Thursday, 8 October 2015

Ideology in The Great British Bake Off

It caters for all tastes. The smells appeal to some and turn others off. It can and is served up overcooked and underdone. What's baking in the oven? Ideology. In a Britain-shaped tin.

For the first time last night, the residents of Chateau BC turned the dial to BBC One for the grand final of The Great British Bake Off, a phenomenon that's less a popular TV programme and more a cult for the 13.4m people who watched it. Having studiously avoided it, as a (former) non-watcher GBBO is impossible to escape. The show plays a fantastic Twitter game, the press are obsessed, and the News at Ten and Newsnight both featured the victorious Nadiya Hussain on their roster of the day's newsworthy, um, news.

Once we had it on, I couldn't help but be drawn in. Like the Sidebar of Shame, but without the foul aftertaste, watching the contestants hurrying hither, scurrying thither as they produced the most sumptuous food porn imaginable was compulsive. You couldn't taste the layered pastries or the cornucopia of cake, but it was almost as good. The camera work was every bit as explicit as the infamous M&S adverts of old. This was filth for foodies. But like all good game shows, for that is what GBBO is; tension and drama is the hook. The fun is rooting for your favourite and investing their travails with your hopes (and everyone was backing Nadiya, right?). So before we take the cake knife to the show, the first rule to peeling back the sugary layers of ideology is to note that above all GBBO works because it's entertaining.

Of course, entertaining itself is a loaded term. What we consider entertainment is fully loaded with cultural codes of acceptability/unacceptability and, of course, has a history. The experience of being entertained is underpinned by what the PoMos used to call intertextuality. To get a text, in this case a beloved TV programme, it demands the reader/viewer has a familiarity with genre, the cultural codes the show draws on, and something of the wider zeitgeist - fashionable structures of feeling and popular cultural practices currently enjoying wide affirmation and participation.

Let's lose the cultural studies babble. There are two important matters GBBO addresses. One almost banal and done-to-death, and the other less so. For right wingers, Bake Off was a manifestation of the dreaded PC culture. Even Ian the LibDem was treated like a human being, for crying out loud. This is socialist propaganda through the medium of chocolatey noms, a meringue-tipped missile threatening the last bigoted redoubts with tolerance and respect. How awful. And what really riles the right is the show's appropriation of the quintessentially English garden fete. The marquee is redolent of tombola, brick-a-brak sales, Hoopla with the vicar, and definitely no non-white people. Of course, Bake Off isn't cooking up full communism or anything of the sort. It articulates the contemporary sense of Britishness, a multinational identity that tries to include everyone who identifies as British, regardless of their background. It's pointless to speculate whether the inclusivity of GBBO is intentional. The point is that it reflects the experiences of increasing numbers of people. Hence why the unreconstructed xenophobic right hate it. It's less a statement of intent than a representation of what really is. Seeing a Muslim woman win by out-Englishing "proper" English people over 10 weeks rubs them up the wrong way. It reminds them that they've already lost.

The second key GBBO prop is that structure of feeling that, want for a better phrase, you might call 'cupcake conformity'. Back when I was a horny handed son of toil doing working in a factory, we had a peculiar tradition of birthday boys/girls bringing in cakes on their special day (shatloads of doughnuts when it was my turn, if you must know). It was a nice gesture of sharing that helped bring the twilight shift a ripple of harmony inbetween the effing and blinding, the bitching, and fallings outs. Fast forward, the provision of cake - usually of the cuppy kind - at managerial meetings/large gatherings is so ubiquitous that HR manuals surely must contain chapters on confectionery provision. It knocks the sharp corners off bad news. Discussing the possibility of redundancies and/or increased workloads seem less worse if the meeting papers are accompanied by a plate of fairy cakes. Food, of course, is often an accomplice of sociability. By giving cake, we can pretend the power structures that rule our lives at work are as fluffy as the delicious sponge. The employer/employee relation, an inequitable and exploitative fact of life for all capitalist societies, tastes much sweeter wrapped in a paper case. The better the cake, the duller the pain.

With its ubiquity in the workplace, it's little wonder we're living in the age of the March of the Cake. Going through a break up? Have some cake. Bricking it before the interview? Have some cake. Depressed? Have some cake. It's not just that human beings are sugar-loving beasties (which we generally are). The cake has moved from just being a treat to a therapeutic treatment. Huxley's Brave New World had soma, we've got chocolate gateaux. And because cake's ubiquitous, it would be shocking had GBBO never taken off.

GBBO works because it marries genuinely entertaining drama and suspense to a sense of inclusiveness, of reflecting and promoting British unity around a cake tray of goodies.


asquith said...

