This took place a few years ago, but continues to plague me in an odd, unresolvable way…
The scene: I’m in the disabled washroom at a live performance space called the Theatre Centre because my herniated discs occasionally make it incredibly painful to go up and down the stairs to the regular washrooms and the elevator must be run by a staff member. The disabled washroom is accessed through a storage area off the lobby and the door has one of those open slatted sections on the lower half, either for ventilation or communication in emergencies or both.
While I’m in there I hear people enter the storage room. It sounds like they’re gathering some extra chairs. There are two female voices and what sounds like an older man. There was an older man working the door as a volunteer when I came in so I assume it’s the same guy.
As a collector of pin-up art, and the wife of a beer writer, I am probably more exposed to, and less bothered by, cheeky and puerile beer labels and tap handles than other women. I don’t know if beer labels with cute (hot) cartoon babes actually sell more beer – that would be kind of a sad thing, actually – but they certainly are out there. Here in Ontario, we’re all familiar with Niagara Brewery’s Niagara’s Best Blonde, with the 40s era bombshell on the label. She is not scantily clad, mind you, in fact she’s downright wholesome, but I can see where some women would take issue with an image of a woman being used to sell and promote beer.
Of course, busty women have been a marketing default for beer companies for years, and it’s only lately, with the rising popularity of craft beer, that mainstream brewers have changed gears to be more inclusive of women, portraying them more as beer consumers and less as a set of tits in a bikini top, emerging from a lake to bring the man in the ad a crisp, cold one.
Oddly enough, the “sexy-making” in the beer industry has seemed to revert back to the little guy, with craft brewers, especially in the UK, using sexual imagery and innuendo to gain attention for their products in a market that is becoming ever more saturated with competition.
Not because I don’t think that she’s a strong woman, in control of her own career and destiny, but because the stereotypes that she plays to use a certain kind of femininity that puts women barefoot and back in the kitchen.
Most of the female chefs I know have had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to be taken seriously. Women who opt to make pastry for a living – whether because they genuinely enjoy it or because the hours and physical demands are easier – are considered cop outs. It’s utterly unfair, but it’s still a stupid stereotype of the industry. And even the women who do choose to make pastry for a living do so in a professional context – wearing a proper uniform, hair tied back, back and neck and shoulders aching at the end of a day bent over a cake doing hours of icing work.
Nigella sets these ladies back, if we want to be honest about it. Because even if she IS running her own empire and selling lots of books… she creates a stereotype of a woman and a bowl of frosting that the rest of us all have to live down (or up to, depending on how insecure you are). Nigella causes people to assume that real pastry chefs flit around sticking their fingers in the bowl, making sexy face as they test their new products. And for the home cook, Nigella creates food porn aspirations that can never be achieved, causing men to wonder why their wives and girlfriends don’t wear sexy sweaters over tight-laced corsets while they bake cupcakes (yes, Nigella, we can tell you’re wearing a corset… come on honey, let that belly hang out!), and causing women to compare themselves unfavourably to someone with a team of assistants that undoubtedly not only includes photographers and food stylists but hair and make-up people as well.
I’m not saying that you can’t be a pretty feminist. I’m not saying that feminists shouldn’t bake. Hell, I’m not even saying that feminists can’t/shouldn’t own their sexuality and use it to get ahead. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that Nigella posing with a bowl of batter and a tight sweater actually helps move the cause forward at all, okay? That’s she’s out there representing all the women trying to break free of the sexist stereotypes. And let’s really not pretend that real female pastry chefs don’t cringe when her name comes up because of the imagery she employs to sell some cookbooks.