by Jarrah Hodge
I am a sucker for cooking competition shows. Usually (with occasional exceptions) as a feminist the main thing I notice is the general underrepresentation of women and visible minority contestants and judges. But then I got the heads up that Top Chef Canada’s Season 4 was being marketed as a “battle of the sexes”.
Ugh. The fact that we were finally going to get 50% women contestants on the show didn’t feel like such a victory anymore.
The posters (above) were harshly criticized around the blogosphere because of the overall grossness of the marketing ploy, as well as the difference between the captions on the two posters. The women’s poster reads: “Is that all you got boys?”, which is seemingly directed at the men in the competition, challenging them to step up their game. It’s gendered but not as bad as the men’s poster, which says: “This kitchen is no place for a woman”, attacking women as a group.
Huffington Post Canada said it wasn’t sure what the show was trying to accomplish: “They may have been trying for tongue-and-cheek, but for the most part, it’s widely known there is a huge imbalance between the number of male and female chefs in professional kitchen. On top of that, suggesting a place for a woman is in the kitchen is one of oldest sexist jokes around — and was never really funny in the first place.”
Sarah Ratchford at Vice explains her issue with it: “The imagery suggests that the kitchen is too fierce, too dangerous, too competitive for a woman. She better stay out, where it’s safe!”
Top Chef Canada unsatisfactorily defended its marketing choice with the following statement (h/t Eater):
The fourth season of Top Chef Canada showcases the Nation’s best chefs and, for the first time ever, an even number of men and women face off in a culinary battle of the sexes that challenges them mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Food Network Canada’s marketing campaign plays on this year’s theme by using two opposing posters. One showcasing the male competitors and the other featuring the female competitors – both teasing the battle of the sexes angle. The competition may start with men vs. women, but in the end the person with the strongest kitchen skills will be named Canada’s Top Chef!
The response doesn’t really acknowledge the deep concerns people had with the wording on the posters, as well as the overall idea that it’s in any way meaningful or productive to pit “the sexes” against each other.
“Battles of the Sexes” are in no way new in reality TV. We’ve seen them on Survivor, The Real World and Celebrity Apprentice, just off the top of my head. In the realm of cooking shows, MasterChef Australia took heat in 2013 for doing something similar to what Top Chef Canada is doing now.
Tragically, the appallingness that the is the MasterChef Australia 2013 ad isn’t available on YouTube anymore, but you can watch it on the show’s Facebook page and Buzzfeed has compiled some .gifs from the commercial. Make sure you have not eaten first because it is guaranteed to induce nausea. The Australian site The Age describes it like this:
The contestants are segregated on pastel gender lines with the women wearing pink and the men blue. A volley of stereotypes relating to women’s and men’s respective abilities are traded as the teams trash talk. Women are ”better at presentation”, for instance, because they’re ”used to grooming” themselves. While the quality that ”all the top chefs in the world” share is that ”they’re all men”. The women face off against the men raising their pink oven mitts like boxing gloves, while the men wield baguettes like batons.
Just in case we forgot all the stereotypes that could be applied to women, the creators also decided to caption the contestants by terms like “The 1950s Housewife”, “Daddy’s Little Princess” and the “Tiger Mum”, because why stop when you could add racial stereotyping into the mix? The best women get in the captions is the patronizing “Tough Cookie” label. The two men who get labeled are “The Cattle Rancher”, which seems like actually an accurate name for someone’s job, and “The Dude”, which is gender-based but clearly not as negative as anything applied to the women.
Getting back to Top Chef Canada, the advertising feels a little subtler than what we saw with MasterChef Australia but it’s still highly questionable. Any time you use the “battle of the sexes” frame you imply that there are obvious and consistent natural sex divides (thereby hiding differences within genders), invite people to draw gender-based generalizations, and make it harder for people who don’t identify with the most obvious genders, or who don’t meet the stereotypes to find acceptance.
But it seems like the show creators were willing to allow the “battle of the sexes” dynamic to permeate the poster marketing more than the show itself. In addition to keeping the “battle of the sexes” tagline out of the TV ads, it’s not even mentioned in the opening segment of the premiere episode, which aired this week.
Instead, host Lisa Ray’s intro reinforces that this will be an “extreme” season, “the most gruelling culinary competition in the country”, and focuses on the stature of the show’s judges and the value of the prizes the winner will receive.
It’s only after the opening credits that we hear from some of the female contestants that they want to be the first woman to win Top Chef Canada. And in the lead-in to the first “Quickfire Challenge”, Lisa Ray finally uses the phrase itself, saying: “For the first time ever we have an even number of men and women…it’s shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out battle of the sexes” (though I note even though they hit the 50% women threshhold, their racial diversity is down compared to past seasons, making it a very white group).
The Quickfire Challenge paired off men and women, and then the winners went on to each lead a team of their gender into the main challenge. While no one makes overt comments about men’s skills compared to women’s, the gender divide came out in the language the judges used. Almost uniformly the judges and hosts referred to the women’s team as “the ladies” while calling the men “the men” or occasionally “the gentlemen”. Sure, not everyone understands the word “ladies” the same way or sees it as offensive, but on a show where men have won your last three seasons, about an industry where women are so underrepresented and the ones who are there face sexism, it makes sense to avoid using any term that could be seen as belittling to women.
Basically, Top Chef Canada misfired with this entire idea and ended up blowing an opportunity to showcase an equal number of women contestants in a way that let them compete on an equal level as chefs rather than constantly being shown as “women chefs” or “lady chefs”. We also miss a real conversation about why it took four years for Top Chef Canada to get to 50% women contestants and why cooking shows in general still struggle with racial and gender inequality.