If I asked you to name a movie about a celebrated (or even un-celebrated) male chef, you wouldn’t have much trouble coming up with one. If I asked you to name a film about any female chef (who isn’t Julia Child), I’d wager you’d have a proper hard time. Therein lies a special sort of problem when it comes to movies about restaurants: rarely is the protagonist a working female chef. Seems sort of bizarre that the only movie in recent years made about a female cook has been Julie & Julia, while movies about male cooks range from Chef, Burnt, Ratatouille, Big Night and even Spanglish, to name just a few. See the discrepancy?
It’s funny because you’d think that with the age-old, out-dated idea of “women belong in the kitchen” there would be more films actually showing that. A more optimistic person may say there aren’t as many movies about female chefs because this is the modern day and male chefs are part of the norm, thanks to feminism. However, I’m not an optimist and while I appreciate that things like cooking have become more gender-neutral in everyday life, the fact that it’s always male chefs celebrated in movies, or have entire movies based upon their careers, is problematic. Why? Because it says that the kitchen is where women belong: there’s no need to celebrate what is a woman’s natural role —men in the kitchen are a novelty and they are applaudable pioneers in breaking down gender norms.
The problem lies in why we think that a man doing what women have traditionally been expected to do for centuries deserves some sort of cookie or gold star, in the form of a movie celebrating his progressiveness.
That isn’t to say that there are no female chefs in all of film. There are plenty of films, but many either feature their careers as secondary to the inevitable romance in the woman’s life or show the woman as having once been a chef or mention she’s a chef in passing. Take Bridesmaids, for example, in which Annie is a baker—and a good one at that—but her bakery didn’t survive the recession. A decent percentage of the storyline with her love interest, Officer Rhodes, pertains directly to her profession, but only twice do we see her actually bake anything — and she doesn’t get paid for either dessert.
You can also look to No Reservations, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Kate, a successful, career-oriented chef presented as someone to almost pity, as all she does is work. Yet, in Burnt, all Bradley Cooper’s Adam does is work, and is an all-around awful human being to everyone, yet we’re not meant to pity him but, in fact, are encouraged to like him for his oddities. It’s true that one is presented as a romantic comedy, while the other a gritty biopic, of sorts, but what I want to know is why? Why aren’t there more movies about female chefs who are female chefs first and foremost and we love them for it? Why is it the one time we feature a female chef it’s a ploy to show us how what she actually needed was a man to complete her?
It’s interesting to note that most of us likely can’t name many female chefs in real life, yet alone in film, because cooking is actually a fairly male-dominated field. For some reason, we’ve accepted that men can cook as a profession, but still refuse to let the old “women belong at home, in the kitchen” stereotype die. Is it just another instance of ingrained misogyny rearing its ugly head, showing us how much work is still required in order to become a modern, civilised, equal society? Likely, which in turn makes it no surprise that there are so few movies featuring prominent female chefs that are about said women as chefs, rather than loveless, career women or sad sacks in need of a man to help them realise that cooking is their passion.
Leave it to cinema—or any art form, really— to best reveal just how problematic our existence is. Unlike most artistic mediums though, for some reason film either fails to realise how its ingrained misogyny is constantly at the forefront of most of what it does, or—worse—it does realise it and chooses to do nothing.
I had an argument with a self-proclaimed feminist male who claimed to refuse to watch any movie that didn’t pass the Bechdel Test. He maintained that it was an easy standard to set and so it shouldn’t be difficult for every movie to pass. I argued that you couldn’t go out of your way to only make movies that satisfy a select criterion. It’s great that the test exists and that we are on top of pointing out which movies pass and fail, but we can’t go out of our way to make all movies feature at least two women talking about something other than men. What we should be doing is ensuring that women are given the opportunity to have their stories told. This includes those about women who make careers out of traditionally feminine activities such as cooking or cleaning. Millions of women are still the dominant cooks in the family unit, as well as the ones doing the bulk of the housework. Why aren’t their stories told? We have tons of movies about men going to work and coming home to a domesticated wife, and we hear all about his day. Even if you argue that being a homemaker isn’t interesting enough to generate a captivating narrative, what’s the excuse for featuring more women outside of the home but still trapped in traditional gender roles?
The problem lies in why we think that a man doing what women have traditionally been expected to do for centuries deserves some sort of cookie or gold star, in the form of a movie celebrating his progressiveness. It’s great that he’s (theoretically) progressive, but aren’t women who spin out-dated gender roles into a form of healthy income just as progressive, if not more so? I believe they are. To own and utilise to your advantage what has so long been used to oppress is clever as hell and should be applauded.
However, the chances of that happening are slim to none, at least at the moment. It’s my dream that if I rant enough about these things people will listen more closely and it’ll speed up the evolution of gender equality in film— or people will get sick and tired of my complaining and take action just to shut me up. Either way, we win.