Gender and Masterchef

I’ve been thinking about the gender politics of professional cooking lately, having spent a few weeks at home with my family and watching Masterchef with them.

From a sample of two weeks’ worth of Masterchef episodes (plus a few backdated ones), it struck me that while the contestants seemed to be quite fairly balanced between men and women, every judges and guest professional chef that I saw was male. There’s wasn’t a single female chef other than the competitors. Perhaps there were a few female chefs in other seasons or episodes, but in a two-week sample and about eight episodes, it’s pretty disturbing that there wasn’t a single woman.

I started thinking about why this was, and what cultural stereotypes might underlie this trend. It struck me as unusual, because food preparation has traditionally been classed as a female activity and responsibility, at least in the western world. Stereotypes about men who can’t cook and women who prepare dinner every night for their children and husbands still prevail. Anecdotal evidence (from myself, others and the media) still shows that cooking is a woman’s job or specialty.

So why the massive gap between expectations and representation in the professional sphere?

There are a couple of things I can think of as possible reasons. The first is simply that being a professional chef is a career, a profession requiring a lot of learning, work and skill, while cooking at home is just another non-career job that women are expected to do and be reasonably good at without being seen as particularly qualified. And when we hear the word professional, most people still assume that the professional will be a male. So a woman is often expected to be a cook, but she is not especially valued for it – while a man who cooks for a living is a chef, a distinguished professional.

This ties in with a lot of essentialist arguments about the “nature” of women and men. Many television cooking shows emphasise that being a chef is a job that requires a lot of skill, a lot of creativity, attention to detail and the ability to take on leadership and manage a very stressful environment. These skills – particularly the last two – are often seen as male skills, because women are “too emotional” and cannot handle pressure well. One sees a lot more women than men crying and breaking down on Masterchef as well! This is not to say that being emotional is a bad trait – but in this case it is associated with women and disassociated with professional cooking.

Perhaps the under-representation of female professional chefs (especially those in the media and the public eye) also has to do with the fact that working as a chef requires long hours, often well into the night. In a society where women still carry the majority of the responsibility for child care and parenting, a career as a chef could potentially be very challenging for women with children simply because of the hours required, unless other parenting arrangements are made.

I’m not sure whether there really are as few professional chefs in Australia as Masterchef presents (read: none except for past competitors). But the huge under-representation of women in positions of leadership, professional cooking and food criticism is something that should not be taken lightly. Would it really be that hard to find a female chef with equal knowledge, experience and passion as the four male judges and the countless male challenge/guest chefs? Probably not. But as it stands, it seems that the realm of professional cooking as represented by Masterchef (and Iron Chef, and countless other cooking shows that locate themselves outside of the domestic sphere) is one where the patriarchy continues to rage on.

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7 thoughts on “Gender and Masterchef

  1. I know in the past they have featured Kylie Kwong, Donna Hay, Maggie Beer, Christine Manfied, Anna Gare, Stephanie Alexander. And that’s just off the top of my head. They have also brought international chefs such as Nigella Lawson.

    No where as many women as men but there seems to have been at least some effort.

  2. I totally agree with this! My Aunty, Christine Manfield, is almost a pioneer in the way she is a woman who exclusively focuses on the restaurant scene. Nearly all female chefs cater for a domestic setting, and are more likely to get book deals with women’s weekly than anything else. Even the small number of Ready Steady Cook episodes I’ve watched, the men would be edgy, professional and loaded with unique ideas and complicated recipes where the women would be making simpler dishes and often make remarks like: ‘you could do this at home’. The mother of one of my best friends made the fitting comment: ‘women used to be expected to look after the kids and cook for the family, but that hasn’t changed at all! The list is only longer; we must look after the children, cook, clean, and somehow manage to maintain a successful career as well’. I feel the attitude towards women as a domesticated animals is still prevalent and women certainly carry the majority of the domestic burden and men are simply kind enough now to ‘help’ them in the process. If I don’t cook at home, I’m being unhelpful. But if my brother DOES cook at home, he’s being helpful.

  3. Although I don’t follow cooking shows at all, I think this is post makes an excellent point.

    The under-representation of women as professionals is a serious problem. And it’s even more frustrating in regards to cooking, since women, as you said, ARE expected to cook without getting any credit for it.

    On a side note, it got me thinking about female judges on talent shows. From the small amount I have watched, there is often one female judge in a show consisting of three or four judges, and from what I gather, she is often portrayed as the ‘nice’ one, or the one who is less critical.

  4. Kylie Kwong was on last week and there was a woman who selects the dishes to go on magazine covers before that. But yeah there has been a notable lack of female chefs in the kitchen. This is the first time we have watched much of MC before being sucked in for the final episodes.

  5. a definite lack of female chefs. there’s a female one in junior masterchef (because women are so good with children!) but on ‘grown up’ masterchef one of the only regulars is Donna Hay, whose job is to make food look good rather than taste it. Of course, the biggest transgression is that all of the regular judges are male. Every time I see this row of men tell a female contestant what to do (or often, hit on her *cough*George*cough*) I feel ill.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. I have a friend who trained in the restaurant business as a chef, and she told me that talent was only a small part of becoming successful. Instead it was pure aggression, forcing oneself ahead and underhand sabotage, and eventually she quit because she hated the kind of person the industry was turning her into. I suppose that if success is based on how aggressive you are, then men, who have been trained from childhood to hone this quality, are obviously going to outdo women, who have been trained to be docile and submissive.
    And then you get douchebags who go on about how obviously superior men are at everything, since the people at the top of every field are men! It makes me want to hit things!

  7. i definitely understand your point and agree that women are somewhat under-represented. however, i think that masterchef and the ‘patriarchal realm of professional cooking’ are very much trying to rectify these problems. maybe not actively, but the fact that they encourage anyone to have a go i think is a really positive start.
    i’m sure everyone’s aware that the representation of women, specifically on television and for this example in cooking shows, is a relatively new notion. when you consider it, the professional chefs that masterchef has as guests are mostly older.
    more so i think than most other professions, cooking is something where large amounts of experience and exposure in the industry are an absolute must for someone to be considered in the top class of professionals.
    could it be argued, then, that the women who are chefs have only entered the field since the somewhat new changes in gender and role perspectives (when it comes to viewing cooking as a career at least)?
    i think masterchef is doing the best it can to be fair to everyone. encouraging passionate people, no matter what their gender or background, to consider becoming a professional chef is really what the show is all about.

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