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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue