by Amélia Ávila (’24) | November 18, 2022
Lately, one of my favorite pastimes has been watching comfort television to calm down after a hectic week. One of my favorite shows is the Great British Bake Off, a competition between 12 British home bakers in a tent. However, as I watched the show’s new season, I discovered a growing trend in recent years–increasingly more complex bakes, inadequate research, and most importantly, troubling cultural insensitivity.
First, I noticed that the judges, Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, seemed harsher than previous seasons. As highly distinguished bakers, Hollywood and Leith previously provided positive comments with constructive feedback to help the bakers learn how to improve, focusing more on taste rather than presentation. However, this season, the judges repeatedly expected “perfection” and commented on the littlest of details. In one episode, bakers were shockingly criticized for slightly melting ice cream.
In more recent seasons, the challenges have become increasingly difficult. For instance, in the finale of season 10, the three finalists were tasked with making pita bread from scratch without an oven or a stove, rather with an open fire outside. During Halloween Week in season thirteen, bakers were asked to construct a hanging lantern piñata built of biscuits and filled with delicate patisseries.
Another reason the Great British Bake Off has been subject to criticism is its lack of research behind various recipes. In the latest season, American fans were shocked when the British hosts asked bakers to make the American campfire classic, s’mores, describing the dessert as a digestive biscuit with lightly toasted marshmallows and filled with dark chocolate ganache. Americans all over social media complained to the show’s creators, sending pictures of “real” s’mores. Some American fans went so far as to jokingly declare the first British-American war since 1812.
This lack of research has led to casual banter between British and American fans, but it also resulted in more severe consequences, as shown in the cultural insensitivity exhibited during a recently aired episode, “Mexican Week.” The hosts, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, were meant to provide comedic commentary but opened by wearing sombreros and serapes while continuing to make casual jokes about Mexico throughout the episode. This struck many viewers as culturally insensitive, especially when one baker decorated his tres leches cake “showstopper challenge” with an oversized, cartoonish-looking mustache. Many viewers believed these actions led to the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes.
During the technical challenge, Paul asked the bakers to make tacos; out of so many baked goods prevalent in Mexican cuisine, viewers were surprised that Paul would choose one that is meant to be cooked, not baked–a weird choice for a show with the word “baking” in the title.
One of the major problems behind the episode was how Hollywood and Leith, despite both having an outspoken appreciation for Mexican cuisine, were portrayed as experts while judging. They often judged the contestants based on their own Anglicisation of Mexican recipes and personal preferences. As a response, fans suggested the possibility of a guest judge, in order to help Hollywood and Leith accurately and respectfully judge recipes from around the world.
After finishing this episode, I noticed a similarity between this episode and season ten’s Japanese Week. In a KCRW interview, Dorinne Kay Kondo, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Southern California, replied to Japanese Week: “Whatever it was, it was certainly not Japanese in any way. One of the motifs on a kawaii cake was a geisha on the one hand, and then pandas, for example, which are associated with China. So there was just a mishmash.” Faced with a similar backlash, the show’s creators need to learn from their mistakes and educate themselves before reinforcing harmful stereotypes or blatant misconceptions.
That being said, the Great British Bake Off, especially in previous seasons, has been culturally appreciative by aiming to include an array of challenges from around the world. In previous seasons, ex-host Sandi Toksvig was featured in a series of snippets where she introduced different desserts, their history and origin, which helped spread appreciation for the history and cultural significance behind the traditional bake. However, while Mexican Week earned appreciation from some for its attempt, it ultimately fell short due to the insensitive “jokes” and the lack of knowledge about Mexican cuisine.
Overall, the Great British Bake Off has been losing its beloved, signature quality of a playful and casual television show. Hopefully, the show’s creators, judges, and hosts can recognize what is wrong and combat it so that next season can return to its original, sweet character.