I was watching ITV1 last night. In fact, I am ITV’s wet dream on a Monday, because I turn the channel on at 7.30pm for the first instalment of Coronation Street and don’t turn it off until I go to bed. I don’t even turn over at 8pm since I don’t watch That Other Soap on BBC. At 8pm it used to be the Tonight programme which was always good for a laugh at the scaremongering that the British press indulges in on a regular basis, but last night it was Airport, which involves a lot of irate people shouting at airport stuff. Which is also good for a laugh. Last night 20-odd Geordies found themselves stranded in Bristol facing paying £100 each to get back to Newcastle which is 300 miles away. Apparently Ryanair felt it had fulfilled its duties since it had brought them back to the UK. They hired cars. Good for them. And people wonder why I don’t fly…

At 9pm, after the second instalment of Corrie, is an ITV Drama Premiere which is either a drama mini-series or a made-for-TV two hour film. This year has seen some good ones already – the moving Unforgiven starring the excellent Suranne Jones and the thrilling Whitechapel starring the always delicious Rupert Penry-Jones.

Last night was a two hour film called Compulsion. It starred Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham, ER) as a young, wealthy Camgridge graduate who’s father was trying to get her to agree to an arranged marriage with the son of a business associate. The family’s chauffeur, Ray Winstone (Scum, King Arthur), volunteered to disgrace this son if she agreed to spend the night with him.

She agreed, the son was disgraced, she slept with him and then fell in love with him. The son got murdered, her brother got embroiled and so did her new fiance, etc etc. In the end she stabbed Ray’s character and married the fiance, although the look on her face at the end gave the impression that she didn’t want to have.

The fiance was a white guy, which is why she hadn’t introduced him to the family to begin with. Once they did meet him, they approved of him and her father even gave him money to set up his business.

So why am I talking about all this? Well because something quite startling happened. There was not one mention of religion throughout the whole thing.

What? What’s that? Asian people on the television and there’s no mention of religion? You know, just like you can with white people? Oh my. Surely not.

I feel like I need to explain that in the UK if you say “Asian” you generally mean someone from South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – whereas in the States and maybe in Canada you mean otherwise? I also feel like I need to explain that I’m from West Yorkshire, where there’s the joint highest Pakistani population in England and Wales, as well as sizeable minorities from all sorts of other kinds of ethnicities. I went to university in York which is extremely, incredibly white, and I really found it strange. I now live in a very white part of South Yorkshire and still find it strange. My husband is almost from the whitest place in Britain and I find dealing with my in-laws a battle on this matter.

(See, for instance, their calling of one of the shops in the village the “Paki shop”. I always, always call them up on it, because it’s offensive. My four year old niece now tells them off for it. She is FOUR, and she knows it’s wrong. Maybe there is hope)

Racially, I am as white as the driven snow. Ethnically, I am not. My grandfather (& his siblings) was born in India, had dual citizenship, and was culturally Indian. In a lot of ways, in way I can’t tell you but in ways that touch me some forty years after his death. I also studied Theology at university and these things interest me.

(What is the difference between race and ethnicity? I’ve been thinking about it all day. To me, race is biology and ethnicity is culture. But I could be wrong. What do you think? I also am fully aware of my white privilege, and I apologise for any errors herein)

So for me, for a TV programme to not only feature but STAR an entire Asian family WITHOUT mentioning religion is nothing short of miraculous. I have no idea now if this family was religious, and if they were whether they were Sikh or Hindu or Muslim or Baha’i or Jain or Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or I don’t know, bloody Jedis for all I care. It didn’t matter to the story. Of course in 2009 that should be the case, it SHOULD be the case but so often it ISN’T.

ITV Drama: ur doin it right, apparently. Who knew?

Earlier today, I tried – and failed – to write a post about a programme that I was told I should watch because “it’ll make you want to kick things.”

That programme was Nigella Express: Instant Calmers, and oh, the irony of having the word “calm” in a programme that was (as promised) so very infuriating.

However, trying to come up with a sensible critique of it, I noticed something that made me uncomfortable enough to put the post on hold. Perhaps I should explain at this point that, as with any male-dominated industry, there’s already something to pick up on whenever you see a woman doing well. And professional cookery – being known as a chef – is nothing if not a male-dominated industry. It’s one of those peculiar patriarchal double-thinks, that women are seen as the more capable sex in the kitchen – so long as that kitchen is in a home.

