennonite—leave their families and move to New York City, presumably to see what modern life is like. The show explores the tensions the two men and three women face, straddled between their religious upbringing and big city debauchery.

Beyond my aggravation that the conservative Mennonite on the show was identified only as “Mennonite,” as if she spoke for every Mennonite sect (including my much, much more liberal one), I was irritated that the three women on the show were also featured as caricatures, their struggles hollow and gendered. One, stereotyped the feminist bitch because she thought men should help women with household chores, also seemed frigid; another was promoted as the whore, especially when drunk; the third longed for a modeling career, her dark hair and beautiful eyes masking her mysterious sexuality.

Thank God these women could be themselves in New York City, the show seemed to say; being Amish had scoured them into a monolith of frumpy cap dresses and coverings. (The show has faced a good bit of scrutiny, and for good reason. One thoughtful critique is Elizabeth Greenwood’s “Shame on ‘Breaking Amish’” in The Atlantic Monthly.)

Over the years, some reality shows have tried to move away from editing their female protagonists into stereotypes. On HGTV, a few women serve as hosts of real estate based programs, and appear smart and secure as businesswomen. Once in awhile, all-woman teams on shows like The Amazing Race are filmed as strong and athletic and intelligent (but also, no doubt, beautiful).

But let’s face it: In reality TV, from cooking shows to home design to programs featuring dance and pageant moms, women rarely come off as more than one-dimensional. And that one dimension plays into deeply entrenched beliefs about who or what women should be.

In the journalism classes I teach, we talk often about how media biases are not necessarily left- or right-winged, no matter what Fox News might suggest. Instead, media outlets are concerned most with making money, by whatever means possible. Television news programs, talk shows, and reality series give viewers what they want, because that means more revenue.

And, apparently, what reality show viewers want are female characters who fit already preconceived notions about who or what women are. A dynamic, strong woman who knows herself will not play well on screen, whether she is chopping vegetables or homemaking in Beverly Hills.

In this light, the “pervasive challenge to equality” Kendra writes about on the Food Network is merely a reflection of the even more significant challenges to equity that exist in our culture. Therefore “reality” TV is real—in a way—because it reflects the reality of our societal embrace of the “dominant patriarchal model.”

Knowing this much might convince me to forgo my guilty pleasure and turn off the television in favor of some yoga instead—though grading papers in downward-facing dog might indeed be difficult.

Letha’s response: Another Way of Thinking about Gender and Cooking

Responding to Kendra’s and Melanie’s posts this time presented a challenge for me. I don’t have cable TV, so I’ve never watched the Food Network; and I don’t watch “reality” shows (except occasionally some talent shows and especially the true realities of people’s lives as shown in news and documentaries on PBS).

And I like to cook! (I’ve never understood why some older people who live alone say they never cook but just open a can of something or eat cereal for dinner because, they say, “I don’t have anyone to cook for.” I figure I do have someone to cook for —me! I’m someone. And I like to eat delicious and nutritious food.)

Lest I come across as some sort of elitist snob, I hasten to add I’m not one of those people who says, “I never watch TV” in a tone that indicates a sense of moral or intellectual superiority. It’s just that most of the time I’m looking at a computer screen rather than a television screen so don’t keep up on programs. But I’m a film aficionado and enjoy watching Netflix DVDs and streaming video as well as watching movies at my local art theater and attending a film club there. Once in awhile, however, I do watch television for something other than the PBS NewsHour (which I watch daily). This past year, to my own (and probably my friends’) surprise, I found myself “addicted” to the Downton Abbey drama on PBS and, more recently, to another shorter PBS series, Call the Midwife. And truth be told, I rented the DVDs of the entire series of Mad Men because it was a reminder (a painful one) of the period of my own young adulthood and the gender attitudes of that time.

Which brings me to what I can comment on in both Kendra’s and Melanie’s posts: gender bias and stereotyping. (If we had time and space, we could expand that conversation to other media beyond television, as our good friend Alena Amato Ruggerio has done in her new book, Media Depictions of Brides, Wives, and Mothers.)

Gender bias and stereotyping
But I’d like to approach this topic from a slightly different angle and see another side to men on TV cooking shows. In 1970, a children’s book was published called I’m Glad I’m a Boy. I’m Glad I’m a Girl by Whitney Darrow, the late cartoonist and satirist for The New Yorker. There are debates today about whether the author intended the book as a serious expression of belief or as satire, but the publisher apparently sold it as an actual illustrated book for young children. I used to quote parts of it in speeches to illustrate extreme ideas about gender. On Amazon, where you can buy a used copy for $195 (!), one of the reviewers, who has saved her copy from childhood, says the book was taken very seriously by parents and children (including herself at the time), regardless of the author’s actual intent. Given the extremely restricted gender roles of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, I can believe it. Remember the segment of Leave It to Beaver that we included in our FemFaith post about potlucks.? (I was writing my earliest articles and books during the decades of the sixties and seventies, and the women’s movement was just getting underway, challenging such rigid limitations on what people could do based on their sex. So the book might have been intended as satire.)

