Eating the Other(‘s Food): Exotification and Exploitation of “Culture” on the Food Network

My guiltiest TV pleasure is, without a doubt, the Food Network. More specifically, it’s the reality tv competition “Food Network Star,” in which contestants compete to have their own show on the cable station that is dedicated to gastronomy. Contenders are faced with both cooking challenges as well as “camera challenges,” and they are to explain their “culinary point of view” and demonstrate how that p.o.v. will translate to an entertaining television show.  (Obligatory apologia: yes, I often have to sit through images of meat and other non-vegan, against-a-lot-of-my-politics produced food, and yes, I did make the decision with my partner to spend money on the very unnecessary luxury of cable. Mea culpa, mea culpa, okay? But as you’re about to see, it really only gets worse…)

This year, the judges consisted of Bobby Flay, Giada DeLaurentis, Bob Tushman and Susie Fogelson who would try to mold the contestants into being better FN candidates through the comments they gave during the elimination round. In most cases, this was fairly harmless. “You need to describe your food more,” “Try to tell a story about the dish,” “You sound more like a scientist than an entertainer.” But Susie Jimanez always had a different kind of feedback: needing to be a more authentic Latina.

Susie came on the show wanting to show off the many skills she learned in culinary school. During the first episode she even said (in the proverbial reality TV confessional booth), with a tone of exasperation, “I’m Mexican, so everyone thinks I’m gonna make Mexican food,” before presenting a French dish to the judges. Bobby, Bob, Susie and Giada were not impressed, and wondered why she wasn’t drawing more on her Latina heritage. During the second challenge of the episode, Susie changed her culinary point of view to include “a Mexican twist”; Susie–in stark contrast to her comments on the show ten minutes prior–stated: “I am embracing my Latin culture. That’s who I am.”  After presenting her second (Mexican) dish (and giving a “sexy latin greeting” in her video challenge) Giada stated happily, “When you draw upon what you grew up with, you can be really strong.”

Similarly, when contestant Penny Davidi (the resident villain), originally started off with the TV show concept of “Stilettos in the Kitchen,” the judges encouraged her to embrace what she knew best: the Middle East (even though, albeit of Middle Eastern descent, Penny was born and raised in California). To be fair, “Stilettos in the Kitchen” was a hot mess of a concept, which she tried to explain as “bringing sexy back [to the kitchen]” but then added, “You can have a stilettos in the kitchen moment with your kids!” holding back tears during one of the eliminations (ummm….?). After episode 2, Penny’s show title became “The Middle Eastern Mama.”

But the judges insistence for Susie to be an “authentic Latina,” was one of the most fascinating illustrations of “exotifying the other” that I’ve witnessed on TV. What was more interesting, however, than a panel of white judges imploring their cute, bubbly brown-skinned contestant to perform more ethnic (not particularly shocking, unfortunately), is the way Susie took on this role as though her desire to “prove her versatility” never happened.

This phenomenon, argues bell hooks, is all too common. In her essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992), hooks writes

Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation. When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as a sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism. The acknowledged Other must assume recognizable forms. (p. 147)

the caption for this on the website is "The Reluctant Latin Chef."

Soon enough, we started to learn more about Susie’s Latin background. We found out that her father passed away, but this personal, sad part of Susie’s life quickly became a tool of manipulation to perpetuate the myth of “the American Dream.” On more than one occasion, the judges used Susie’s story about her parents immigration from Mexico to affirm that the American Dream works, and that, as hooks explains, it can be “inclusive of difference,” insofar as that difference is palatable (quite literally, in the case of Susie and her food).

In her article about the Grey’s Anatomy scandal (in which Isaiah Washington (a black man) was reported to have called T.R. Knight (a gay man) a “faggot”), Courtney W. Bailey writes that

[the scandal] offered mainstream audiences “authenticity” as a way to understand political inequalities and as a yardstick by which to measure sexual and racial difference. It demanded that minorities be authentic, but not too authentic: Knight should have revealed his homosexuality, but only in a way that kept him from appearing too gay; and Washington should have revealed his true emotions and biases, but only in a way that kept him from appearing too black. Each could only be recognized as an individual under neoliberalism if he simultaneously managed to embrace his “difference”–so as to not look like a fraud–and to deny it–so as not to look like a freak. (p. 18)

Similarly, Susie was requested to be more Latina, but not too Latina, as her “culture” was always treated as an artifact—-it was a history that shaped her, but one that could only emerge through a commodity for the white folks to consume.

i heart the neelys.

FNS is not an isolated incident, of course—this type of cultural other-ing is pervasive on the Food Network. Past FNS winner, Aaron McCargo Jr., a black man, was encouraged to title his show “Big Daddy’s House,” the commercial for Sonny Anderson’s “Cookin’ for Real,”has a voice over that is charicature of “black slang,” and on “Down Home With the Neely’s” (they are my favorite, btw), Pat and Gina are often performing blackness through their “black cooking” while simultaneously making themselves acceptable by displaying how they are friends with important white Southerners (like Paula Deen and some big-deal BBQ old white guy from Memphis, to name a few). In addition, Paula Deen just invited two cast members from “The Help,” on her show, and reflected nostalgically about how the movie reminded her of “the good old days,” when “all the women were together in the kitchen.” (Is Paula to blame for not “getting” the real point of the movie, or is the movie to blame for making the take-away message something about social change qua women-sharing-the-kitchen?).

But I was enthralled by Susie, partly because I’m so ridiculously hooked on the show, partly because I was quite fond of her, and partly because it seemed so utterly innocuous. As I plan my syllabus for the Media Literacy class I’m teaching to undergraduates this fall, I become more and more sensitized to these tremendously subtle instances of racism. For those who want to fight me on calling this “racist,” I turn to Stuart Hall’s definition of “inferential racism,” which is, “those apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether ‘factual’ or ‘fictional’, which have racist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumption….Inferential racism is more widespread [than overt racism]–and in many ways, more insidious, because it is largely invisible even to those who formulate the world in its terms.”  Susie’s story became a way to construct an “authentic” Latina based on a panel of white judge’s collective memory of Latin culture, which is historically rooted in racism and violence.

During the last episode, Susie explained her motivation for staying so long in the competition (she was the runner-up). As the camera panned across a field of grape vines, Susie said that the fields reminded her of her father, of her past, and of her culture. And it was for her dad that she fought so hard to make it so far: “I’m finishing my father’s dream.” What does it mean that the visual metonymy for “Latin culture” is a field of grape vines? Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers taught us that grape vines were a symbol of exploitation, not cultural heritage (which, of course, is not to say that labor can’t be a source of culture or pride, but Susie was not referencing any sort of worker power message in the edited version of her reminiscing).

There’s part of me that feels like I have no right to critique the way this theme emerged in the show—-after all, maybe there are no “corporate puppeteers” behind the scenes of FNS, requiring that their stars be intelligible and appropriate (::cough::). Also, I’m a white woman, so I can read all the critical race theory I want, but there’s still some room to suggest that I maybe don’t have a place to be sharing these thoughts with such indignation. But to ignore it—–especially in the midst of compiling a reading list for a class that is about this exact type of critical engagement—–also seemed wrong.

Media—-as harmless and innocent as it may seem—-matters in socio-political struggle. In the same essay from above, Hall reminds us:

This task of making anti-racist ideas popular is and must be part of a wider democratic struggle which engages, not so much the hard-line extremists of the right, or even the small numbers of the committed and converted, but the great body of common sense, in the population as a whole, and amongst working people especially, on which the struggle to build up an anti-racist popular bloc will ultimately depend….[and] the media’s main sphere of operations is the production and transformation of ideologies. (p. 28-31)

Oh. Also, this:

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2 thoughts on “Eating the Other(‘s Food): Exotification and Exploitation of “Culture” on the Food Network

    • standup is also really fascinating when it comes to race/stereotypes, since so much of what standup has come to be about is irony and “enlightened racism/sexism/heterosexism’ etc. i struggle with that as a white viewer in terms of what is and isn’t okay to laugh at, ya know? like is it okay that sara silverman makes fun of blacks because she makes fun of jews? is it okay for margaret cho to make a joke of her korean mom? etc. really messy stuff….

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