More pervasively, there is something of a trend to show men as chefs, and women as cooks. Again, it’s the professional versus the personal, but there’s more than that, because this is English and in English there are many, many opportunities to be negative without ever saying a technically negative word. It’s like the difference between being a tailor, and being a seamstress – a distinction that caught my imagination the other day, when I wondered what word you could use for a male seamstress. A seamstress might work professionally, or she might just be a good amateur; a tailor is assumed to be professional, and skilled, and male. In the same vein, a cook might work professionally, or not; but to be a chef is to have a vocation, and in some places, a qualification, or more. And again, to be a chef is to be assumed to be male.

As it happens, Lawson is not a trained chef. She’s been quoted as saying that she doesn’t pretend to be, and thinks that her appeal is in her “relaxed” approach. And that’s fine. I’ve worked with chefs – over twenty of them men, and only two women, and this in an environment where the Executive Chef actively encouraged the hiring of women – and it’s a very masculine environment. Training in that kind of atmosphere is certainly not something that I would want to put myself through. Unfortunately, Lawson feeds the narrative of men as professional, women as amateur – as well as feeding her family!

When I got angry with her show, it was a roughly even split between anger at common sense errors, and anger at the feminine stereotypes. I tried very hard not to get angry with her. As I say, I worked with chefs. In fact, if she’s never been formally trained, then I have more qualifications than she does, as I still have a basic food hygiene certificate. And as any of my aquaintances will know, there are some things that happen in kitchens that make my blood boil, in testament to that training (and the training my mother gave me, years earlier).

So, this is my critique, thoughtfully held back until now.

  • I never once saw her wash her hands. Presumably she did, and it’s possible that somebody involved with the programme assumed that the intended audience (I would suggest middle-aged, middle-class, relatively affluent women, probably with a family) would already know such basic steps. I counter that by saying that it’s incredibly jarring, as somebody who knows that hands need washing, not to see it happen. And if I were watching that programme and didn’t know that hands needed washing, I wouldn’t have got that information.
  • Her hair – carefully styled – was loose for the entire programme. This is just not nice. There’s no way I could have not seen a bit where she tied it back, so I can’t give her the benefit of the doubt. I can say that there was probably enough hairspray in her style to keep it attatched to her head, but on the other hand, would you want to risk eating hairspray? There were other issues I had with her hair, but I suspect they come under the “stereotype” heading, so I’ll leave that for now.
  • The very first recipe was cooked in its entirety without Lawson removing her coat. It very nicely led on from the home-after-a-long-day story, but looked both fake and daft. I mean, who actually comes home and starts cooking without removing their coat? Even if there weren’t mobility and cleanliness issues (running the risk of sleeves trailing in food and arm movement being restricted), if you cook wearing a coat, your coat will smell of your dinner. This is not rocket science. And even if it were, it would be the “don’t let it crash” area of rocket science – that is, blindingly obvious.

That, for now, is the non-feminist portion of the rant. Yes, I am a product of my environments. Cleanliness matters, people! Moving on to the feminist-themed criticisms, I start to sound a litte different:

  • There was a recipe for chocolate cookies. Yum. I like chocolate. Many people do. My father, for instance. My uncles. My sister. My brother. Note the non-gender-specific, non-age-specific distribution of chocolate-lovers in my family. However, in a cultural narrative, there can only be one reason to eat chocolate: you are an adult woman, and you have Relationship Troubles (TM). Cue an entirely staged scene of Lawson on the phone:

“no, no don’t do that, whatever you do, do not ring him, and do not text him, no. Look, I’ll tell you what to do come round here, I’ll give you something to eat, you’ll feel a lot better. OK, come now.
[to camera] I think you may have got the picture there – sobbing girlfriend on the phone, and a small bit of tea and sympathy is required, but I think an express batch of chocolate chip cookies will administer all the comfort that’s required.”

