Friday, July 06, 2007

Be A Man (A Feminism Friday Post)

I caught a rerun of an episode of Top Chef this afternoon. If you've been watching, it was the one with the barbecue challenge, where the cute southern dyke got eliminated. Towards the end of this episode, Howie and Joey get into a little argument. I'm not a fan of either of them; Joey uses the fact that he's from New York City as if it inherently means he's better than everyone else. Granted, New York City is AWESOME and INHERENTLY BETTER THAN EVERYWHERE ELSE. But you, mister, you are a schmuck, and there are lots like you here. You are un-awesome. Howie, on the other hand, is merely nothing special. He has screwed up pretty seriously in two of the four episodes so far, so I'm guessing he's no great shakes. Also, he was the first to trot out the "I'm not here to make friends" trope, which I find boring and insufficient. Both of these guys are big beefy white dudes, probably Italian, based purely on looks.

Right after they leave the judging room to wait to find out who has been eliminated (both were ranked in the bottom four), Howie and Joey get involved in a detailed argument about the meaning of masculinity. (OK, they don't think that's what they're doing. But, dude, it so is.) Joey has just said in front of the judges that Howie should go home, because of a previous (serious) mistake and because he was in the bottom four again. Between them leaving the judges room, the editors have inserted a clip of Joey saying "My blood flows red, and competition brings out the animal in me." When they get back out to the waiting room, Joey yells at Howie to "step up and be a man."

What, precisely does "be a man" mean here? Cooking is simultaneously a feminized field (the proper domain of the housewife, the private sphere par excellence, the location in which to be barefoot and pregnant), and a masculinized field (knives, fire, people yelling at each other, military metaphors, a lot of cock-measuring, pun intended). So clearly, to "be a man" is to force the act of being a chef into that masculinized field, to abolish the gender ambiguity. Joey is attacking Howie for being insufficiently aggressive. In front of the judges, Howie apologied for his work being not very good and vowed to do better. This was too feminine for Joey; he wanted Howie to be aggressive, defensive--to enact a sort of violent masculinity.

Howie responds to Joey in equal volume, and with an equally aggressive tone of voice. He says to Joey, "You've been blaming everybody else for your bullshit. Shake somebody's hand to be a fucking man. You be a fucking man." Here, he argues that masculinity is not about aggression. It isn't about being mean enough or loud enough. Instead, it is about responsibility. Joey does not take responsibility for his mistakes in cooking; his statements in front of the judges, and in general, show a disregard for the opinions of others. Howie is willing to admit his mistakes (his inability to get one of his proteins plated in an earlier challenge, for instance) and to own up to them. This, in his opinion, makes him more of a man than Joey. If he had been eliminated, he says "I woulda been a fucking man about it, but you wanna bitch like a little girl" about the possibility of elimination. At this point, Joey recedes into an adolescent sulk, and we cut back to the impossibly beautiful Padma Lakshmi leading the judges.

I think that Howie's version of masculinity is the better; I also think it 'wins the argument,' for lack of a better term. In any case, Joey gives up. But I also think that's the problem of Joey's masculinity--it only works if you get people to acquiesce to it. When Howie says, "no, MY masculinity, asshole!" Joey can just go, "whatever, dude." It's like how Eddie Izzard says--when someone yells "Bloke in a dress!" at you, they don't cope well when you say, "yeah, and?"

What do you think--about masculinity and kitchens or about this season's Top Chef?

(The Feminism Friday concept comes to us courtesy of Thinking Girl. Why not reserve some space in every week for a little gender revolution?)


Blogger bazu said...

I like feminism friday, but unfortunately, due to having been on the road, I haven't been following this season of top chef. I can think of a parallel on the Gordon Ramsay show, where the girl who's been a total irrational meanie to her teammates was, instead of being rightfully eliminated, placed on the men's team, with the idea that being surrounded by men would be more well-suited to her bitchiness. That was a real wtf moment for me. So her meanness was only bad because it was directed at women? Or worse yet, the women couldn't handle it as well as the men surely can? I really can't figure it out. But it's not like these shows put too much thought into the concept of gender past "let's have a women's team and a men's team and watch the inevitable fireworks as the nurturing team players battle the cocky individualists." Gag.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

I've never watched an episode of Top Chef, but based on your description, I would agree with Howie. But, I think a lot of men would agree with Joey, because they think that indiscriminate aggression is inherently manly. I think that owning up to your mistakes is much more brave, though, and thus more traditionally manly. But really, I don't get why this is manly--women are brave all the time.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

bazu--oh. my. god. i watched last night's episode of hell's kitchen. oh. my. god. the nice girly girls who get their makeup done! the poor pathetic black girl who doesn't know how to cook! the men with their prestige and military attitudes. OH! MY! GOD! i am really glad i watched it...but my brain may explode if i watch another episode. also, top check has more cooking, better filmed. :)

susan--the question is, really, why do we insist on assigning gendered characteristics to all this? the reason (as i see it) is that our society uses gender, along with race and other pervasive discourses, to frame and understand questions of personal behavior. so these behaviors have to be about, not being a proper person, but being a proper man or woman. but it's really interesting to watch people who don't think about it at an academic level debate it when they don't know what they're doing. :)

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