Some thoughts on Top Chef and sexism

I think the judging on Top Chef is sexist.

Some people might disagree with me. Because of the nature of the contest, it’s hard to make the “sexist” call for individual challenges. Any number of things can go wrong for any chef on any day, and the general taste preferences of each judge inevitably come into play. This is part of the appeal of the show: the general unpredictable nature of it. But the overall picture of who is coming out on top in the end demonstrates that something is not right; some other factor besides the element of chance is coming into play.

Allow me to crunch some numbers. Counting those chefs who appeared on the season eight All-Stars edition twice, and skipping the massive two-part “cook your way in” episode that opened this most recent season, Top Chef has had 68 female and 74 male contestants over the course of nine seasons. That’s about 47.9% women at the starting line, where the contestants have already been vetted to the point where we are meant to believe each has an equal chance of winning the season, even though some may be more experienced than others. Yet, only eight out of 27 of the coveted “top three” spots to end each season have been filled by women—about 29.6%. And only one woman has ever won. 11.1%.

(It should be noted that for that season where a woman won, season four, the commonly stated opinion is that Richard Blais was the most talented chef left at the end, and only his crash-and-burn kept him from winning, giving the crown to Stephanie Izard. He was later brought back for the All-Star season for a chance to right this unspeakable wrong. He won.)

I said it was hard to make the sexist call for individual challenges. But the reason I’m writing this post right now is that I’m having trouble not making that call for the finale that aired last night. I won’t deny that the chef who won, Paul Qui, was a formidable contestant over the course of the show. He went up in a final head-to-head with Sarah Grueneberg, someone who had been in the low end of the judging much more often than he had. But the final challenge is supposed to be about only that—just the final meal that’s being served. Each of the two chefs served four courses, to two sets of judges. At Judges Table, each was complimented on their overall menus, nitpicked on a few details, and generally congratulated. However, none of the judges denied that one of those eight servings of Paul’s was a disaster. A failed dish, too overcooked, that even he hadn’t wanted to serve. On the other hand, all eight of Sarah’s servings had been solid, with her dessert hailed as perhaps the best that had ever been presented on the show. I know that reality show editing means that we’re often led to believe that certain contestants will win when that is not the case. But given what we were shown of the judging, and the opinions that were shared, I find it frankly unbelievable that Sarah did not win. And I’m calling sexism.

I’ve seen others write about the subconscious sexism that seems to be factoring into the Top Chef judging overall. The societal picture of a “culinary master” is generally of a male chef, whereas female chefs are more likely to be pictured as the home-cookin’ type that is so popular on channels like the Food Network. Within the competition itself, some women end up following what they’ve been socialized to do for their whole lives, and help others to their own detriment, such as when disproportionately taking on the thankless “front of house” jobs during Restaurant Wars. This all plays into who ends up making it to the final.

When it comes down to Sarah vs. Paul, I feel that two factors hurt her in being denied the title. First, her “likeability.” Sarah rubbed a few people wrong over the course of the season, and was vocal about when others rubbed her the wrong way. Though she’d obviously bonded with the other chefs who made it to the final episodes, she never reached a point of being charming. I don’t in any way think she should have to, but let’s face it—Paul is intrinsically adorable. His handsome-yet-baby-faced vibe and his frequent chatter about just wanting to make his father proud would make just about anyone feel that inner tug to give him the prize. Sarah couldn’t match him in that game. She is an ambitious woman who frequently mentioned that she put off her wedding to be on the show, and in the ambitious woman vs. attractive, vulnerable man showdown, it’s pretty clear who’s got the edge.

The second thing that hurt her—and I believe every woman who made it to that final challenge before her—is that people, in general, have an easier time seeing a woman fail than they do seeing a man fail. Not that making it to the final round of a grueling competition should be seen as a failure, but that’s just it—there’s this overall vibe in society that I notice all the time that seems to say that the more prestigious the prize, the more difficult something is to attain, then the more a woman should be content just to have been in contention in the first place. (See: Hillary Clinton.) The second part of that message is: it’s harder on a man to lose to a woman than it is the other way around. The judges never shy away from showing sympathy for the person they don’t pick to win. Isn’t it easier to have that person be a woman—who’ll surely bounce right back into wedding planning!—than a man whose father whom he only wants to make proud is literally standing right there? Whether they had the conscious thought or not, the saturating nature of societal sexism and the actual factors at play in the room made it emotionally easier to give the prize to Paul, even though he had not performed as well.

Neither of my theories are ones I can prove. But the evidence I was presented with shows that Sarah should have won, and my gut tells me that these factors—these factors that come into play every day, all over the world, for women who are trying to succeed—came into play for her.

I love Top Chef. The challenges can get ridiculous, and I often call the show out on that, but I don’t think I’ve ever missed an episode. For the most part, I really love the judges, too—especially Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. Can’t get enough of ’em. But the images and ideas society feeds us become ingrained. Sexist bias is often subconscious, and the female judges can let this seep in just as easily as the male judges. I do think that sexism is in play at this point in the judging on this show. The numbers say it, and the judges pretty much said it themselves last night.


2 Responses to “Some thoughts on Top Chef and sexism”

  1. 1 Carly March 2, 2012 at 9:01 am

    yes. but the gourmet food industry in general is so sexist (and racist, unless it’s “regional” fare), I think Top Chef is just displaying some of the industry-wide tendencies. Which is why I think it is past time for an actual documentary on her excellence, Julia Child, not that Meryl didn’t do her justice. And why doesn’t the Food Network ever give Alice Waters some love (actually, I know why. It’s b/c the FN is NYC-based and dislikes giving gourmet props to California…)

    • 2 Brandi Sperry March 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      Yes, definitely the whole industry is sexist to begin with. So the more I think about it, the more I think that for so few women to win Top Chef, the judging might be even *more* sexist than I even realized–we could assume that, on average, the women who make it to being successful in the industry have worked harder and proven themselves more times than men in similar positions, so the talent level may be higher. (Of course, in the casting of the show this might balance out, since the pool of men applying is probably bigger.)

      There are a lot of factors at play, but it comes down to: something not right is happening, and the tasting should be blind from now on.

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