Archive for the 'reality' Category

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.


Mid-summer TV round-up

1. Reality

Summer is truly the time when you should not feel ashamed about indulging in some reality TV. At least, I don’t. I’ve already thoroughly enjoyed The Real Housewives of New Jersey (previously I had seen most of the Atlanta installment, but I can’t handle O.C. or New York at all), and gotten sucked into a season of The Bachelorette for the first time in years. Actually, maybe I should be a little ashamed at how invested I am in which generic white guy Jillian chooses in the end (go Reid). And let’s not get into Daisy of Love. I have to watch it but I can’t explain why. Lemme alone.

In more respectable reality, there’s the trio of So You Think You Can Dance, blissfully new episodes of What Not to Wear (please let them never stop making this show), and Top Chef Masters (not as exciting as original flavor but still mouth-watering). Dance is the classiest competition of its kind (as long as you fast forward through Nigel’s perviness), with deeply endearing host Cat Deeley perennially winning the award for most crazy/awesome dresser on TV. And it’s just getting to the really good part of the competition, folks, so tune in tonight if you know what’s good for you. Also, their results show doesn’t suck!

2. Awesomeness

Can we talk about the amazing return to form that Rescue Me is experiencing this season? Season four was a let down, seeming like nothing happened or everyone was going around in circles. This season, people are still going around in circles…but the circles are getting tighter and tighter, and we can sense an impending something—a sensation that was glaringly missing for a while. The show is also outdoing itself in its patented brand of leaping from shattering pathos to absurd humor. From Sheila’s haunting life-without-Jimmy monologue (Emmy? Hello?) to Tommy and Janet drunk at that B&B, from Tommy practicing his own brand of cutting by turning on himself with a blowtorch to a “cancer kid” absconding with the fire truck, the show is unpredictable and heartbreaking and hilarious. Emmy time, seriously.

My other fave-of-the-moment is clearly HBO’s gruesomely entertaining True Blood. How pissed was I that there was no new episode this weekend? Real pissed! A well-done vampire story is always welcome, but the thing this show gets right that no other such project does is the sheer grossness of it all. Vampires are enduringly appealing because of the whole sensual immortal angle, but we must not forget that they are also almost cannibals, having been human themselves, and the concept of a body sustaining itself in that manner is, in a word, icky. When the first vampire staking occurred on this show and instead of a pile of ash we got an explosion of blood-soaked entrails, I knew I was hooked for life. This show is funny and weird and dark, and the only thing they could have done to earn more of my respect after last season would have been to add Michelle Forbes as a regular. Which they did.

Also totally watchable: USA’s In Plain Sight. Female main character kicking ass, male sidekick quipping hilariously, satisfying crime solving in every episode, and their boss is that one guy who was the liaison between the Greeks and the Sobotkas on season two of The Wire. So there’s a lot to like. Just be warned that the B stories with our heroine’s family are occasionally maddeningly insipid.

3. New Stuff

Two new shows so far that show promise, though we’re only one episode into each of them: Hung on HBO and Warehouse 13 on Syfy (yep they started their name change thing). Hung features your requisite HBO anti-hero, a down-on-his-luck dad and teacher (Thomas Jane, random) who doesn’t mind a little moral ambiguity if it will help him get back on top. (Get it, on top. Cuz it’s a show about a male prostitute.) The pilot was funny in parts, but too obvious with its jokes in others (see my last parenthetical for the sort of thing I’m talking about). But the main character is compelling, as is his would-be pimp/hapless poet, played by Jane Adams, who I like quite a bit in most things. I will be giving it a few episodes before I make my final verdict.

I had very little interest in Warehouse 13 until I found out it was co-created by Jane “totally wrote your second-favorite episode of Buffy” Espenson. While I didn’t see why it was the type of show that needed a 2-hour event premiere (“wrap it up already” went through my mind a couple of times toward the end), it was funny in that great Jane way and the cast and characters fall squarely into the brand of likeable I’m sure they were going for. Bonus: the presence of the great CCH Pounder (she has the most bad-ass name, right?), who I am currently enjoying very much as a no-nonsense detective as I DVD my way through The Shield, and who I’m sure will be very enjoyable here as a no-nonsense mysterious government official. Probably won’t go on the must-watch list, but it’ll be worth a hulu when bored for sure.

4. Anticipating returns

Finally, while my schedule already seems packed, I’ve got at least four favorites still returning before summer ends: Entourage this Sunday, Mad Men on August 16, Project Runway on August 20, and Psych, on some undetermined date in August.

I have no idea how I have time for all of this.

Toppest Chef?

We’re in the home stretch of this year’s regular TV season (Lost finale one week from tomorrow, oh I don’t know if I’m ready yet to go months upon months without new episodes…), which means that it’s not too early to start pondering what new shows we’ll be offered to fill the gaps this summer. So far I’m most intrigued by Top Chef spin-off Top Chef Masters. Instead of featuring up-and-comers, the contestants will be already “world-renowned” chefs, many of whom have served as guest judges on Top Chef before (including that one guy with the dumb long hair and sideburns that I always mock). Intriguing, eh?

Apparently, this is how it will work: for the first six episodes, four chefs per episode will compete, with one winner. Then the winners of those six episodes will carry out the remainder of the competition the traditional way with one person eliminated each week. And, the chefs will all be playing for charity, which is always neat.

Over at Bravo’s site you can read more about it and see bios of the 24 contestants, the new judges, and the new host (whose eye makeup kind of scares me). Unfortunately, Tom Colicchio is nowhere in sight. Can any sort of Top Chef work without his awesomeness? We shall see on June 10.

As a side note, if you’re wondering what’s up with some of the former contestants of Top Chef, this New York Times piece from a few days ago is quite interesting.

