Like so many people in our tumultuous times, I yearn for solace. Seeking escape, many of us have turned to what I call “comfort television”: innocuous, soothing shows. Perhaps no program has assumed the mantle of comfort TV like The Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off in the UK), which recently finished its eighth season on Netflix. Mainstream critics laud the program for its camaraderie and compelling—yet, crucially, low-stakes—drama, where contestants of different races, ages, genders, sexualities, classes, and regions compete for honor and a cake-plate trophy. One journalist proposed, semi-facetiously, that GBBO serve as a model for the presidential debates.1 The recent end of Season 8 prompted an Los Angeles Times roundtable on the season’s highs and lows.2 Another writer argued that GBBO stages a hopeful vision of how society could be.3
As an Asian American viewer, cultural anthropologist, former Japan specialist, dramaturg, playwright, and scholar of critical-race studies and performance, I had a dramatically different reaction to Season 8 of GBBO. Unfolding during the pandemic, this latest season revealed undercurrents of racism impossible to ignore: what I call “affective violence” experienced by minoritized viewers.4 Such violence can assume the form of microaggressions that undermine confidence in one’s own perceptions, on the one hand (Was that really racist? Am I imagining things?), and require extra energy, on the other: to work through, to bracket off, to “be resilient.”5 Meanwhile, those who embody dominant forms of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability need not expend this effort. Even in the seemingly innocuous pastime of watching television, when minoritized viewers seek the enlivening “lift” sparked in brief moments of pleasure, that pleasure can explode.
GBBO performed affective violence, but other recent fare merits similar scrutiny. The Queen’s Gambit, featuring a breathtakingly egregious Black best friend, is a spectacular example of pleasure denied or exploded. Similarly, Dash and Lily, a charming, Netflix YA rom-com, staged a contradictory experience of pleasure for me—endearing, even in its predictability, yet worrisome and problematic.
These programs show us the ways that minoritized viewers must live in at least two realities, two genres: the intended genre of the piece and, simultaneously, the genres of suspense and horror. When might the murderer of pleasure—the monster of racism—burst onto the scene?
This monster appears in a particularly problematic recent episode of GBBO. Illustrating apparent “progress,” Season 8 featured “Japanese week.” My first book in anthropology is grounded in fieldwork at a Japanese confectionery factory.6 I gained appreciation for the artisanal aesthetic of the confectioners’ craft and witnessed early attempts to market matcha for popular consumption beyond the tea ceremony. (I studied this Zen art during my fieldwork in Japan.) The Japan episode of GBBO provoked a UK Twitterstorm for its rampant flattening of differences among Asian countries. Sadly, the one remaining contestant of color, Hermine (from Benin), was no exception, making Chinese pandas for one challenge and a geisha (is there a more stereotypical trope for Japanese women?) to decorate her showstopper. Other contestants mistook Chinese steamed buns for Japanese nikuman, or mixed Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian flavors. The episode’s showstopper challenge required contestants to make a kawaii cake, using an anime / manga / Hello Kitty “cute” aesthetic. Twitter noted the telling mispronunciation: kawaii, cute, sounded like kowai, scary.7
The conflation of cute and scary is eloquent. Something innocuous, adorable—here, the show and its contestants; elsewhere, all manner of television, from popular, “bingeable” television to critically acclaimed series—can shape-shift into the life-leaching monster of racial stereotypes and colonial power.
I am a fan of GBBO. I have watched every episode available in the United States multiple times. The show’s recurring elements become deeply familiar, soothing touchstones: its core format (signature bake, technical challenge, showstopper), the white tent on expansive swards of green, the pastel-colored work stations, sheep peering at the camera, fuzzy ducklings waddling toward a pond, the manor home. The polite, self-deprecatory, cooperative ethos among the contestants contrasts starkly with the braggadocio characteristic of US competition shows. Music cues viewers about the intensity of the competition, and quirky comic presenters punctuate the tension with “exotic” British humor. I cried when Nadiya Hussain, whose parents immigrated from Bangladesh, and who was the first winner to wear the hijab, took home the title. Yet, from the first episode, Season 8 shocked me back into the reality of race as encoded in taste and unconscious stereotypes.
The first two contestants eliminated in that season were of color. In episode 1, Loriea, born and raised in Jamaica, seemed lively, with obvious potential. Her entry in the first challenge, a Battenberg cake, was labeled by judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith to be “too intense” and “heavy” in its use of bubblegum and cream-soda flavors (to be clear, Nadiya had used these same flavors in Season 3). Loriea’s showstopper—a cake bust of Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley—was pronounced by judge Hollywood to be too spicy in its use of peppers.
Critiquing the “too muchness” of Loriea’s work invoked stereotypes of Black women as unruly, excessive. I was aghast. Can the show be so unaware? Am I imagining things?
This is how racism works. This is what I call its “crazy-making” properties. Racism causes BIPOC people to be angry—“crazy,” from the dominant perspective—then compels us to question whether we are hypersensitive.
