Jamie Oliver has taken his crusade of improving the way people eat to the United States and, as he did in England, is beginning his challenge focussed on the eating habits of children. Quite a sensible strategy really. I recognise that he is doing this as part of a television program, but I think that the screening of it plays a two-fold role; first it provides funding and a rationale for undertaking this work, and secondly it may assist in spreading the message. It also, no doubt, provides access to schools and people’s homes and so forth in a way that might otherwise be challenging.
But what I am interested to think about today is what we, as the viewers see when we watch these programs. There have been a number that Jamie Oliver has done – from the original work with the fifteen working class kids to the school dinners, the Ministry of Food series and now Jamie’s American Revolution. I haven’t seen all of any of these series, but I have seen some of all of them., And let me say, I like Jamie Oliver and I do think he has genuine motivations in what he does.
But what do we see when we watch these shows? Why do we watch them? I think I have to acknowledge that my thoughts here are probably quite culturally specific, and that the views of Americans and British viewers might be different, for a number of reasons.
In Australia, where we don’t have a system of school lunches in the way that either Britain or the US does, where many schools in fact are already the policemen when it comes to food (no chocolate! No lollies! No chips!), our attitude is immediately different. It is this fascination with the grotesque, this superiority of the better educated, that I think underpins aspects of spectatorship of these programs. There is an enjoyment in the horrified fascination that the program exerts, and our ability to consider ourselves better than those we are viewing which helps to draw us in. “How could they” we think. “We don’t do this,” we think, and lean back, contented in our smug superiority.
The producers of these programs are not unaware of the pull of this kind of spectatorship. Watching the episode of American Revolution which screened last night, in one set of scenes there was a lot of camera lingering on the fat, uncomprehending face of the mother. As viewers we were being drawn to look at her, not with identification, but in as an object of sympathy, contempt or possibly scorn. We are drawn to Jamie’s point of view, to share his disbelief and concern when the lunch lady wonders aloud why you would give children a knife to eat their lunch.
Class based humour or scorn, in the broadest sense, is something which has always existed, but has perhaps been more emphasised with the increased unacceptability of race and gender humour. Humour, or superiority, is found in difference, in the creation of Others against who we can form our own identity. Shows such as Kath and Kim and the writings of people like Catherine Deveny which are riddled for contempt for those of the suburbs are demonstrations of the way this class/education based differentiation occurs. For a reasonably educated middle class Australian who buys Jamie Oliver’s cook books, obese Americans who never eat vegetables are a perfect point of opposition. As seeing these people as lesser, as contemptible, we reinforce the security of our own identity. The people in these shows are thus held up to us as objects, as others – whether we view them with humour, scorn or even compassion. The objects of these program (for surely Jamie is the subject) are offered to us in a floating contextlessness, and their achievements, when the great middle class representative leads them to better eating, are seen in the same light as all Great White Man mythology. The Great White Man brings wisdom, enlightenment – he is a saviour – in the case of Jamie’s shows, cast as actually saving, or at least extending, their lives through better eating.
This does not negate the good that may (or may not) be being done by the approach that Jamie Oliver takes. He may genuinely want to bring about a revolution. However, sustainable revolutions really require the leadership of the oppressed, not the guidance of a superior other. It does not make the food habits of some of the people shown less frightening, nor the social implications of it. But I think we need to critically examine our own position as we sit back on our couches, sip our shiraz and nibble on our organic snacks or brie while consuming the food habits of others, paraded for our entertainment.