Oh yeah, one more thing

I love everything about Leanne’s winning outfit from Project Runway last night. I want to wear it now, I want to travel back in time and wear it in the 1930s, I want to get a matching mini version for a vintage Barbie doll and carry it around in my purse like a crazy person. The picture below doesn’t do this outfit justice; seeing it walk down the runway, it was everything that clothes should be.

From the department of “How did I not know this existed?”

So it turns out what I thought was a brand new show that I caught last week on Food Network has actually been on since August 2006 and had more than 40 episodes. Huh. I’m not the biggest Food Network fan (with the exception of Top Chef, I’m not so much into watching people eat good stuff that I can’t partake in), but I’m still surprised I had never heard of Ace of Cakes.

fun_7.jpgDuff Goldman is a bad-boy baker who owns Charm City Cakes in Baltimore. Now, I’ve been pretty immersed in The Wire on DVD lately, so the image of Baltimore in my head is a bit more drugs-and-guns than anything else; frankly, I was relieved to see that they do have things such as cake shops around there. This particular cake shop happens to be staffed by a band of young, hip, artisty types, and the cakes they make are as much works of art as food. Especially impressive are the cakes that are designed to look like other thingscars, guitars, the spaceship Serenity (for real!). Most delightful to me are the ones that look like hot dogs, mugs of beer, and things of that ilk, because there is just something fun about a food dressed up to look like another food. Searching around the gallery of cakes on their website,, my favorite was the BLT pictured here. Makes me want a sandwich AND dessert! (Fun facts learned on the website: the minimum cost for any of their designer cakes is $500, and they’re booked for huge chunks of time and on every holiday through the end of 2009. Insanity!)

Besides the fun of seeing the completed cakes, the show is entertaining because of the personalities of the people who work in the shop, especially cheerful Mary Alice, extremely dry-humored Geof, and Doff himself. While Ace of Cakes follows a template similar to tattoo shop-themed shows like Miami Ink, I find it more entertaining because the process of making each cake has unique problems to solve in a way that drawing a tattoo just doesn’t. It’s just fun to watch them take a slab of cake and force it to look how they want it to look.

Check it out, new episodes air Thursdays at 10:30 PM, and repeats are scattered throughout the week.

Yes, I do vote for American Idol.

And I voted twice last night for this young man:


Before, I’d been blinded by the dreads. In fact, I had only previously referred to him as “guy with hideous dreads,” or, for short, simply “Dreads.” But I gotta say, the more screen time he got, the more I realized that Jason Castro (I assume no relation to the recently retired Cuban leader who I suspect is already dead) is kinda fricking hot. Like, seriously adorable-hot. And he had the best song choice of the night. And he played the guitar well. And he has such a lovable attitude. And such a nice ass.

Observe Jason sing “What a Day for a Daydream” and steal your heart away here.

Other highlights of the night: 17-year-old Noxzema commerical in waiting David Archuleta with his flawless voice and skin; self-described “rocker” Robbie Carrico, likable but in desperate need of a haircut no matter how bad-ass he’s trying to be; and the talented Aussie Michael Johns, despite the whole scarf issue. I want to see them all in the top six.

Shame shame shame

Actual conversation that recently took place in my apartment: Becca: “Do you think that if we had a woman president, they’d stop making shows like this?” me: “God, I hope not.” The show that elicits such delight from me, though it is undeniably deplorable? That’d be VH1’s Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, which is having its second season right now. It’s pretty rare for me to be ashamed of liking something, but in this caseokay, scratch that, I’m not ashamed. But I know that I should be, and that’s what prompted this post. What, exactly, is the appeal of this show? Why do I feel excited when I see a new episode on my DVR? As someone who considers herself a feminist, how can I enjoy such a display of ridiculous objectification? bret-michaels.jpgI can defend myself a bit because of my well-documented love for all things hair band. Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is my ringtone. I watched that MTV celebrity-rapping-whatever show just because Sebastian Bach was on it. And please, please, if I die anytime soon, bust out some Guns ‘n Roses at my wake (skip “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” thoughtoo obvious). But Bret’s band, Poison, is not one of my faves. In fact, I think they kinda suck. So it’s not like I’m watching because I like him. Although, to be fair, he can be very hilarious, especially when he makes veiled references to what he knows that we know: he’s not actually looking to marry any of these crazy chicks. He may be a little skeezy, but the dude is not dumb. He knows that when he uses his magical phrase “spiritual connection,” we’re aware that he’s really referring to sexual attraction. He pretty much came out and said that recently on Conan O’Brien, in a particularly amusing interview that made it clear Bret is a little more in tune with reality than, say, Flavor Flav. So okay, I find Bret entertaining in spite of his undeservedly overblown ego. But what about the women? There are a couple of gems in there, including the bad-ass Peyton, who chose to play drums during the “peep show” challenge and successfully impressed Bret while fully clothed. But mostly, these women are there to be exploited. And they’re looking for validation through said exploitation. Why am I not more upset about that? Sure, I think everyone should be able to do whatever they want, even if it doesn’t come off as “empowering” for their entire gender. And I was highly entertained by both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in their first couple of seasons, before they were totally redundant. But I haven’t found anything appealing about any of the other myriad mass dating shows, like Flavor of Love, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, I Love New York, etc, which are much more blatantly sexual and exploitative than The Bachelor has ever been. So why this one? Honestly, I think it’s because it hits just the right level of crazy. I can watch these people, be amused by their antics, and generally feel good about myself for being less insane than them, but I’m not wondering how any of them possibly get by in everyday life (well, for the most partthere is no explanation for Angelique). For some reason, I appreciate that. And sometimes you don’t really know why you like something so much. You just go with it. I know I’m not the only one who likes this show, so fess up if you’re with me.

Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

I love Twitter.

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