Watching Season 8, I am upset. Yet I tamp down the shock and anger. With so little enjoyment available during the pandemic, I don’t want to give up too soon on one of my few available pleasures.
The following week, my anticipation was laced with trepidation: hoping the shoe wouldn’t drop, but fearing it would. Sure enough, the second person to be eliminated—despite his highly respectable third place in the technical challenge and good bakes in the showstopper—was South Asian contestant Makbul. Judge Leith had pronounced him “steady, good,” but observed, “He’s not blowing my mind.” Yet, the contestants who remained included white retiree Linda, who was last in technical and lacked sophisticated technique, and the gay, white music teacher Rowan, whose ambitious goals were never fully realized.
Once again, stereotype triumphed: Asians are competent but unimaginative functionaries; they are the Bartlebys of the world, the racial complement to “aggressive,” “excessive” Blackness. UK Twitter lit up, decrying the racially problematic choices.
minoritized viewers live in at least two realities, two genres: the intended genre of the piece, and, simultaneously, the genres of suspense and horror.
Season 8 reignited my tamped-down memories of race and empire’s gustatory border patrols during earlier seasons. In US Netflix Season 4, judge Dame Mary Berry, the personification of “Great British baking,” sniffed a container of matcha that contestant Michael brought for his bake. “It smells like grass,” she said with distaste. After tasting his cake, she pronounced, “I don’t like the flavor. It is grassy to me.” Apparently matcha was repugnant.
Matcha is now readily available—even at Starbucks. But in Season 8, contestant Laura said of matcha, “Might as well eat grass.” She called baking with matcha “making a swamp.” Presumably, to Laura, matcha’s revolting flavor makes it unfit for human consumption.
In Season 5, judge Hollywood commented on contestant Rav’s use of yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. “My brain is trying to decide whether it’s lime or lemon,” said Hollywood. He admonished Rav, “Watch your flavors.” What that meant was, “Don’t use Asian flavors I’ve never encountered.” This gustatory dis-ease recalls anthropologist Mary Douglas’s analysis of food taboos: animals whose characteristics blurred categories (e.g., pigs have cloven feet like cows, but are not ungulates) were considered impure, taboo.8
Disgust as a bodily reflex is imbued with cultural prejudices and social hierarchy.9 If people ingest disgusting food, surely they too are disgusting? Cultural taboos may label anything—insects, snails, cows—as inedible, polluted. Unfamiliar tastes can provoke deeply visceral reactions.
For example, in the ’70s, I offered the blond wife of my Stanford dorm RA a piece of my grandmother’s prized makisushi. Sushi means vinegared rice, not raw fish; Japanese Americans typically favor the nori-wrapped makisushi, a roll that contains omelette, spinach, mushroom, a gourd called kampyo, and powdered pink shrimp. Of course, to me, my grandmother’s makisushi was the best in the world. This blond woman took one bite, retched, and spat it out. I was both mortified and incensed. “Pearls before swine!” thought I. Now, sushi—including maki of various kinds—is a staple in grocery stores nationwide.
One never knows when the monsters will appear. Another highly lauded show, The Queen’s Gambit, has apparently spurred chess sales by 125 percent, particularly among girls and women.10
Depicting the rise of chess star Beth Harmon, it is a stylish “sports movie” and absorbing character study spotlighting what the writer and show cocreator Scott Frank calls “the cost of genius.”11 Young Beth’s mother dies; her father abandons her. She enters an orphanage, where Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, teaches her chess. A Black girl, Jolene, acts as adviser and confidante. First, an integrated orphanage in the South during that period is a historical impossibility. Further, Jolene immediately raises the specter of the Black best friend, whose narrative function is to advance the protagonist’s journey. The BBF has no independent, complex subjectivity.
As I watched The Queen’s Gambit, my antennae perked up. Even so, Beth’s transformation into a stylish, intense, brilliant chess phenomenon who descends into addiction absorbed me. Until the final episode.
At that point, Jolene reappears to find Beth spiraling downward. She tells Beth of Mr. Shaibel’s death, and they return to the orphanage to pay their respects. Afterward, the habitually inscrutable Beth breaks down as Jolene cradles her, reenacting BBF and Mammy tropes. Really?
The narrative hurtles downhill from there. Jolene, a paralegal, is saving for law school and is politically active. Yet she gives Beth $3,000 (about $23,000 today)—essentially her tuition money—so that Beth can go to Moscow for the tournament. When Beth protests, Jolene responds that they “are family.”
This breathtaking mashup of Magical Negro, BBF, and Mammy tropes was so egregious, I yelled repeatedly at my television. Showrunner Frank defended his script, saying that it was “better” than the book on this score.12 But is that enough?
Yet again, apparently, the role of Black women is to serve and sacrifice for white women. Despite actress Moses Ingram’s layered portrayal of Jolene, the BBF/Mammy character ruined the series for me. No escape from the real world here.
