Monday, May 20, 2024

Why Does Prue Leith Inspire So Much Online Criticism?

Just because humanity has evolved enough to develop the internet doesn’t mean we’re responsible enough to have it. The vitriol of Great British Bake Off clickbait (further) proves that.

It came for GBBO when it switched from the BBC to Channel 4, losing Mary Berry and original hosts Sue and Mel in the process. It came for Noel when he hid in a fridge. It came for Matt Lucas when he started on the show, and then when he was on it, and then again when he left. It came for the new season, which was deemed “too boring.” And now the Great British Bake Off clickbait industrial complex has come for Prue Leith. For what? Being “lame.”

Before I continue, a disclaimer: Some Bake Off controversy is justified. See, for example, Leith’s now-retired “not worth the calories” catchphrase, or the obscenity that was Mexican Week.

But GBBO generates so much online hate that it’s hard to believe it’s all for a show about…baking. And it’s likewise easy to feel that the venom directed at Prue has its foundation in the sexism and ageism our society is built upon, especially when she’s dragged for simply existing — this is a woman who was accused of ruining people’s lives with a single mistimed tweet. She herself believed that age and gender would hold her back from her current job: it would be given, she assumed, to a younger man.

Prue is a (literal) dame, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, a Michelin-starred restaurateur. She’s ghost-written recipes for royals, improved the catering on British railways, and has 12 books under her belt. She’s arguably overqualified to judge amateur bakers, even if they are the best in Britain.

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But the octogenarian is labeled as outliving her usefulness and her “frumpy dresses” get more attention than her accomplishments. Sure, she accessorizes like she raided a kindergarten classroom for discarded art projects, but does that deserve headlines accusing her of wearing ball gags and anal beads around her neck? She sets technicals, not trends. The modern art around her neck is irrelevant.

Then there are the accusations that Prue isn’t reining in Paul Hollywood correctly, as if the actions of her male counterpart measure how well she does her job. Never mind that Paul had settled into a deep groove well before Prue came on the scene. We had acclimated to his cerulean laser eyes. Why should it be Prue’s job to fix what can’t be fixed? The man will not be tamed.

What’s more, the fact that we’re talking about Prue at all proves that she can handle her own. After seven seasons, she still hasn’t been overshadowed by Paul’s raw power. So why treat her as though she just dangles there like his useless appendage?

And that raises another, more overriding question: What even are we expecting from our judges here? A sexual tension so palpable we believe they are a minute away from swiping the KitchenAids off the counters and steaming up the tent? A literal fist fight complete with RHONY-style barbs over whether or not the curry in Nigel’s hot water crust works?

It’s a show about baking.

Prue is a national treasure. Maybe not this nation’s, but a nation’s. Demanding the octogenarian resign because she’s “lackluster” is a dangerous game. Particularly given that GBBO could itself be said to be lacking a certain vigor: As competition shows go, it’s a uniquely placid one. We get the same pattern every week: a signature, a technical, and a showstopper (and only the showstopper matters.) There’s minimal manufactured drama — the contestants are all friends! — and the most stressful moment is watching someone trying to get white chocolate out of a mold (it’s hard.) It’s one of TV’s only safe spaces. It’s where we get to see hugs and tea drinking. And we need to respect that.

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Are we, as a society, so used to toxic competition shows that our brains short circuit when we see people who are here to make friends? Are we so conditioned to outrage that we can’t help but dig for it in an inherently soothing television show?

We’re all grownups here. If you have a problem with watching an IT specialist from Leeds recreate his favorite historical battle in focaccia in four hours, then don’t watch Bake Off. If you want blood, take your craving to the 22 seasons of Hell’s Kitchen, where you can watch Gordon Ramsay slam around an undercooked chicken in a fit of rage during every single dinner service.

It’s easy to hate on the older woman for making the show suck. But once again: it’s a baking show. It’s boringness is a feature, not a flaw. Prue shouldn’t shoulder that burden, especially when there are so many other factors outside her control, like the contestants, the challenges, the editing. Why single out Prue as the weak link?

Instead of asking for her head on a pike, maybe some people should admit the show is not for them. It’s better to be honest with yourself than hating on an 83-year-old woman with a Michelin star.

Don’t call it boring. Don’t call it slow. Slow and boring is what you signed up for when you clicked “play” on this warm blanket of a show.

And for the love of God, lay off Prue Leith.

Heidi Lux is a screenwriter and satirist based in Los Angeles. Her feature, Crushed, is streaming on Tubi, and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Reductress, the Belladonna Comedy, and more.

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