This is interesting because apart from outliers like Platell and Delingtwat, I'm more used to this sort of criticism coming from the left. If you think about it the left are more "political" than the right, Corbynistas are more bothered than Cameroons, many of whom seem as if they'd get in the kitchen at the drop of a hat, running the country be damned. This I think underpins labour's problem with swing voters, as so many activists get impatient with people in Cannock or Staffordshire Moorlands who care more for frivolities like baking than "politics". Yes, I know the argument that politics concerns them, and of course it does, but what if they're too comfortable to care.

I am reminded of this legendary statement from Billy Bragg

His argument is true in its own way but the poor use escapism just as much as the rich, having more to escape from, and I dare say many will be tuning in who don't bake but who rather than looking for the Corbynite millennium just want to forget life for an hour.

Myself, I don't watch it because it distracts from more important activities like commenting on blogs and listening to heavy metal :)

BCFG said...

I also think these sort of programmes feed into the good Muslim and bad Muslim narrative (the Nazi's had the idea of the bad and good Jew before Himmler declared all Jews were bad!). The good Muslims live, well, very much like us, who bake cakes and do lots of safe and innocent things and the bad Muslims take girls and turn them into sex slaves.

The good conform and obey and enjoy life, and the more they conform and obey the more they enjoy life, the bad think too much and question things and the more miserable they become.

Speedy said...

I don't watch it for the same reason I don't watch strictly come dancing or downtown abbey....

I followed the media furore however. Presumably this Muslim young lady must have been a damn good baker to get on the programme in the first place?! However, I know at least one person who declined to watch the finale because "everyone knows the Muslim is going to win" - the implication being, because she was "the Muslim", and there wasn't much of a contest. In this sense Bcfg is right... Presumably it is when there is the assumption of a lack of exceptionalism - as there would have been for a black contestant, for example, that we can say Muslims are treated like anyone else.

There is a sense of the "elite" trying to shoe-horn representatives of minorities into the limelight, in order to underpin their multicultural agenda (i wonder if there are any studies matching population size to media visibility), which has gone on for decades of course - the blowback is of course that it amplifies the sense among the majority they are being manipulated and arguably (now a tipping point of sorts has been reached) fans the flames of resentment and anti-immigrant feeling. As you say Phil, the sense "they have already lost", "rubbing their noses in it", even. Expect this to manifest itself in further ant-EU and immigrant feeling. I suppose the dictum "you can't fool all the people all of the time" applies.

Gary Elsby said...

How the bake off gets a comment about Himmler and the Nazis is anyone's guess.
I watched the series and from the outset the betting industry stopped taking bets due to heavy money being placed on one person. A BBC inquiry is taking place to identify if it was a member of the production crew who broke 'the law' of confidentiality.
The money was indeed rumoured to be placed on non white but most were saying the other finalist.

Nadiya certainly wasn't the runaway winner at any stage in the competition with the other (white) finalist getting star baker three weeks on the trot. The final was very evenly marked at every round but Nadiya got the best critique on the first bake. hence, it was now hers to lose and she just didn't as she was given very good views from then on. As did the others, but she didn't falter.

Downton Abbey? I watch this and I won't hear a single bad word about the aristocracy as they are seen to be the most Liberal and generous people on earth. Bring the back, I say!

'Good and bad Jews' and 'all bad' according to Himmler.
What does Hannah Arendt say?

Gary Elsby said...

I have to say, Professor Arendt had very clinical views of the Nazi programme of deportation and death and was showcased in a very bad light when as a Jewish refugee (pre-1939) from Germany to 'friendly France' and then on to the USA, she sat in on the trial of Eichman in 1960 as a reporter for a New York magazine.
He was hanged in what I believe is the only state execution in Israel.
Her views of the ability of ordinary people to commit evil deeds proved quite distressing to the Jewish state of Israel and those within it who were culpable in the terror.
She believed Eichman to be a bureaucrat but wouldn't allow the blame to lie solely with him and lost many lifelong friends due to this view.
I raise this because her further views of mass migration due to conflicts is at odds with a Liberal state that offers asylum and refuge but champions individual statehood and borders but then denies sanctuary and puts up border controls.
Her views are extremely challenging in todays EU debates in/out and are the best I've seen to date.

BCFG said...

"How the bake off gets a comment about Himmler and the Nazis is anyone's guess."

That was more of a, while we are on the subject comment!

I do think there is a bit of the good and bad Muslim narrative, much of it by the more liberal minded but articulated quite frequently by the Tories.

Just like there is the good and bad citizen. The good citizen works hard and does the right thing. The bad citizen joins a union!

Ferdinand said...


The confused person ate too many buns then confused Mary Berry with Vera Lynn.