The Great British Bake Off: Why do we love to tear down women who are good at what they do?

Raymond Blanc's comment that the hugely popular baking show contains "not much skills, female tears" is symptomatic of widespread prejudice about women's roles at home and at work.

In 1973, when Nora Ephron went to California to report on the Pillsbury Bake Off competition for Esquire, 97 of the 100 contestants were women (the remaining three were a male graduate student and two twelve-year-old boys). While she found some division between the contestants about the use of new “hip” ingredients like sour cream and whole wheat flour – granola macaroon, anyone? – the prevailing attitude to life and cake at the competition was summed up by Suzie Sisson, a 25-year-old contestant from Illinois:

These are the beautiful people. They’re not the little tiny rich people. They’re nice and happy and religious types and family-orientated. Everyone talks about women’s lib, which is ridiculous. If you’re nice to your husband, he’ll be nice to you. Your family is your job. They come first.

A lot has changed in the last forty years, but for some reason we’re still hung up on the idea that dutiful women and baking competitions go together like jam and cream. Tonight is the final of the Great British Bake Off, and there’s still a lingering sense – both in the media and from a segment of the show’s viewers – that the three women competing in it should know their place and realise that being good at making meringue doesn’t mean you can have thoughts or opinions as well.

Of course, GBBO isn’t quite like the Pillsbury Bake Off – for starters, it’s on the BBC, so nobody gets a million dollars or a free oven even if they do make a particularly good apple turnover. Also, the gender balance of its contestants over the four series has been far better than the 97-3 ratio Ephron observed in 1973, with six men competing this time round (including the marvellous Howard, who looked exactly like an alternate-universe Michael Gove, revealing what life would be like if the Education Secretary was from Sheffield and into brioche). There was even an all-male final last year, a fact that hasn’t been mentioned much in all the carping and groaning in recent days.

Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, presenters of the Great British Bake Off
Photo:BBC/Love Productions/Des Willie

The sniping reached new heights yesterday, when Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc said the show contained “not much skills, female tears, and a winner so thin who makes me doubt of her love for great cooking, baking [sic]”. It was generally assumed that Blanc’s comment referred to finalist Ruby Tandoh, who had an excellent comeback:

Blanc has since denied that he was spoiling the outcome of the show, and put the negative interpretation of his tweet down to the fact that English isn’t his first language. But as well as its blatant misogyny, Blanc’s phrase demonstrates what lies beneath all of this fuss – there is a certain idea of how someone who is good at baking should look and speak, and those who don’t conform must be told they don’t belong. Would Blanc suggest that the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr (who is so extremely slender that my colleague Helen quite rightly describes him as “basically just a walking glute”) couldn’t really be that keen on cooking, because he doesn’t look like he’s been sampling the gratin de pommes à la dauphinoise? Of course not. Although all three finalists are clearly extremely skilled, former model and philosophy student Ruby, with her momentary lapses in confidence, doesn’t fit, and neither does “smug” Frances or Kimberley with her “bitch face”.

Even though cooking and baking in the home are traditionally considered to be “women’s work”, the majority of professional chefs and pâtissiers are men. According to a survey by Great British Chefs website, of 161 Michelin-starred restaurants in 2013 in the UK just eight have female head chefs, and according to ONS figures, women are just 14 per cent of the full-time chefs. Women must remain flour-smudged amateurs, leaving the true artistry to pros – that is, the men. The trouble with this particular batch of GBBO finalists is that although it is an amateur competition, they are clearly capable of the highest professional standards, as anyone who saw Ruby’s peacock bread, Kimberley’s toadstool house cake or Frances’s pastries would realise.

Worst of all, none of this is what the Great British Bake Off is actually about, which is ogling footage of obsessive bakers making absurdly refined and delicious-looking types of cake while Sue Perkins makes terrible puns through a mouthful of icing. The whole aesthetic of the show, with its kitschy wooden sideboards and enamel butter dishes and Cath Kidston mugs, is a nod a time when women had little choice but to remain in the kitchen. Besides, the sheer elaborateness of so many of the contestants' creations show how far these people have come from mere "home baking". And we have watched, in our millions, giggling at each and every "soggy bottom". By serving up a whole lot of silliness up alongside the superb slices of cake, it is made clear that anyone is welcome to have a go in the Bake Off tent, as long as they don’t overwork their pastry.


The 2013 Great British Bake Off finalists: Ruby, Kimberley and Frances. Photo: BBC/Love Productions/Des Willie

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood