Sexualized Saturdays: Female Chefs in the Media

Usually I’m an easygoing person, but one thing that gets under my skin is “kitchen jokes”. Partly because someone actually thinks they’re being clever, and in my opinion, they’re ironic. As a woman who has been working in food service for seven years now, I’m not blind to “men only” kitchens in restaurants. The general reason for this seems to be “because women can’t handle the pressure and the workload”. I know that that excuse is complete malarkey, but I don’t understand why it seems to be a continuing trend, especially in the media. Women are portrayed as home cooks, and not as professional chefs. On television there are many examples of serious female chefs. There’s Cat Cora, who’s still the only female Iron Chef in America. Julia Child, one of the first chefs ever televised in America, is famous for her influence in culinary arts. If we have women on TV who can be professional chefs, why can’t this be more common in fictional mediums?

Cooking Mama gets borderline insulting as it is.....

Cooking Mama gets borderline insulting as it is…..

I'd roll my eyes too...

I’d roll my eyes too…

In Disney’s The Princess and The Frog, Tiana’s dream is to own a restaurant of her own and to cook her family’s recipes for everyone to enjoy. In the beginning of the movie, they show Tiana working two jobs, saving money to buy an old sugar mill. She even turns down a night on the town with her friends because she’s so dedicated to creating her restaurant. When she buys the building, her mother stops by with their old stockpot as a gift. They walk inside and Tiana starts talking about how she’s so close to making her dream a reality, when her mother tries to tell her about other things she could be doing with her life. She mentions how Tiana should go out and “find the man of her dreams”, and how she wants grandchildren soon. Though it was done in a lighthearted nature, I couldn’t believe her mother, knowing the restaurant was Tiana’s dream (and her late husband’s), still tried to tell her to settle down and have a family instead. Even when the film kept pushing the idea that working too hard can be just as bad as not working at all, I was taken aback by what her mother had to say to her. What is so wrong with being passionate about your dreams? It’s one thing to be a workaholic, and another to have goals and aspirations. It takes a lot of money to buy a building, let alone renovate one; she would need to give a lot of her time and dedication to achieve her goal. Why is she being asked to go date people instead of pursuing a career?

Spirited Away the KitchenSpirited Away, by Studio Ghibli, also follows the idea that only men work in the kitchen. Admittedly you don’t get to see much of what’s going on “in the back of the house”, though everyone seems to have a specific job. Much of the plot follows Chihiro, a young girl who gets whisked away to the spirit world to work at a bath house. She, along with other women in similar garb, have the task of cleaning and maintaining the bathhouse. There are women in robes meant to be hostesses to their customers, and finally there are the frog creatures. Their roles range from being the bathhouse manager, helping to clean the baths, and finally cooking. They (along with the women in robes) seem to be a race of a single gender. The frogs are all male, and the hostesses are all female. Is there a particular reason the frogs are solely responsible for preparing the food? Not much is ever explained about the different races and spirits in the film, but it’s clear that maintenance work is rotated between workers, so why not kitchen duties as well?

Why is Linguine twisted like that? Colette pinned down his sleeve to the cutting board...with three knives...

Why is Linguine twisted like that? Colette pinned down his sleeve to the cutting board… with three knives…

Ratatouille, by Disney/Pixar, is about a rat who becomes a chef with the help of a garbage boy, Linguine, who he uses as a marionette of sorts. What I really wanted to see, though, was more of Colette, a chef from the restaurant Gusteau’s. The fact that there was only one woman in a 4 star restaurant didn’t shock me; what surprised me was the fueled rant she gives. Her first few words to Linguine were about how the kitchen is maintained by rules from old men, designed to keep women out. The only reason she’s still there was because she was the toughest chef in the kitchen. She continues to say she has no intention of losing her job because she has to train an idiot who got lucky and started cooking without having any experience. The movie openly presented this conflict and that made me excited to see the rest, yet nothing ever really came of the issue. Later Colette becomes the romantic interest for Linguine, and she starts to respect him as he genuinely appreciates her input and advice. It’s great that she isn’t being ridiculed for being a woman, but I’d love to see recognition for her skills because she’s good at her trade, rather than “because we’re dating, I don’t want to upset her”. When the movie keeps pushing the idea that “anyone can cook”, and they even touch on the fact that women are being held back from a professional cooking career, why don’t they pursue the idea any further than that?

There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe the directors and writers made these decisions on purpose (except in Ratatouille), yet the impact is still there. It may seem like such a small detail, but to me, showing successful professional female chefs is another step towards equality. Rather than placing people in certain societal roles based on gender, people should be able to live and be portrayed in different areas that fit their personalities. If I have to listen to these terrible jokes, can I at least have a better portrayal of how women can cook? Either for themselves, for commercial businesses, or as a career.

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7 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Female Chefs in the Media

  1. But Tiana did get her own restaurant in the end. And I think what’s shown in the movie is that part of why she’s working so relentlessly she has no time even to sleep, let alone have fun with her friends, is as a reaction to her father’s death. That’s why it *has* to be at the old saw mill that her father also wanted to turn into a restaurant. She feels she needs to show people that her father’s hard work wasn’t in vain, to prove that because of his dreams and how they inspired her, he wasn’t a failure. It’s only after she realises that there were other reasons he wasn’t a failure and she didn’t have to prove anything to protect his memory that she could truly embrace the restaurant in her *own* name, building her own future (which happened to include a supportive partner, too, by that point).

    • Definitely good points. I agree, her fathers death was a heavy influence for her, and it’s part of why she was so determined. The film does a nice job showing why it’s okay for her to live her own life rather then the life her father would have wanted (or to uphold his reputation), but I didn’t appreciate the way the movie presented Tiana’s situation. She didn’t seem to have help from anyone to put down a bid for the mill. If Naveen never came to New Orleans, Charlotte wouldn’t have given her the money she needed…as quickly as she was willing to throw down wads of cash, why didn’t she help Tiana earlier? I’m actually glad she had help by the end of the movie, what I’m more concerned about is the fact she was willing to put the extra effort in the beginning to buy the mill, but her mother insists she should let things be as they are, and enjoy time with people. If her friends and family knew how much this meant to her, why were they telling her to stop working so much (or why they couldn’t help her a little)? I want to encourage the idea that women can be independent and professional, even if they don’t achieve their goals. I get the point the movie was trying to make, but sometimes you just have to work hard for what you want, and it shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing to take life seriously when you need to.

      • I didn’t get the feeling her mother and her friends wanted her to put her dreams on the shelf – remember her mother bringing her father’s gumbo pot to the old saw mill when Tiana thought she had it in the bag? – but just not work herself to the bone for it. As for Lottie and others being able to help her out, I’m not quite sure but I’m ready to believe that the work ethic Tiana grew up with and how she handled her father’s death made her refuse getting “handouts” out of pride. I do think that when it looked like she couldn’t make the offer, she would have accepted a loan from friends because by then she was desperate – but she didn’t have the time to think things through before Naveen showed up in frog form with his own offer. (For which she would actually earn the money herself by kissing him, or so she thought, not knowing he was broke.)

        Plus, the sellers claimed she had to pay the whole amount in cash, when she only had exactly enough for the down payment. Question is, would even Lottie have that much money at hand? It’s her dad who’s got the real cash, not her. If Naveen married her, he could have been able to get a substantial amount from his new father-in-law to give to Tiana, but Lottie herself might not be able to swing that to a friend. I think that was the thinking, anyway. It would certainly have been nice to have a few more lines in the movie to clarify the situation, though! (Assuming I’m right about this, which I might not be.)

        • Very true, it’s hard to pinpoint how things would have turned out since there wasn’t more of the story to follow… If nothing else it would have made the movie more engaging. At least Disney is trying to make the typical fairy tales with a bit more character now. I’m curious how their version of Into The Woods will turn out, considering it’s darker tone…

  2. Though your mention of Cat Cora as the only female Iron Chef was peripheral to your main point, I just wanted to mention that Alex Guarneschelli is now an Iron Chef, though the latest incarnation of Iron Chef America is not a very compelling thing to watch, IMO–but not because of her. Amanda Freitag and Elizabeth Falkner were also under consideration to appear on Iron Chef. Of the three I’d most have enjoyed seeing Elizabeth Falkner…the least “home cook” of the the three.

    This is a subject I’m very interested in, and yet, I’ve never seen any of these that you’ve discussed. I’ve got a little to-view list now. Thanks for raising this interesting topic.

    • I’m glad to here someone else has climbed the ranks to Iron Chef! Unfortunately I don’t have cable so it’s difficult to keep up with shows anymore. I thrive on Hulu now ^^; Hopefully you enjoy watching these movies! They’re honestly some of my favorites, even if they do irk me from time to time.

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