This is my reply to Dr. Warren Belasco’s query on the ASFS listserve as to whether this show was as bad as Hank Stuever makes it out to be. I feel like sharing with a different audience.
Well, Dr. Belasco, I watched the “preview” (the actual premiere is Friday night) online and I am sort of ambivalent as to whether it’s as bad as Stuever suggests. As a feminist, I have different problems with the show than it being “reality show pap.”
(This email is very long, and for that I apologize.)
I think the show does some really interesting — and probably problematic — things, rhetorically. The opening credits set Oliver and his family up as heroic martyrs to the cause (“He’s leaving behind his family” [cue plaintive “don’t go, Daddee” in a child’s British accented voice] “to go save America”). The stakes are set forth thusly: this generation of children will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Won’t someone think of the children? (Always a savvy rhetorical gesture.) SPOILER ALERT: Oliver the white knight delivers the blame for all of America’s obesity and poor-nutrition problems squarely at the doorstep of women. I can haz patriarchy?
Exhibit A: Oliver takes issue with the lunch ladies (who chafe sorely at being addressed as such) serving breakfast pizza and “potato pearls.” While he’s rightfully gobsmacked at the nutritional bankruptcy of these kitchen products (I refuse to call them food), I question why he chooses to fuss at the cafeteria workers. (He also addresses them all — and they are all older than he is — as “sweetheart,” “darlin'” and “girls,” which is so, so infantilizing and demeaning.)
Exhibit B: Oliver visits the home of a flabby family and asks the mother to prepare a typical week’s fare for the family. Lots of nugget-shaped things, fried things, pizza (Oliver opens a freezer door to reveal about 30 frozen pizzas, which mom declares are on hand for “snacks.” I smell a ringer.), lots of meat, starch, and no green veg in sight. In a move taken straight from “Dr.” Gillian McKeith and the BBC’s “You Are What You Eat,” Oliver proceeds to gently shame the weeping woman, who is aghast at the heaps of crappy food she feeds her family, by saying “how many millions of women in this country are doing this?” “This” being code for “honey, you’re killing your kids!”
After helping the mom and her teenage son prepare a healthful dinner for the family, Oliver presents the mother with a weekly menu and recipes, but the viewer isn’t privy to what’s there. This particular mom is lucky in that she has a 16-year-old budding chef to help her out, but I’m concerned about the expectations set forth by this menu. What’s on there? How complex are these recipes? How realistic is this menu? What moms out there have the time to chop bunch of veggies, etc. in the interest of improving the family’s nutrition and overall health? Can we also get a shot of the family going for a walk after the meal?
In addition to the latent demonizing of women this show engages in, I fear there are class issues that will not only go unresolved but remain entirely ignored. I have concerns about the ability of working moms to shoulder the burden of thinking outside the convenience food box; I am a graduate student with a flexible schedule and a husband with a very comfortable salary and it is extremely difficult for me to plan and prepare a consistently healthy menu for my family from week to week. I can only imagine what contortions a family in less comfortable circumstances might face in order to live up to Mr. Oliver’s standards. There’s a reason why Ensure is popular in low-income communities: it provides fast, cheap calories. Eating healthfully is a luxury (not everyone knows that, at least in Texas, you can use your foodstamps at farmers’ markets and also to buy seeds to grow your own vegetables), and I really hope that Oliver addresses that issue.
Now, to the reality show pap aspect: there is definitely a scripted arc to this story. When Oliver has the lunch ladies prepare some beautiful roasted fresh chicken drumsticks (at least one of my children would be gaga over those), they grumble and complain. He is unable to convince a male supervisor that the brown rice he’s selected fulfills the daily requirement of two breads (TWO BREADS!?!?!!?), so the kitchen staff rather smugly offer the children pizza as an alternative to the chicken. Oliver practically weeps over the children as they dump their uneaten drumsticks and apples into the trash. The USDA and its bizarre nutrition standards figure as the bad guy, with the lower level bureaucrats and lunch ladies standing in as its enforcers. The stormtroopers to the USDA’s Emperor Palpatine, if you will.
The show is extremely didactic and outrageous in its rhetoric. That said, as a mother of a soon-to-be kindergarten student, I am extremely invested in the school lunch standards in America. I think that anything that gets parents (not just mothers; I really have an issue with absolving fathers of responsibility here) thinking about the crap being served our children in school cafeterias is useful. And while I agree with Stuever that we should let ADULTS keel over in a puddle of kountry gravy, we owe it to our children to teach them to make better choices. To that end, I hope that Oliver aims higher and that he gets to work his Jedi magic on the people with the power.
Thank you for reading.