Ah, yes, of course. Cookies. Perfect for when your empathy skills go AWOL. Don’t know what to say to somebody? Give them a cookie, they’ll forget why they ever came to see you. And all women love chocolate! In fact, they love chocolate far more than they might ever have loved their partner! (As long as said partner is a man. I have not yet come across a here-sad-lesbian-friend-have-chocolate-to-get-over-your-heartbreak narrative, but then, I’m thinking of mainstream – read “heteronormative” – TV, so I suppose it was always unlikely.) So, to conclude: chocolate cookies! Eat one, and you’ll hardly remember that man you used to live with! Eat two, and turn into Alice in Wonderland!! …. no?

  • I said I was going to come back to the hair issue, and this is it, or part of it: she kept flicking her hair. Irritating from a hygiene point of view (again, hairspray, anyone?!) but even more so because of the hair-flicking was only a small part of a very cultivated femininity. Of course, masculinity and femininity are constructs, and I could – and do – also argue that the posturing competitiveness of masculine male chefs is an irritating trait, but today I’m focussing on the feminine. Because it’s not just that she’s got long, feminine-styled hair that flicks, it’s not just that she’s been heavily made-up for the cameras, it’s that these things and more are used to sexualise her. In clips that you simply would not see of male chefs, or indeed any other male TV personality, there is a focus on licking fingers (and did I mention that she didn’t wash her hands?), eating slowly from spoons, leaning forward from the waist… the list goes on. It’s infuriating. Perhaps if there were more narratives for women available, I wouldn’t mind seeing her eating suggestively. Perhaps if I saw women be something other than sexy, it wouldn’t bother me that in the lead-up to the last recipe (a midnight snack, “doughnut French toast”) she’s shown in bed, wearing a black satin nightgown – that she proceeds to cook in (and yes, those sleeves trailed too).

Difficult not to attack Lawson for this personally. Difficult not to judge her for what she’s doing, for the image she’s cultivating. But at the end of the day, this is all we’ve got. You can be a child, or sexy, or a wife-and-mother, if you’re female and want to be considered “good”. For those who aren’t “good”, there’s a choice of  frigid, slut, lesbian or bitch. Then there are the women that supposedly don’t exist – anybody who isn’t convenient, like ethnic minorities, and the elderly (a group which starts at forty, don’t forget) and people outside of the gender binary, and the disabled, and the poor. Lawson is doing well in that she gets to be both sexy and a wife-and-mother. She wouldn’t have been on TV, of course, in her role, if she weren’t “good”.

I can’t blame her for finding a niche within the system that we’ve got, and milking it. Who am I to say I wouldn’t do the same? But I can blame the society we live in, for being so damned crap for most of the population. I can blame the stereotypes that tell us, in great detail, and with varying consistancy, what women should be, and do, and say, and think. I can blame the BBC for promoting, consciously or not, the idea that women are amateur, men are professional. I can blame them for promoting the idea that women are caring, men are confrontational. (Another of their programmes, Take on the Take-Away, was entirely made up of men, with the professional chef competing against the professional kebab-shop owners to create the best kebab, to be judged by two other men, neither of whom knew how to cook, and who, in consequence, knew a great deal about kebabs.)

Sexism. It’s everywhere. I knew there was a reason I don’t own a TV.

So, it turns out that the woman that presented the god-awful 10 Years Younger has been replaced by a younger model.

The phrase, “what goes around, comes around.”

This woman (Nicky Hambleton-Jones) has spent the last few years telling other women that they look disgusting and must totally change their faces, bodies and wardrobes in order to be “sexy” and “feminine” and “young” (and all those other things that women must look in order to be happy), and heaven help any woman that looks her age (and even worse any poor poor down trodden woman that a panel of 100 strangers declares to look over her age)!
And now she has being replaced by someone 7 years younger than her, and according to an interview I’ve just read (while feeding my guilt pleasure for trashy magazines) we should all feel sorry for her!
Hambleton-Jones argues that she is the victim of a media culture that demands ever younger looking woman and that woman over 40 must struggle everyday to look younger and younger.

Anyone else want to give her a good slapping?!

Oh and she talks about how we should all thank her for ‘normalising’ plastic surgery…

I know it’s not particularly feminist of me to feel that this is deserved, but if you front a programme that tells women that they are disgusting for looking their age and promote expensive, painful and unnecessary plastic surgery as the solution to all of life’s problems, can you really be surprised if your bumped off for a younger model?