blog, telly

The Great British Bake-Off: it’s not about cake

The Great British Bake-Off is telly perfection. Just as Blighty goes all cold, wet and jumpery, it brings us crumble.  It brings us Mel and Sue, with their easy alternation between hugs and snark about slack custard and soggy bottoms. It brings us Mary Berry being kind about something that obviously tastes horrid. About the only thing that could improve the format is if Willy Wonka’s Television Chocolate camera was real, and all us Mike Teevees on the sofa could reach in and grab a fistful of that bread thing Kimberley made in Week Two.

(Or Howard’s Japanese pagoda made out of biscuits. Or Frances’s scones that looked like little cauliflowers. Possibly not Robert’s psychic octopus bread – yet I applaud the ambition.)

Bake Off via telegraph.co.uk

And of course, there are the actual bakers. What’s always set the Bake-Off apart as reality telly is how not like reality telly it is. No one is giving a mathematically impossible percentage of effort. No one is going on a journey, or doing it for their dead nan. No shiny floor, no phone-in votes. It’s just some nice people doing some cookery in a tent. There’s even an educational bit in the middle. It’s a wholesome, Blue Peterish guiltless pleasure.

But this year it all went wrong.

Frances got a right hammering week after week. Kimberley seemed a bit under-praised. Ruby seemed the opposite. And because the show gave us many reaction shots of Ruby looking disappointed even by praise, and more importantly because Ruby is young and pretty and slim, she became the show’s first ever true villain, versus two clear righteous underdogs.

Finalist Ruby Tandoh’s own riposte to the outpouring of vileness she’s faced online is articulate and full of sense, and you should read it.

If you’re still thinking But she’s so whiny, she’s so grumpy… It is not Ruby Tandoh’s job to smile because you want her to.

She’s always thinks she’s useless… Bake-Off is always brim-full of high-achieving capable women who lack confidence. Cathryn and Sarah-Jane from last year; series two winner Jo Wheatley. Plenty of the men too – Howard, Brendan, winner John.

When Lovely Scottish Knitwear James made his giant skewiff what-the-hell gingerbread shed last year and confessed he was ‘winging it’, he got Star Baker, and the audience cooed over how lovely it was that such a nice young man – doing his final exams, even! – was such a creative spirit. When Ruby made her wonky, bag-of-crap allotment, ‘winging it’, while also doing her final exams, she also got Star Baker – and hundreds of ‘she must be sleeping with Paul Hollywood’ tweets.

The problem here – for the show – is that the grim misogyny of the audience reaction to Ruby (from both women and men) doesn’t fit the rules for a Bake-Off final.

Rule no 1: we’re honestly not meant to mind who wins. We’ve probably got a bit of a favourite. But they’re all nice, because the show is a warm, fond, happy place which puts squirrel knackers onscreen just for the lols. None of it matters, really. It’s only cake.

Rule no 2: there is a journey. It’s a much quieter one than that in X Factor et al, because we usually don’t see more than a tiny glimpse until the final, but it is fundamentally life-affirming. John Whaite’s win in series 3 wasn’t about cake: it was about his mum being proud of her gay son for, in his eyes at least, the very first time. Jo Wheatley’s win in series 2 was about a young mum reclaiming some space for herself, an identity that was all her own.

Ruby’s journey would’ve been ‘bizarrely over-modest girl finally registers she’s brilliant’, and generally that’s a perfectly good story – but the villain winning? That’s not life-affirming. It’s cold and wet and jumpery out there, goddammit. There are 350,000 people in the UK using food banks. The NHS is being destroyed piecemeal by a government with no mandate to do so. We bloody well need a happy ending.

It’s broken, I thought, before the final. They’ve broken this warm, cosy, cuddle of a show. It’s not only cake now. It matters who wins.

But you know what? It’s not broken after all. The final was genuinely impossible to predict, with surprising bakefails from everyone. The winner gave us exactly the narrative we craved – because actually ‘I worry I’m crap and it turns out I’m not’ is a story we all share.

