The Great British bitch-off

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How the media coverage for this year’s Great British Bake Off descended into name-calling and ridiculous baking puns.

The Great British Bake Off has captivated the hearts and minds of the British public. Not only have cake tins, baking sets and pudding books all gone up in sales, our press has been dominated by tales of sugar, spice and all things – well, not so nice. The hit series – moving to BBC1 next year due to its high viewing figures – has generated a media storm in a teacup. Whether this is cause or effect of high audiences, tabloid coverage and social media output has been obsessed with the female contestants in the series and, in particular, ‘baking beauty’ Ruby Tandoh.

It could be because bitchiness – sorry, I meant baking – is traditionally considered a ‘female’ pastime or because women fit better into the baking mould; after all, they’re as sweet as icing sugar, easier on the eye and not only that, but they can be made into ‘tarts’. Ruby struggled to cast off the label of ‘flirt’ and ‘manipulator’ by critics. This role – contrived by the press – fitted in with what was playing out outside the kitchen as judge ‘silver fox’ Paul Hollywood was in the process of splitting up with his wife. With any sniff of a scandal, particularly if you can sell it with a lot of baking puns, you’re on to a winning formula, and so they came in their baker’s dozens: “Raging Ruby bites back… Critics accused her of flirting with Paul Hollywood and crying her way into the final – now Bake Off’s beauty has got out her rolling pin” (The Daily Mail).

Ruby – the youngest of the bakers – had clearly had enough of the torrent of abuse that seemed to pour forth and she wrote a brilliantly cutting and witty piece in the Guardian last week, in which she stated “If I see one more person used the hackneyed “dough-eyed” pun I will personally go to their house and force-feed them an entire Charlotte Royale.”

ruby gbbo

So why exactly was ‘Paul Hollwood’s number one girl’ Ruby such a punch bag throughout the series? Was it because she was young and beautiful? Or was it the constant self- deprecation and tears that got under people’s skin? There were points in the series where Ruby was damn right annoying – self doubt can be an unattractive quality if one’s constantly putting oneself down – but Ruby didn’t deserve the level of abuse she got. When she defended herself, the Mirror called her “an outraged feminist” – she really couldn’t win.

Ruby Tandoh was cast as green-eyed vixen who flirted and cried her way to the top. Frances Quinn was cast as eccentric, with Kimberley as the mouthy, cocky one – which poses the question: would male finalists have received so much criticism? When Glenn and Howard cried, the show was viewed as too sentimental and was subsequently dubbed a ‘blub fest’. But with Ruby it was seen as a contrived tactic: “wasn’t SHE manipulating the judges – as well as the audience?” said The Mirror. Reality TV isn’t averse to tears, but it seems in Ruby’s case, these weren’t the right kind of tears; they were all part of her plan to simper and snuffle to claim the top prize: “The chemistry between Ruby, 21, and judge Paul Hollywood, 47, was palpable. When he approached, she blushed, she lowered her gaze,” said the Daily Mail. It’s the stuff of 19th century novels.

Raymond Blanc also stuck the knife in as he tweeted that 21 year old Ruby was “too thin to enjoy good food” and that the series was full of “Not much skills, female tears, And a winner so thin who makes me doubt of her love for great cooking, baking.” Bringing Ruby’s weight into the discussion made Blanc look about as modern as a hand-held whisk. He was not judging her ability here – he should know better than anyone that you should be judged on your merit alone and not your looks or your weight. He seems lazy and perhaps the victim of reading – and believing – too much tabloid press coverage.


Because the press have reduced the whole pantomime down to a contest on femininity, looks and smiles, even the judges have been brought down to the same level. Paul Hollwood gave his view of who was more shaggable: “Personally I think [fellow contestant] Kimberley’s far prettier. With all the love in the world, Ruby’s not my type,” (The Radio Times). ‘Sexing up’ the show is easier if the subjects are women. Although the male contestants did not escape criticism on and off the show, it was usually about their cooking abilities rather than their weight or their looks. Headlines like “Pastry proves too much for Glenn” were about as critical as it got.

Perhaps some of that’s down to this year being an all-female final and the heat being turned up an extra notch. Though I somehow doubt if it had been Ali, Glenn or Rob in the final we’d be making remarks about their weight or noticing the sexual tension between one of them and Mary Berry. Frances won in the end, although her style over substance creations earned criticism from the judges previously. It seems fitting that this show – which has sparked so much controversy about femininity, beauty and behaving in the correct manner – should celebrate the icing and not what’s underneath.


All images: BBC

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