Representation, Intersectional Feminism & Food – Why I Said Yes to TV
It was something I debated, silently but constantly. Voluntarily choosing to be on television was a decision I did not take lightly. Each time we proceeded to the next stage of the Million Pound Menu process, I trembled with fear, picturing the final. Why would I want to challenge myself so gruellingly, and further, before a national audience? Was I ready? Nah. Was Devi’s ready? Definite nah. But with eyes on the prize, I took a leap of faith, knowing that otherwise, I’d regret it entirely.
After the penultimate round, Devi’s was chosen to head to Manchester. I was elated and felt an immense sense of pride. I’d seldom felt the warmth from people’s support envelope me like it did when I told them that we had made it to the finals. How quickly fear vanished, and into the dark, beamed an overwhelming ray of excitement.
But just like that, ever so swiftly, excitement diminished and dread arrived. An obtrusive thought emerged and circled my mind frequently. What if I was just a box ticking exercise?
As a person of colour, you are sometimes faced with paranoid smog shrouding your achievements. You question why YOU were chosen. At the back of my mind, rooted in apprehension, I began to feel pangs that I had not succeeded on merit alone, but, rather, to merely satisfy a gender quota, or moreover, a racial one.
Insecure? Perhaps. I decided (quite firmly) that I was going to move forward with the show, occupying the space the best I could, and, well, owning it, irrespective of the anxieties of how I got there. There was a team to recruit, a menu to throw together and a restaurant to run for investors. The bhajis, as the old adage goes, were not going to fry themselves.
Championing diversity is something British television has continuously failed at. Through tokenism, people of colour are regularly an afterthought, an add-on, and to be frank, it was exactly this, I was afraid I had become. The British Asians we’ve seen on telly have fallen under the ‘British Asian Community’, too often being lumped under the same umbrella term, denoting one uniform brown experience. Speaking about the BBC’s Big British Asian Summer series, BBC Commissioner Tom McDonald said “there is not one single British Asian experience nor one British Asian voice to represent all experiences”. Then why, I asked myself, when it comes to TV, are we as south Asians, almost always a pastiche of entrenched stereotypes?
I was grabbing with both hands, the opportunity of being the only woman of colour contending in the finals. But, I began worrying when the show asked to film the women in my family, to film us cooking together in the kitchen. Was this going to be the same spun Indian narrative of female culinary autonomy in an otherwise patriarchal society? The same worn-out, hackneyed tale of recipes being passed down through generations, the novelty of my father owning a corner shop and me referring to myself as a ‘corner shop kid’? Was it just going to be the same old catalogue of clichés? ‘These belittling, stereotypical roles are a far cry from the everyday reality of British Asians,’ writes Coco Khan for The Guardian, ‘served up specifically to thrill and appal white audiences, without regard of the consequences. And there are real consequences. TV doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it reflects culture as much as it shapes it.’ As concerned as I was about the television angle, that I would not only be complicit, but also the subject of such stereotypes, I decided to pay little heed. Surely, I thought, I have a wider role to play, in the representation of my own individual brown experience.
Riz Ahmed, whilst speaking in Parliament for Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture, commented TV had a pivotal role to play in ensuring different communities felt heard, and valued, in British society. He described that the lack of diverse voices and stories onscreen led people from minority backgrounds to feel disaffected and estranged, switching off and retreating to fringe narratives, and to bubbles online. “People are looking for the message that they belong,” he continued, “that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed’.
Touching on the very powerful truth of how ‘white’ television has been, Ahmed reminded me of my own inability to relate to the faces I grew up watching. “We’ve been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be”. His experiences as a child mirror my own, yelling out “INDIAN!” when seeing literally any brown face on the screen; the fleeting joy, validity and belonging you felt in those moments. “I really want you to understand how much that meant to someone who doesn’t see themselves reflected back in culture. It’s a message that you matter.”