As a Japanese American, I also had a deeply split relationship with the Christmas-themed YA rom-com Dash and Lily. The bookish high school protagonists—white, upper-middle-class Dash, and Japanese American (hapa: mixed race) Lily, whose family inhabits an artsy brownstone—meet through a book of dares that Lily leaves at the Strand bookstore. The two reveal themselves to each other through entries in the book before they meet in person, near the end of the series. Their social awkwardness “in real life” provides relatable dramatic contrast to their ability to be vulnerable on the page.
Like Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, Dash and Lily—appealingly portrayed by the young actors Austin Abrams (Euphoria, This Is Us) and Midori Francis—are intellectual equals.
Another deeply felt point of connection: my mother’s name is Midori. When have I seen that on television? And what a pleasure it was to savor the work of the veteran Japanese American actor James Saito, who plays Lily’s grandfather, and Chinese American actress Jodi Long, who embodies Lily’s Auntie Mame figure. Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Juilliard-trained Jennifer Ikeda as Lily’s mother and Troy Iwata as Lily’s gay older brother. How could I not watch and cheer?
This affinity charmed me, and I once again bracketed the obvious flaws: Dash’s Black best friend, named Boomer, seemingly has only one role: to facilitate the blossoming relationship between the two protagonists. He is wingman for one of Dash’s challenges, to steal Santa’s hat at Macy’s, and he acts as intermediary, even leaving his shift (thereby risking his job!) at a pizza parlor to deliver the book to Dash at a moment of crisis. We do catch glimpses of Boomer’s life: he and Dash’s ex-girlfriend, cosmopolitan Sofia, get together, and we see a few seconds of Boomer’s warm family life at Christmas. But he never exceeds the narrative boundaries of BBF.
All too often, fear and dread haunt our quest for escape. We must always brace ourselves.
Moreover, Dash and Lily’s take on “Japaneseness” provoked insistent questions about Orientalist exoticism. When did this family immigrate? Most West Coast Japanese Americans of Lily’s age would be fourth generation. (The immigrant generation is counted as the first.) Would Japanese customs still be so strong? Would they keep New Year’s ceremonial practices so solemnly, even attending a Buddhist ceremony on New Year’s—a holiday associated with Shinto? Given his American accent, Lily’s grandfather makes an unlikely Shin Issei (new immigrant).
In another puzzling sequence, Dash achieves “enlightenment” through a mochi-making class. (Mochi—glutinous rice—is confused with sweets made with mochi.) The other students are “Japanese grannies” who speak only Japanese. But this generation of “grannies” on the West Coast would have been born in the United States and would therefore be native English speakers; my parents, who died in their 90s, had never been to Japan. Are there far more non-English-speaking Japanese immigrants in New York, as compared to California?
The writers—none of them Japanese American—incorporate cultural references to the point of courting Orientalism. Here too, lurking beneath Dash and Lily’s delightful holiday charm, are specters of racial marginalization and exoticism.
Some artists mobilize the horror and thriller genres to allegorize race: Jordan Peele’s Get Out; Lovecraft Country; George Takei in The Terror. While I admire these works, I could not bring myself to watch them during the pandemic, the narrowly averted march toward dictatorship, and the Vanilla ISIS invasion of the Capitol.
Everyday life is a horror show. Invisible agents of death and white-supremacist violence lurk everywhere. Minoritarian viewers want to zone out in front of a baking show, a sports drama, a frothy rom-com. But all too often, fear and dread haunt our quest for escape. We must always brace ourselves.
Will we be trapped in a horror film or a violent thriller instead? Kawaii? Or kowai?
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Robert Lloyd, “Want to Fix American Politics? Start by Copying ‘The Great British Baking Show,’” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2020. ↩
- Meredith Blake and Robert Lloyd, “‘Great British Baking Show’ 2020: We Break Down the Season Finale, Snubs and Surprises,” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2020. ↩
- Sarah Mesle, “Good Crumb: On the Great British Bake Off,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 13, 2019. ↩
- Dorinne Kondo, Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity (Duke University Press, 2018), p. 37. ↩
- Chester Pierce, “Offensive Mechanisms,” in The Black Seventies, edited by Floyd B. Barbour (P. Sargent, 1970). ↩
- Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (University of Chicago Press, 2009). ↩
- See @HippieDalek on Twitter. ↩
- Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1966). ↩
- Neetu Khanna, The Visceral Logics of Decolonization (Duke University Press, 2020). ↩
- Marie Fazzio, “‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Sends Chess Set Sales Soaring,” New York Times, November 23, 2020. ↩
- See Arun Venugopal, “‘Queen’s Gambit’ Co-Creator Scott Frank Wanted to Explore the ‘Cost of Genius,’” Fresh Air, NPR, December 28, 2020. ↩
- Venugopal, “‘Queen’s Gambit’ Co-Creator Scott Frank Wanted to Explore the ‘Cost of Genius.’” ↩