19 July 2009

MasterChef Australia (& I baked cupcakes)

This show has been on my mind this week. As Chris, who was the favourite to win, was eliminated from Masterchef the final is going to be between two women over the age of thirty-five. It's not a reality show that's determined by audience votes, so I'm not about to claim that this reflects any shift in the Australian culture towards the appreciation of women, but I think the way this was been marketed is really telling. Astoundingly, and happily, there hasn't been any mention of a catfight or any attempt to manufacture hostility between the two women. Hooray! Someone at Masterchef seems to have gotten the message that female competitiveness isn't a deviancy of some sort that needs to be fetishised and trivialised. Obviously I celebrated this by making cupcakes:

And yes, I totally made those and took about 50 photos. Cos I'm just that narcissistic. Anyway, I saw an interesting column about MasterChef in the sun-herald today which wasn't on the interwebs and which I'm going to retype in full. Cos that's the sot of time-wasting, article-thieving lass I am:

The Winner is... talent and, oh, a woman
Macho antics have been left on the backburner , writes host Sarah Wilson.

Is it interesting that whatever the outcome tonight, Australia's first MasterChef will be a woman over 35? I reckon it is.
And, please, I'm not straddling some haughty feminist hight horse. Surely we're beyond that.
Women don't win reality TV shows, at least not in the first season. I viewer-determined contests, the voters are mostly young women (a complex phenomenon, but true).
And women 35-plus? They certainly don't win reality TV shows.
But here we are, about to be delivered s winner in either Julie, a 38-year-old mum from NSW's central coast or Poh, a 35-year-old artist of Asian descent who cooks with stink beans.
People like this don't tend to make it to TV. But, as everyone I've spoken to this week has said- on radio, TV and that barometer of right-nowness, Twitter- they represent an aspect of Australia that is very right-now. Precisely because they're not what we've come to cynically expect.
This is interesting. And a bloody relief.
Now I could wade into a discussion about how Poh and Julie's victory is all the more poignsnt because they won a cooking show. Men dominate public culinary displays. Women cook (at home, behind the scenes); men chef. the Ramsays and Pierre Whites of the world theatrically create dinning experiences with fancy ingredients, propped up by cookbook-kitchenware-TV show empires. And they swear and behave like their privates have been too close to a hot burner for too long. I could wade, but I won't.
Because what's more interesting is that tonight's result celebrates a "right now" shift. It's a shift to more boys cooking at home, behind the scenes. It's a shift to new relationships with diverse role models. kids loved Sam, mum's loved Poh, my surfer mates loved Julie, tough radio jocks loved Chris, young women loved Justine.
It's a shift away from snarky, low forms of human behaviours we all ache to escape.
Julie of Poh win based on merit. I promise you this. It's a true, simple, emotionally relatable result. Nasty popularity-determining antics, that bring out regrettable behaviour in audiences, contestants and critics, were not required.
The best person wins and in the process a bag of ideas about men and women have been deemed defunct. Which is more than just interesting don't you think?

I think there's a good summary of why this show has been so popular at the end, but more importantly the first two thirds outline a pretty solid feminist analysis of the (heavily gendered) Chef/cook binary. Which is why I found Wilson's throwaway "feminist high horse" comment so perplexing, (and annoying becasue intelligent and critical women aren't on a "high-horse"). True she wasn't too critical of the show, and I have no idea what she was trying to get at with the shifting relationships argument. I'm not sure if she was thinking of shifting relationships in society or on the show, but I think word limits and editors got the better of her there.

I'm not surprised or angry that the host of the show is selling it, it's her job after all, but you could be far more critical of MasterChef. I had a discussion with a friend recently about how the mystery ingredients in challenges are usually very Western which marginalised and probably disadvantaged the contestants of non-Western decent. Which is an excellent example of institutional racism, where the game is set up to benefit the "neutral" white subject, and telling of Australian society in general.

And there's the question in the back of my mind that Poh and Julie might be escaping the cat fight treatment becasue they're both acting acceptably feminine by being amiable and non-combative. In the end though, I don't think that is central to what's going on here. As Wilson said MasterChef owes its success to the likeability of the contestants and the apparent lack of manufactured snark (see Big Brother for a counterpoint). The show is compelling partly because of the drama set up though the lighting, music, constant ad breaks etc., and partly becasue the people are all lovely and seem to really like each other and enjoy what we're watching them do. Poh and Julie weren't any more deferential, nice or vulnerable on screen than the other contestants, male or female, so I doubt it was acceptable femininity that got them to the finals so much as talent and acting like a mature human being.

If you think I'm missing something important though feel free to call me out. It wouldn't be the first time I went easy on something becasue I liked it.

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