Similarly, the UK’s catering and hospitality industry is a majority white, male dominated space. There is notably an absence of women, but particularly, women like me. Despite being rather traditionally, a British Indian woman in a conventional space (the kitchen), I felt determined to showcase how I, a woman of second-generation immigrant identity, was able to entrepreneurially forge a career in a sphere where only 17% of women hold chef positions, and even fewer women of ethnic minorities. I wanted to show other British Indian women that someone like me, someone like them, does exist in the mainstream, and that it’s possible to succeed within an industry and on a platform, where both your gender and ethnicity firmly set you in the minority. And, what’s more, I wanted to be that elusive brown reflection beaming back at familiar eyes, searching for the same validity and belonging that I once did.
It occurred to me, that aside from regurgitating the same stereotypes, re-churning the same old narratives and pigeonholing myself as yet another brown woman in an apron, it had seemingly fallen upon my shoulders to help change the way women in the kitchen are perceived, and the true value of our work. Having no professional qualifications, I have always regarded myself as a ‘cook’, very rarely, a ‘chef’. But until now, it was unclear to me the gendered distinction between the two.
It’s an erroneous belief that women’s traditional connection to food is a relic of bygone years. “There continues to be a very strong association between food and femininity in our collective imagination,” says Dr Kate Cairns, relaying her research into women and food work on The Racist Sandwich Podcast. “How we imagine what it is to be feminine is often really connected to food and particularly, expressing care through food. Going beyond an explicitly gendered ideology that suggests ‘women belong in the kitchen’, we still see women’s sense of self and how they’re perceived by others, often tied to food.”
There exists a gendered division between labour and authority and between a ‘cook’ and a ‘chef’. With male chefs – we often refer to their ‘genius’ and their ‘expertise’ - whereas women are more likely described as ‘cooks’. Our food work is seen as less about a particular training, expertise and knowledge, but more about an expression of care. A cook’s work is coded as ‘feminine’ and more often attributed to women, but a chef’s work coded as ‘masculine’, and largely ascribed to men in higher profile, authority roles.
These ideas of femininity are being used to devalue women’s food work.
In much of the language surrounding food, feminism and labour, we see that women’s food work is consistently undervalued. Not only is women’s unpaid food work in the domestic sphere held in low esteem, women’s paid food work in the professional sphere is also underestimated, but we continue to see the kinds of legitimacy that are readily granted to men, more and more often within the food realm.
You may be wondering, what food has to do with gender, and what food has to do with gender in 2019? It’s the misconception that gender politics in the food industry are both obvious and a thing of the past. Sure, in days of yore, women were the predominant cooks. Yes, today, look how many men cook, and yes, further still, look how many more women are present in professional kitchens. Some would say that gender equality has already been achieved. “But,” continues Cairns, “it’s important to claim a feminist approach to food issues because it’s these gendered pressures and inequalities that become more intense when we deny that they exist. By adopting a post-feminist approach and believing that gender equality is a thing of the past, and by believing we no longer need a feminist approach to food, we leave women to have to navigate these intense pressures and penalties as individuals, rather than challenging them collectively as feminists.” It’s basically a method of strength in numbers.
For me, Devi’s has been every inch about celebrating women, but also about reshaping the way we view them. It has been argued however, from a further feminist perspective, that a woman’s love of cooking and being in the kitchen is in itself, a site of oppression. It’s an important concern of those such as Cairns and myself, who want to build on feminist politics, but feel judged harshly by some feminist rhetoric, dismissing or degrading the joy that women can take from food. It goes against an inclusive and welcoming feminist food politics when we start to tar other women’s choices this way.
I continue to call myself a cook, but I do this with intention. I want to subvert its archaic connotations and raise the value we designate to the term. I want to dispel the triviality this word has garnered, driving out the inconsequential nature of women’s labour. I want to reframe, anchor and represent what it means to be a female cook today, of ethnic minority or otherwise. I want to reclaim ‘cook’ as a fierce, liberated WOC, changing the foodscape that I’m currently finding myself in. Saying yes to the show was a decision so very tightly affixed to the representation of south Asian women on television, and to the food and intersectional feminism discussion. And so, if I have to be a sassy brown woman on food reality telly to gain ground with these conversations, well, then, so be it.