I’ve gotten very into The Great British Bake-Off of late, since discovering it on Netflix. I’ve even delved into YouTube for the charity ones, where it’s famous people doing often quite badly but for a good cause. I watch these shows not because I think I’d do a great job, though i can always find a celebrity on the charity ones doing worse than I would, but because I like to imagine being the kind of baker who could succeed at these things. (My probable Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, generally known as “Gillian’s Eating Thing,” doesn’t help.) This time through, I’m really noticing the psychology of the contestants, and there are some themes going here.
Specifically, yes, it’s the classic “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white guy.” Two contestants in particular come to mind for me. One, yes, a white guy. I can’t remember his name, because honestly he did not get very far. Because he simply wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He kept thinking that “putting his own spin” on the things he’d been asked to do was better than following what he was told, and he simply wasn’t as good at baking as he thought he was. Of course he wears a trilby.
On the other hand, there is Ruby, lovely Ruby. Skilled and talented Ruby. She was her season’s youngest baker. Still in college, in fact. She admits at one point that she’s never really made meringue—because she only recently acquired an electric mixer, you see, and she wasn’t going to take all that time to beat egg whites to stiff peaks by hand. She would routinely apologize for her food before Paul and Mary had a chance to taste it. Her mother told the camera that it was because she didn’t believe it was possible for her food to be as good as it ought, but it’s so clearly beyond that as you watch.
On one of the charity episodes, David Mitchell says that baking pork pies feels like making the sort of thing that’s the One Thing I Cook for a man, the sort where he has to make a prominent announcement that he’s making it and have everyone wait on him while he does. And he’s not wrong. After all, as my therapist points out, most of the most prominent chefs in the world are of course men. Women are expected to be able to cook, but if the cooking is flashy, that’s a man’s job.
Oh, there are some counterexamples. Women with supreme confidence in their abilities and men who are clearly full of self-doubt. (Though one of those men, if you listen to what he says, seems to me to have had an emotionally abusive father.) But it’s interesting to me that you’re much more likely to get men saying things like, “Well, it’s simple, but it’s good, and that’s all that matters” and women who produce basically the same thing saying, “I’m not sure it’s good enough, and it should probably be fancier.”
Maybe there’s a socialization aspect to it. The men are not expected to cry, and it’s seen as acceptable when the women do it, and that’s not okay, either. With my son, we are working very hard to find the balance between “you’re absolutely allowed to cry” and “maybe not about everything, though.” But for quite some time now, men have been socialized to never show their doubts, to never cry when they’re upset, to bottle emotions except maybe anger. Iain’s famous “dump everything into the trash can” explosion is just as much emotion as the various women’s tears of frustration, but it doesn’t get coded the same way—and maybe if Iain could have had a good cry, he would’ve had something of his baked Alaska to present.
In the end, as Sue Perkins said over the Iain blow-out, it’s just a reality show about cakes. I might well be overthinking, here. On the other hand, you know, once you start seeing these currents in people’s behaviours, maybe it really does start telling us something more about how we’re socialized and what our society is like. Not necessarily as an individual. I don’t know Ruby. I don’t know her life. I don’t want to imply that I do, especially since she’s a real person and not a fictional character. But season after season, the pattern holds true.
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