The book had lines such as “Boys invent things; girls use what boys invent” and “Boys build houses; girls keep house.” One of the lines was “Boys can eat; girls can cook.”

I thought of that a few days ago when I read this little blog post showing the recent homework of an 8-year-old girl whose assignment was to match toys and activities with whether they were associated with boys, girls, or both. The lesson was intended to help children see how societal gender bias works, but she apparently thought it was asking her to emphasize actual differences in what boys and girls can and should do. For her, the chart didn’t have enough room for all the activities and toys she regarded as gender-neutral, so she had drawn extra lines under the “both”heading rather than filling all the boxes in each column as the teacher had instructed. In the “boys” column, she had only three items and two in the “girls” column. She believed everything else should go into the “”both” category Yet, I noticed she had put cooking as one of the only two items under “girls.” (The other was Barbies.)

So here is another way to think about what Kendra presented in her thoughts about the Food Network. Could it be that seeing so many men preparing delicious salads, entrees, or desserts in the kitchens of cooking programs be something positive—a step toward changing stereotypes? Is it possible that men writing cookbooks or competing in cooking contests is a good thing— a way of providing another image for helping boys grow up rejecting the stereotypical idea that cooking is women’s work? True, competitions would seem more fair if panels of judges could allow for changes in composition—two women and one man sometimes, and at other times, the typical two male judges and one female that Kendra described. And certainly it would be good to see women winning the competitions as often as men. But right now what I’m thinking about is the joy of watching men savor the joy of cooking!

I have two grown sons, one of whom has never had the slightest interest in cooking, whereas the other is a fabulous cook—whether a simple soup recipe or one-dish meal or a gourmet dinner. Either he or his wife prepares their evening meal depending on work schedules, and they’ve done this while raising four children, who learned that It simply doesn’t matter which parent cooks or whether they do it together. Gender never enters in at all, but creativity, innovation, and a healthy diet do. To watch them prepare a Thanksgiving dinner together is like watching a musical duo or dance, both “chefs” in harmony and rhythm as they present one the best meals anywhere, always with at least one new recipe included with the traditional fare every year. It’s such a contrast from the stereotypical Thanksgiving where the women are rushing around in the kitchen while the men huddle around the TV in another room.

So while I agree with most of what Kendra is saying, I can’t help but also see a silver lining in viewing men learning and teaching cooking. (And yes, I know we could discuss other issues such as what may happen when men enter occupations formerly associated with women and vice versa, but we can save that for another time.)

Sometimes, when I think of the post-resurrection narrative in John 21, I wonder about the feelings of the disciples as they return to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, dragging their fishing nets and tired from their long hours of labor. Unexpectedly, they find a meal prepared for them—not by Peter’s wife or Martha or any other woman but by Jesus himself! The disciples see a charcoal fire on the beach, and the Risen Christ is cooking a meal of fish and bread and motioning them to join him. “Come and have breakfast,” he says. Can you just imagine? As he serves them the meal, are they thinking back to another occasion when “Jesus took the loaves and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11)? Or the breaking of the bread at the last supper in the upper room? I wonder.

As we, too, give thanks this day, I hope we’ll be thankful not only for the food God has so graciously provided but also for the hands that lovingly prepared the meal, whether they’re male hands or female hands. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

FemFaith Authors
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Visit her website at lethadawsonscanzoni.com. Dr. Kendra Weddle is associate professor and Chair of Religion, Humanities, & Interdisciplinary Studies at Texas Wesleyan University and coauthor of Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends and If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University. She is the author or co-author of five books, including most recently Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (Herald Press, April 2018). She is member of INK: A Creative Collective. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Dundee, Ore., with her husband and two sons.

2 COMMENTS

  1. this was a very interesting topic, I’m currently writing a research paper on the gendering of food. More specifically of idea of “men being chefs and women being cooks”, and this material is very helpful in understanding just how this is effecting our social structure. thank you for your insight!

  2. I am a fan of cooking shows, but notice that if there comes to choose a man or a woman, more will give the man the vote. That isn’t just chopped, but also master chef programs. The female judges also don’t favor their gender at all.

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