Calling bullshit on the cult of the Great British Bake Off

Programme Name: Great British Bake Off - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Embargoed for publication until: 13/08/2013 - Picture Shows: Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry - (C) Love Productions - Photographer: Des Willie

There is an innate rebellion in me that feels the need to eschew all things that were once reserved for the independent thinker and have become a mainstream capitalist commodity: 1950s circle skirts, Amy Winehouse, Lena Dunham, oversized glasses, kale, This American Life and most ubiquitous of them all: cupcakes.

If there’s an hour of television to embody everything I hate about cupcakes, it’s the Great British Bake Off. It’s style over substance, sickly sweet yet simultaneously bland, non-ironically reactionary, and reproduced over and over again, to ever-lower standards.

Beyond a vague interest in the first season, back when bunting was edgy in my social circle, Ruby Tandoh is the only interesting thing to happen on the show. I saw her speak at a morning conference when I worked at the Guardian and am a big fan of her recipes, attitude and dignified attempt to fight against the misogynistic abuse she was subjected to simply for being a woman on a screen. I’ve got nothing against Mel and Sue either – both seem like cool ladies and decent comedians, but it’s not enough to hold up the dull charade.

Every season I see longer and more absurdly whimsical think pieces around the success of the show, and most theories hinge on the idea that the contestants “just really love baking”, which must be complete nonsense. They may well love baking, but that’s not the main reason they go on the show. What happens on GBBO is so far removed from baking it’s like saying people go on Big Brother because they’re just really interested in anthropology.

Baking is about indulgence, about treats, it means lazy mornings and cozy brunches and sharing a delicious creation with people you care about because it makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Do you want to know what the opposite of baking is? Running around like a lunatic to get your concoction ready against the clock, competing against other people to see who can garner the highest praise, baking purely in order to be judged and valuing the aesthetics of the food over the taste.

Most contestants want to write cookery books or open their own bakeries and the kind of exposure the Bake Off offers them is unparalleled, so kudos to them for identifying the opportunity, but let’s not pretend it’s anything beyond that. If you want to see people truly passionate about food, looking to hone a culinary craft in order to create boundary-shattering dishes, go and watch MasterChef.

I really like cake, and I love watching people cook. When I lived in a house with a TV I used to spend 90% of my waking time at home with the Food Network on in the background. I could probably ignore the general disingenuously twee vibe and enjoy GBBO in some sort of post-ironic humour, if it were not for the nausea I feel at the sight of Paul Hollywood and Mary fucking Berry.

The last thing I want is to associate happy baking time with is a woman who calls feminism a ‘dirty word’ and claims fat people shouldn’t present cookery programmes (although presumably she means women, as the food TV industry is full of chubby-to-overweight male chefs). The only thing worse than having a regressive WI-type old lady telling people what makes a good tart is having her do so whilst standing next to one of the creepiest men on television.

There was a time when Paul Hollywood’s kneading had some sort of limited sex appeal, but those days are long gone (although Bread is a much better watch than GBBO if you need your fix of baking). When the tabloids splashed his affair with American co-host – and subsequent reconciliation with his wife – he responded by hamming up the flirt for the cameras, coming across as borderline inappropriate with some of the younger female contestants. He then said and did nothing in their defence when the rest of the internet decided they were to blame. He even called out the aforementioned fabulous Ruby Tandoh for confronting Twitter haters who claimed she was sleeping with Hollywood when she came out as a lesbian. 

I’ve been known to watch some dreadful TV, there was even that unfortunate incident in 2009 where I got hooked on Dawson’s Creek re-runs, but at least most reality television knows it’s contrived, scripted, overly self-aware entertainment which functions as anaesthetic for the intellect. That GBBO is in denial about itself is bad enough, the fact that the rest of us are buying it is, quite frankly, an embarrassment.

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