By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
I just spent my morning with the Food Network. Actually, I spend a lot of my time with the Food Network. But it’s all becoming so, so sad, and for a reason separate from that whole “staring at food” thing. Allow me to explain.
When you spend a morning with the Food Network, America’s go-to channel for those who eat too much, you start your day with Damaris Roberts, a bright-eyed Southern peach who helps you prepare traditional Southern favorites with a modern spin. Half an hour later, you find yourself sipping coffee with Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman herself, as she cheerily puts together a quick, carbo-loaded feast for her husband Lad and their brood, sure to be starving after an honest day’s work on their Oklahoma ranch. Suddenly, you’re whisked off to a dewy, mossy-green farm in upstate New York. Nancy Fuller of Farmhouse Rules whips up her grandmother’s old recipes and smothers a pound cake with cream cheese icing just as liberally as she does a litter of blonde, sticky-fingered grandchildren with love. Midwest bound once more, you’re then cooking with self-described “sandwich king” Jeff Mauro, who fills eclairs with cream from a plastic baggie, laughing that you are welcome to use a piping bag “if you’re all big and fancy,” and jokes that here in Chicago, they measure everything “by how it scales to a hot dog.”
And so a day begins with the Food Network: Namely, with a showcase of both the quaint and the antiquated. With mostly matriarchs, nestled into mostly down-home, picture-perfect scenery, leading lifestyles you didn’t know actually existed and serving food whose calorie count you’re too scared to even guess at. It all makes for warm, aspirational, “real America” viewing: These are not city-slickers, with their showy techniques and fancy clothes and quinoa! No, this is the true America. This is viewing geared toward the common man, the man who will proudly tell you how common he really is. You see where I’m going with this: Food Network’s heavyweights seem to almost exclusively be white, middle Americans with values monochromatic and pure as whole milk.
The narrative limits of Food Network’s programming don’t end as the morning does. The same tinge of tokenism lingers in the air like burnt garlic as we turn to the channel’s more nebulous, midafternoon offerings. The in-between afternoon hours present us with a similar, equally normative set of hosts and recipes: True, Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Garten may be a Jewish woman who spends most of her time drinking, picking on her husband Jeffrey (he loves chicken!), cooking with her gay friends, and generally relishing a child-free life. Yet her subtle railing against the network’s norms is sandwiched between more of the same. Food Network has given country music royalty Trisha Yearwood a platform to show us how to make—you guessed it–—family-pleasing Southern cooking. Yeah, thank God someone’s finally doing that. Giada De Laurentis cooks rich, Italian American food with more fat in it than is probably contained in her body mass. And C-Lister Valerie Bertinelli has recently popped up on the channel, cooking her Italian American family’s favorite dishes. I know, I know. It’s about damn time.
But humor me, reader. Let’s say you’re feeling crazy. Let’s say you decide to go day-to-night with the Food Network, forsaking all else besides your insatiable need to stare at people eating things. Well, depending on the night of the week, you would pass your evening with a cooking-competition show like Chopped or Cutthroat Kitchen, which one reviewer expertly pegged as “Chopped for sociopaths.” But God help you, you will most likely get to hang with the outlandish, seemingly omnipresent host Guy Fieri. As a deleted Saturday Night Live scene once put it, this guy has the sunglasses and spiked blonde hair befitting a fifth-grade play’s sun. (And this characterization really suits Guy, as he’s normally about as high as one.) He haunts America on his show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (or “Triple D,” for you real fans out there), cloaked in an endless sequence of Hawaiian shirts and showing up in the kitchens of “funky” restaurants that, he threatens, “[he’ll] be looking for all over this country.” His ostensible endgame is to showcase America’s hidden gems of gluttonous good eats. It’s a goddamn bloodbath every time. Innocent food that was never meant to be fried is plunged with sadistic glee into beer batter and powdered sugar, and you are forced to watch helplessly and wonder what kind, simple ingredients like watermelon could have ever done to Guy Fieri.
Hopefully my above hit-list left you with several questions: Precisely how many blonde women does America need demonstrating the perfect biscuit recipe before we finally get the picture? How many things can we plunge into vats of hot oil before the buttons of all our jeans pop off at the exact same time, causing widespread destruction and panic? In this, as in Mean Girls, here’s the answer: the limit does not exist.
But here’s another, more pertinent question: didn’t that all just bore you? Aren’t you tired of this one-note programming? I sure am. Reeling all of that off was exhausting. And yet still I persisted, because I need you to think about this. I bring these shows up because we need to talk about Food Network, reader. Food Network has a glaring issue in broadcasting diversity, and in this failure, it certainly does not dine alone. This channel exhibits, in microcosm, the sweeping problems with our media in general.
