I.                    A Double Elimination on “Top Chef: Just Desserts” – for Females Only

I’ve been watching the Top Chef franchise shows on Bravo – including Top Chef and Top Chef: Just Desserts – for the past few seasons, and I would not call myself a fan at all.  Often, I am frustrated and disgusted that this programming is allowed to flourish.  The recent (October 5, 2011) double elimination on Top Chef:  Just Desserts took out two females, so that of the five contestants remaining to vie for the top prize, only one is female.

There is only a 20% chance of a female contestant winning the top prize on Top Chef:   Just Desserts, while there is an 80% chance of a male winning.    With money and career prowess on the line, I am stunned and outraged at this percentage.

Through his judging and leadership, Colicchio ensures that his Top Chef winners are in his own image, so there is little doubt who typically takes home the top prize and honors – you guessed it – the male contestant who is often a white male.   Yes, there was a season where a female was allowed to win, but out of 8 regular seasons of Top Chef, only 1 female has won:  Stephanie Izard in Season 4.  Top Chef All Stars (2011) awarded the top honor and money ($200,000) to Richard  Blais (who came in second to Izard, interestingly, in Season 4).

Top Chef Allstars (2011) judges, including head judge Colicchio, eliminated the most qualified and talented female chefs early and often (Jennifer Carroll was eliminated 2nd and Tiffany Faison was eliminated 7th out of a field of 18 chefs), so that the final two was comprised of male contestants.

A male won the first season of  Top Chef: Just Desserts, and it appears another one will win this season.  And with good money and other perks at stake, such as being featured in Food and Wine Magazine, the discrimination against females is potent and unconscionable.

Make no mistake:  this franchise is work-related as the contestants are employed in the same craft for which they are judged.  So unless they are casting contestants for the show disparately ( i.e. choosing females of lesser renowned in the industry and with weaker culinary skills), the judges are purposely eliminating females on these shows by deliberately and consistently picking apart their work so that they have a reason to dismiss women and award the top money and honors to a male.

I am certainly not the only one to call out the Top Chef franchise over the years.  Tara Mohr wrote a timely article for the Huffington Post regarding the inherent sexism and blatant unfairness on the show:

Each season starts off with a roughly equal number of male and female contestants. All have been through the same rigorous selection process. Yet as the competition goes on, the women simply don’t perform as well as the men. Or so it seems.*

I am not as magnanimous as Ms. Mohr is in the remaining content of her article  – I don’t feel there is anything subtle about the discrimination on these shows and I don’t feel the judges truly “would love to see women do better,” as Mohr claims. I am not willing to turn a blind eye to the statistics that female contestants are being kept from top prize money.  I feel that institutional sexism is pervasive and at work here.  The only recourse for such institutional sexism in the past has been found in the court system.

Ms. Mohr correctly points out that these shows could easily do “blind taste tests” to guard against sexism and discrimination.  Bravo refuses to protect both contestants and their own reputation in this manner; after all, if you really are trying to allow males the victory, then a blind taste test would undermine this goal utterly and completely.

Why not just call these franchises “Top Male Chef” and get it over with.  We’re tired of the façade of inclusion.

II.                Rocco DiSpirito’s “Rocco’s Dinner Party”- Men are given the advantage 2:1

Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to be as institutionally biased as the Top Chef franchise, along came DiSpirito’s show, Rocco’s Dinner Party, to completely refute my assumption.  I watched each episode very closely.  To his credit, there is no Lakshmi-sex-object as hostess.  He’s the host-sex object, and he’s pretty enough to hold that post.

On DiSpirito’s show, three contestants vie for the ability to cook for DiSpirito’s dinner guests later in the show.  A majority of the shows feature two male contestants and one female, thereby ensuring that females only have a 33.3% chance of winning from the start.  No blind taste tests + less females contestants =more males winning money!  This is a formula that Bravo holds in high regard.

It is of little surprise that this show was also on Bravo, the station that also broadcasts the Top Chef and Real Housewife franchises, the latter which exploits the stereotype of woman as gold-digger-bitch-narcissist.  The good ole boys’ club is alive and well and fully in effect at BravoBravo does not even attempt to hide their distain for the true talents of women – they don’t have to –  no one is making them – neither their tv viewers nor the courts.

 III.              Gordon Ramsey’s “Master Chef”- Better than the Rest 

 Both seasons of Gordon Ramsey’s Master Chef  have been refreshingly absent of Collicchio’s and DiSpirito’s obvious gender bias and female-candy-fixture-object (Lakshmi).   Unfortunately, though, all of the judges are male –   Ramsey, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich (whose mother is a pretty famous chef in her own right) – reminding us again that all aspects of life on this planet, even the kitchen, which has been the personal domain of women for centuries, is still “mastered” by males.  I believe Cat Cora showed up for one episode as a “mini judge,” in the first season, but the three males have been the primary judges.

Lucky for us these judges appear to love their mothers (as evidenced by an episode featuring their moms) and have a respect for women and fundamental fairness.  We have seen what happens when the alternative is present.  This show is also on Fox instead of Bravo, and that in itself is very telling and may actually make a significant difference.

Females have won both seasons of Master Chef :  albeit cute-and-not-very-threatening Whitney  Miller for Season One and former- beauty- queen-turned-chef  Jennifer Behm for Season Two.  Both women won $250,000 and other perks.  Yes, this show still has male machismo.  No, they don’t have blind taste tests.  But what they do have in their short tenure of only two seasons is that a female has won each season.

Now, a woman wouldn’t have to win both for me to feel that gender bias was absent; however, the fact that women are allowed to win top honors, and the money that goes along with it, is a good indicator that Ramsey and his crew are genuinely trying to find the best chef and not the best male chef.

Attention all female readers:  Master Chef is currently seeking contestants for their third season:  http://tvseriesfinale.com/tv-show/masterchef-season-three-21100/

IV.              Conclusion

What these purported “reality” shows (featuring employment skills) come down to is money and professional reputation.  Sadly, females come up empty handed on both counts all too often on these shows.  I can think of two words that come to mind when watching this sort of display:  social justice.

There is a real need for feminists to call out blatant sexism and point the finger at institutional gender bias that lays the groundwork for all women who watch these shows to further believe that they cannot get as far as their male counterparts on TV or in life.  Sadly, the only effective method available for stopping such sexism lies in the judicial system:  are you listening Ginsburg and Kagan and Sotomayor?

*Mohr, Tara, Top Chef’s Recipe for Gender Bias, The Huffington Post, February 3, 2011.

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