And this year, for those of us who engage in the ‘communal watching’ thing, we got an extra narrative: this one, about Ruby, and the reaction to her, why it happens and what we can do about it; maybe even a handy bit of mental shorthand – the Ruby Rule, if you will: Would you think/say/post/tweet this if the target was a man?

That conversation’s just as welcome and comforting as all the macarons and mucky puns. Because we’re grown-ups, and it was never only about cake.

Also there was that time Robert made a Dalek out of biscuits.

Biscuit Dalek via metro.co.uk

Is it 2014 yet?

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4 thoughts on “The Great British Bake-Off: it’s not about cake”

  1. You are so very right, but can I raise a hand to say I also felt outrage last year at James’s ridiculous gingerbread pile of crap getting praise too and said so?

    I’ve mulled over this, and I think the biggest issue here is that her treatment/editing piqued a very British dislike of unfairness. Simple as that, for me. The imbalance between the praise she got or more specifically, the lack of appropriate highlight on the obvious faults compared with that received by others made us all go ‘Now hang on a bally minute…’, and what set Ruby apart from James? Well, it happened week after week after week. Thinking back, James had one or two duff offerings and received a bit of a pasting for most of them. Ruby just seemed to be able to deliver anything up there and the faults were never appropriately highlighted. This is never more apparent than with AllotmentGate. What she presented was not only weak but downright embarrassing for GBBO standards and yet not one single comment from either Paul or Mary said ‘The presentation is poor’. However when Frances offers up here professional looking offering, she’s criticised because one miniature bowl is not edible. It just stuck out like a sore thumb, it was that classic ‘Teachers Pet’ syndrome we’ve all experienced at one point in our lives, and we all *hate*.

    I don’t know, sexism is only perhaps part of what happened in this years #GBBO, after all, both Paul *and* Mary were involved in the judging and I don’t think anyone has said it was all coming from Paul. When I look back now, I loved Ruby as a contestant in the early episodes and was quite a #TeamRuby cheerleader but then it all became rather unfair and I like many others took to Twitter to highlight this. I would have done the same thing if she were male, of that I am pretty damn certain.

    1. Cathy – agreed, although I’m sure much of it just comes down to the magical old edit suite; I remember one of the ‘where are they now’ round-up shows containing lots of woe from one chap whose loaf got mullered by Paul on-screen, when in fact he said lots of positives (the reverse of the Ruby edit, but still – it’s telly, after all). I suspect Frances was edited to look unfairly over-critiqued in the same way, to add ‘drama’ and so on.
      It’s not Paul and Mary’s reactions that I found problematic anyway: it was what I saw online (Twitter especially, which was then picked up by multiple newspapers). Fine to critique Ruby’s baking. Fine also to critique how the judging works, whether someone’s getting a too tough/easy ride. Not fine to decide that someone you dislike doing well must be a ‘slut’. Clearly you weren’t one of those people, but that was incredibly prevalent.
      (I was #TeamKimberley myself. Still sad about her piefail.)

      1. Oh the editing was particularly…I don’t know, partisan this year? As you say, it felt almost as if it had been re-edited to ensure that Frances was the ‘unlikely’ winner due to her lacklustre performance on judging. Her prolific design talent could easily have been praised to the roof and then she’d have paled with the public very quickly. This way, it kept us rooting for her. If so I and many others were lambs to the slaughter when the British Sense of Fairness kicked in. Gosh now I’ve written that I can see how naive I’ve been! LOL!

        I think the other big factor in this that has been vaguely touched on is The Paul Hollywood Factor. Last year, he was your friendly family baker. This year, he’s a raving serial adulterer. Halo well and truly tarnished. If you believe the press! What would have been seen as perhaps fatherly type pride last year for Ruby was this year, seen as almost grooming! I think that’s such a massive part of it all and the reason why it was Ruby specifically and why her sex was an issue.

        Did people really call her a ‘slut’? Blimey.

        1. I was completely unaware of all the Paul Hollywood business until this week! I’m sure that is an influence on the Ruby drama (though I’ve seen more blame slung at her than him, of course…sigh). Makes me realise we all think we’re watching the same show, but we’re not at all.

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