We all know Food Network for its fairly recent debacles in public relations. This channel was, as will probably sound familiar to even the most disinterested of laymen, former home to Paula Deen, apparent diva of the two great Southern specialties: frying things and racism.
Though the station no longer seems to employ those who actively drop the n-word, its programming’s flashes of inclusivity are nearly always that: Flashes. A brief, tokenistic, ephemeral acknowledgement that there are people in America who do not live on farms. Take, for instance, the smattering of Food Network’s non-white hosts: the African-American Sunny Anderson, the Mexican-American Marcella Valladolid, the Indian-American Aarti Sequeira. But Sunny, Marcela, and Aarti are tokens, plain and simple. They are the Black host, the Mexican-American host, the Indian-American host. Though great chefs in their own right, they’re on Food Network to insulate from accusations of bias, and it’s difficult to pretend that’s not true.
Moreover, these shows are never their heavy-hitters, their big ratings-boosters, and they’re never on at prime time. Hey, Bobby Flay cooks Tex Mex. Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen often feature chefs and judges of disparate backgrounds, races, and gender identities. And the former’s host, Ted Allen, is a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy alum. Perhaps all that’s supposed to be “enough.” Nevertheless, there’s no way to mistake it: Guy Fieri and his frosted tips are Food Network’s rule. Ina and Jeffrey, Sunny and Aarti? They’re just the exceptions. The person who still makes most of the pico de gallo on this channel is a red-headed guy from Harlem. (That guy being, of course, Bobby Flay. How more prominent people are not riled up about this white dude’s career as celebrity spokesperson for Latin-American cuisine is pretty grim proof of our white-washed media).
Even for a viewer like me, who actually did work on a family farm, who actually does have a mom and a dad who sincerely do end each summer’s day grillin’ up something from the garden, this channel’s line-up is insane. It can’t not strike you as troublingly slanted. I can’t even picture how disturbed I would feel by Food Network’s fare if I were born into a Cuban family in Miami or a Black family in Philadelphia. Anyone with a vaguely critical viewing eye can tell you this network does not present us with a balanced take on cuisine—or what cuisine’s really about: culture—in America.
We can all agree that yes, Ree Drummond and her farm-dwelling counterparts clearly do not speak to some universally-shared American identity. So, why are our media like this? Where’s the show that will teach me how to make pho as good as Rice and Noodles’, or curry as creamy as SukhoThai’s? Where’s the host who goes behind-the-scenes in a restaurant where every dish doesn’t have the living hell fried out of it seemingly just because? Why didn’t you actually give someone like Arnold from Next Food Network Star a show about throwing fashionable parties for you and all your queer friends? Why don’t you show me what actual, authentic cuisine looks like in India? Or Peru? People would watch those shows, you know. We’re out here.
Here is, I think, the vital thing to note about this programming: this clear imbalance doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Nor does it exist because Food Network holds some deep-seated agenda of exclusion, either. No, this channel, like so many other media outlets, is imbalanced in a meticulously calculated way. Food Network parrots the idyllic white American narrative—the beautiful family in the beautiful rural place, served warm, beautiful food by a beaming matriarch—because though most viewers can decidedly not relate to, say, preparing stick-to-the-ribs comfort food for your ranch-tending husband, they can certainly access it. These shows seek to sell you, the viewer, a certain slice of idealized, country-fried life in a certain type of America. This is our national consciousness’s dominant, prevailing narrative. That’s the brand of narrative that most mid-income, mid-Western Americans are going to buy.
Crucially, that’s the sector with the purchasing power to buy. Shows that cater to minority viewers surely can’t be as attractive to advertisers. I imagine programs that appeal to lower-income demographics (read: “anyone who isn’t white and middle class”) probably appeal less to advertisers, like Walmart, whose money the channel needs. Food Network keeps selling these limited narratives because they need the people who watch them, the people with purchasing power, to keep buying these limited narratives. Not only are bland, doughy white people who tend to like bland, doughy things normally the ones watching, they’re who the network needs to keep attracting. They’re who the network can’t afford to alienate. A show about pho would have some core viewers, perhaps, but why take a chance on a “niche market” (read: “anyone who isn’t white and middle class”) when you’ve already struck reliable gold with your current formula? Hence, more Damaris Roberts and Ree Drummond. Hence, more of the same. This network has a business to run. And it’s going to run it, by God. No matter how much fruit Guy Fieri has to fry.
Thus, Food Network presents a crucial, artery-clogging model of why most media is so slanted: It doesn’t necessarily want to exclude so much as it wants uncomplicated viewing for its uncomplicated masses. Food Network’s skewed programming encapsulates a serious, telling imbalance within our society. Keep its example in mind as you consume (pun very much intended) other media, too. With Food Network, as in all other business and brands, money talks. White privilege talks. Power talks. And here, it even cooks.
Senior Erin Moyer is the Senior Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.