Communication Currents

Cooking Class: Gender on the Food Network

April 1, 2009
Mass Communication

Today, women participate in the paid labor force at rates unimaginable fifty years ago, especially in areas traditionally reserved for men. Women also cut time spent doing household duties almost in half since the 1960s, while men have doubled time spent doing domestic chores. These shifts are remarkable. Yet, television shows, advertisements, and cookbooks still often use symbols that communicate the meaning of work done within the domestic domain in very gendered ways.

The Food Network, one of the most widely viewed television channels devoted to the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food, is no exception. Network stars like Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray share lessons that far surpass recipes prepared on their shows. Hosts of these instructional programs use stories, costuming, and production conventions to communicate cultural norms about the meaning of work done by men and women in the kitchen.

The most striking difference between male and female Food Network stars is the absence of discussion by male hosts of cooking as everyday, family-centered labor. Many female hosts of instructional cooking shows, such as Rachael Ray in 30 minute meals, offer viewers quick solutions to meal preparation and situate cooking firmly in the private, domestic kitchen. Conversely, many male hosts of instructional programs, such as Mario Batali or Emeril Lagasse, differentiate themselves from the feminine cook by constructing cooking as a professional, public challenge rather than as a domestic chore. The rewards of cooking are blurred with pleasure, public recognition, and leisure for these male chefs and their imagined viewers.

For example, male hosts often establish their relationship to food as a professional one in which they are specialized experts. In shows like Molto MarioTyler's Ultimate, and Good Deal with Dave Lieberman, the hosts frequently mention experiences that occur in professional kitchens, and at the end of the show, a reference to their restaurants often appears on the screen. Cooking is discussed as an art form by many male hosts and they often wear the traditional white jacket associated with professional chefs.

In comparison, many female stars fashion themselves as approachable, domestic cooks who prepare meals for friends and family members. Despite some impressive credentials, female hosts rarely mention cooking professionally and are often dressed in casual clothes, usually with an apron. For example, “The family that eats together stays together” is the opening line for Sara's Secrets' “Sunday Dinner with Aunt Fanny” episode. Sara Moulton has Fanny di Giovanni on as a guest, who whips up a Sunday dinner guaranteed to “get everyone to the table.” Aunt Fanny, who appears to be over 60 years old, talks about how her mother prepared similar dishes. Similarly, in Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee, Lee says, “I have been cooking and entertaining for years, in the way that my grandmother did. It takes so much time, so I created shortcuts and shared them with my girlfriends--they love them and so will you.” Nigella Lawson's “Fun Food” episode focuses on cooking for her children, which she describes as both fun and dreamy. Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis and Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten also frequently refer to making meals as gifts for loved ones.

Some female hosts like Rachael Ray and Robin Miller acknowledge that keeping up the nightly family dinner ritual can be a challenge. Conversely, male hosts who do discuss cooking for family and friends describe their time in the kitchen as leisurely entertainment or as a creative hobby done occasionally with ease. In Easy Entertaining, Michael Chiarello prepares a full dinner for friends in every episode and is always extremely relaxed and in control as he cooks. For example, the “Fireplace Cooking” episode opens with Michael in a lumberman jacket chopping wood before his guests arrive. Chiarello changes out of his lumberman jacket into casual clothes to cook. When his guests arrive, Chiarello dons a professional chef jacket. During this same episode, the camera cuts to Michael sipping coffee at a sidewalk café after doing some initial prep work in the kitchen, and later, he takes another break by chatting on the telephone with his feet propped up on his desk while the meal cooks. At the end, guests applaud their host's culinary skill and expertise.

Program creators likely do not create these differences as a conscious move to segregate the kitchen by gender, but rather base production decisions on assumptions about audiences and long-standing cultural beliefs about masculinity, femininity, food, and the rewards of labor. As late as the 1930s, men who went into the kitchen to cook for the fun of it “were in danger of being a laughingstock,” according to historian Thomas Adler. This stereotype began to erode as the amateur male cook gained popularity along with the post-World War II backyard barbequing trend. To make cooking an acceptable masculine activity, it was important to designate special meals and tools for the male chef to keep his work separate from mundane, everyday feminine cooking tasks.

Historian Sherrie Inness writes that during the first half of the twentieth century, cooking literature perpetuated a male cooking mystique based on the following assumption about the relationship between men and cooking: “if men chose to cook, they must make sure their masculinity isn't diminished.” This meant that men should cook manly food, like wild game and other types of meat, and if men decided to cook meals besides meat it should be a rare event and cause for applause.

Popular cooking shows and literature no longer warn men that the home kitchen is a space reserved for mothers and daughters. However, cooking rewards and challenges are still described in ways that protect traditional assumptions about masculinity and femininity. This is why male hosts rarely address how their work in the kitchen relates to the domestic family and the challenges of routinely caring for others, and female hosts rarely acknowledge how their work in the kitchen translates to professional positions.

As we see more male cooks in the kitchen at home and on television, it is important to continue examining how popular culture uses symbols to shape viewers' beliefs about the role of men and women in relation to specific household tasks. By examining meaning embedded in contemporary media messages and drawing comparisons with popular culture of the past, we can better understand the values that guide media production and its relationship to social change. Television representations of gender have significant influence on human relationships, cultural beliefs, and the economy. As families struggle to balance the conflicting demands of work and home, it is vital that cooking for the family no longer be strictly viewed as women's work. It is in the best interest of both genders if contemporary food television programs make both men and women feel welcome working in the private or professional kitchen.