Monday, December 1, 2008

reality tv analysis

I decided to watch the first episode of the current—fifth—season of “Top Chef.” I had watched episodes of the show in the past and enjoyed it; I was also hoping to figure out what a feminist critique of a show that didn't explicitly deal with women, bodies, clothes, etc. might look like. Top Chef is an hour-long show on Bravo, and is constructed in a similar format as, for example, Project Runway. The contestants are given different challenges every episode in which they need to come up with and cook something for the judges; there is a winner and a loser, and the loser is eliminated at the end.

Top Chef is part of this style of elimination/competition shows in which people are competing based on what they can do—their skills, profession, training, and experience. As such, it is ostensibly a merit-based competition. While the producers include personal interactions with the contestants, and there is always drama, ultimately, the best chef is supposed to be the winner.

I began watching this episode with a few assumptions and hypotheses. First, I went into it hyper-conscious of the gendered nature of cooking; in general, women are imagined as cooks and men are chefs—the home kitchen is a feminine space whereas the professional kitchen is a masculine space. Additionally, I already knew that to be a woman and a chef is incredibly difficult; based on the type of commitment expected, the people you work with, the actual cooking environment—I've always heard that it's hell to try to fit into that career. So, I was going into the show expecting to see some manifestations of that egregious inequality.

Ultimately, I have to say that I really liked the show. I went into it with my criticism hat on—I was watching to find things “wrong” with it and pounce on them. After the episode ended, I was stressing out because I didn't know what I was going to criticize for 800 words. Then I realized that actually, it is just as worthwhile to discuss why the show was so effective, instead of just jumping on the bad stuff. There were SOME moments that I picked up on—at the beginning, one of the contestants said she didn't want to cry for fear of looking like a girl. There was also an awkward moment involving the three openly gay contestants, discussing their “gay-ness.” Ultimately, though, these were really just moments that didn't seem to have a large effect on how I viewed the show.

There are several elements that I thought made it pretty great. First, just in terms of representation, there was a very equal balance of both men and women, as well as people of color on the show as contestants. Next, the competition element on Top Chef seems to be legitimate and valid; the contestants are really do seem to be judged based on their talent and their end product; the challenges are realistic, and unlike other competition shows, there isn't anything contrived just to make it sexy—there are no “bake in a bikini!” challenges. I also really liked the way that the hostess of the show—Padma Lakshmi—is portrayed; she is clearly beautiful woman, and probably was picked to host the show in part because of tat, but unlike on other competition shows, her role is not exploited as just the “hot chick.” She is given a platform to both be an influential judge and speak intelligently as a critical part of the show.

In terms of this episode in particular, the challenge for the contestants was to go into one of New York City's ethnic neighborhoods and cook a dish that reflected that culture. Once again, I went into it anticipating that there could be some problematic representations of ethnicity and neighborhoods, but I was pleasantly surprised by how it was portrayed. There was no sappy montage about how exotic ethnic food is, there were no awkward representations of “ethnic” people, no cliché music or costumes or anything. It was simply portrayed professionally and intelligently as a difference in the style and ingredients in different cuisines. I feel like on a different show, this could have been so overdetermined, but here it was just allowed to be what it is.

I do wish that the show was willing to deal with the gendered nature of the work, explicitly. While they represent women and people of color pretty well, there is no conversation about how that is actually very uncommon in real professional kitchens. It would be pretty cool if they were willing to acknowledge those inequalities and state that they were consciously trying to affect the status quo. Other than that, and the producer's lingering desire to portray some personal drama (though very little in this episode, at least), I truly enjoyed the show as a refreshing alternative to the other competition shows out there; I'm definitely going to watch the rest of this season. I think my biggest complaint ends up being that we haven't invented TVs that allow you to taste what the contestants are cooking!

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