The Great British Bake-Off and National Identity

Like so many of my American compatriots, I’ve become obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off. Americans like it because it is so unlike our own reality competition shows. No GBBO contestant has ever looked into a camera and deadpanned, “I’m not here to make friends.” The bakers don’t scheme against each other or peacock for the cameras; they’re all charmingly self-effacing and nice. And judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are no Simon Cowells; they are honest but diplomatic in their assessments of the bakers’ creations. “It’s a shame,” is Paul’s trademark comment when a bake turns out badly. Mary’s is, “It’s a bit dry,” or “It’s a bit underbaked.” These comments are enough to elicit tears and a sheepish response: “I can’t believe I’m crying over pastry,” etc.

GBBO confirms American stereotypes about the British: they are nicer than us, less brash, less melodramatic. They have a sense of decorum, and delightful accents. One of my favorite moments in the show is a challenge in which the bakers are instructed to bake American-style pies. Over the course of the challenge, it’s gradually revealed that none of the bakers or the judges actually likes American pies very much. They find them too cloyingly sweet. That’s us; we dump vast amounts of sugar into everything, while our British counterparts are the definition of restraint.

Another aspect of GBBO’s appeal is its inclusive vision of British national identity. Its contestants represent a multicultural Britain, and its dishes fuse together English traditions with international flavors. My favorite baker, Chetna, is Indian-British, and her recipes often feature Indian spices. Paul dubbed her “the queen of flavor.” Contestants of South Asian descent have made a major mark on the show, from Chetna to Ali, whose family is from Pakistan, to recent winner Nadiya, who is Muslim and whose parents are from Bangladesh. The show represents a progressive vision of Britishness, embracing not only people of color, but also gay contestants (including two of the three finalists in season three). Host Sue Perkins’ lesbian chic style is neither overtly commented on nor hidden away, and that’s characteristic of the show’s attitude toward diversity. No one makes a fuss about it; it’s just quietly there.

Probably the most overtly political moment on the show came when Scottish finalist James created “United Chiffon Cakes,” five cakes representing each of the UK’s four countries individually and one of the nation-state united. It was 2012, and the Scottish referendum on independence (which would fail in 2014) was in the works. As far as political statements go, James’s better-together cakes were decidedly mild. No one is waving signs or shouting about the Tories.

That hasn’t stopped critics from decrying the Bake-Off’s “political correctness,” however. The backlash against Nadiya’s win, for example, was both swift and stupid. GBBO may be a paradise of multiculturalism, but Great Britain is not, and xenophobia and Islamophobia are powerful forces in its cultural politics.

It would be easy to dismiss GBBO’s “big tent” vision of the nation as naïve and idealistic, given the racism and discrimination that continues to divide the UK. It’s hard for me, as a scholar of British literature, to look at the beautiful country estates that host the competition each season without remembering the ruthless empire that funded so many of those estates. And it’s hard to hear Mel Giedroyc, Perkins’s co-host, talk about the history of sugar in England and how it became widely available in the nineteenth century without thinking of the slave labor in the US South and the West Indies that made sugar cheap. GBBO’s light-hearted history lessons have to occlude a lot of brutality in order to be made suitable for a primetime TV hit.

But there’s another way to think of the Bake-Off’s tent. In “Of Other Spaces,” philosopher Michel Foucault argues that modern society is composed not just of the mapped and rationalized spaces that make up most of our daily life—the street, the home, the office, the café, etc. It also contains pockets of strangeness, “something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” These spaces he calls heterotopias. They are not utopias because they are real sites, geographically locatable. But there is something unreal, or “mythic,” about them, which links them to utopia.

For Foucault, heterotopias are sites in which several imaginary spaces can overlap. The theater is a classic example: a stage made of wood is also a series of fictional places. Foucault says that “the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden.” Ancient Persian gardens consisted of “four parts representing the four parts of the world.” They were simultaneously themselves and microcosms of the whole world.

Some heterotopias, Foucault explains, are ephemeral. They are “linked… to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival.” Fairgrounds and vacation villages which lie empty most of the time become abuzz with activity on special days, days set aside from the ordinary work calendar. They exist outside our rationalized everyday lives, lived according to clock time or railway time. And thus they expose these lives, making them available for scrutiny.

I think of the baking tent as a heterotopia. It’s not merely a place where twelve people come together to bake. It’s also a microcosm of Great Britain, not as it really exists, but as it might have existed if the violent history of the British Empire could be erased. It’s a tiny slice of utopia, where people of all backgrounds can befriend each other, where meritocracy can exist without greedy, grasping competitiveness, and where the pain of real history can be numbed. I think it would be uncharitable to say this vision is simply faked for the cameras, when the contestants all speak positively of the friendships they made on the show. But it would not be quite right to say it’s real, either, when Patisserie Week or Sweet Dough Week must inevitably come to an end, and bakers must return to their “real lives” in a nation where anti-immigrant, anti-Black, and even anti-gay sentiments still abound.

It’s an imaginary UK, and it might be easy to dismiss it as feel-good sentimentalism rather than progressive politics. But maybe it is a necessary heterotopia, one that exposes the real space of the nation around it by way of its difference.

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