Puzzling through Paula Deen, what witch hunts are, and what to think

I have to admit, I have always found Paula Deen puzzling, long before any of the various and sundry shitstorms happened. First, I am not sure why anybody would eat a doughnut burger. I’m far from prissy about food or health, and it just sounds disgusting. But I have to say, I’ve watched the various hatred directed at her over the years, and while I find defending her odd, I do have to wonder at the ire, for multiple reasons. The ire directed at her happened long before she admitted to using racial slurs, and it just makes me wonder how much of the ire is legitimate and how much of it is plain and simply the same sort of knee-jerk dislike of a woman representing a politically unpopular world in the public sphere, not unlike the various takedowns of Sarah Palin.

Ok, I realize that was hard to swallow. But wait for it.

1. I do not understand the outrage directed at her for not disclosing her diabetes, even if she had the disease for awhile. The logic appears to be that she because she cooks fattening food, she pushes a ‘lifestyle’ that promotes diabetes, so she should own up to the risks of it, and so she should have disclosed for the world the….what? Just punishment from God for her ‘sin’ of cooking fattening food on tv? We have no idea what she actually eats and what she doesn’t. Do you think RuPaul spends all his time* lolling around in stilettos and feather boas saying “Sashay Away?” Or that Michael C. Hall actually spends his free time as a serial killer who kills serial killers? She was a food network personality. Trust me, my husband loved the Food Network when we had cable, and there is no absences of sugar, salt, and fat shown in a huge variety of shows having nothing to do with Paula Deen–Diners, Drive-ins and Dives strikes me as particularly guilty.

Anthony Bourdain’s condemnation of her as ‘greedy’ after her big diabetes revelation strikes me as particularly noisome. I doubt this guy is turning down any raises, bonuses, and franchise deals that are coming HIS way, and–puhlease–if she is emblematic of the south, that guy is emblematic of a particular type of extremely privileged western male–the type who thinks world travel is virtue because of its educational qualities. Yet, the food he highlights is hardly diet-conscious food, and the approach (like much of this world travel biz) takes on a leering, othering quality. See this little write-up from Esquire about him eating a “crayfish the size of a small dog.” Yeah, that’s portion control and a good role model for you. What’s not to like about seeing people of color around the world serving a white guy who will be able to consume more of their food at one sitting than many of their countrymen will see in weeks? It’s super-awesome when they all sit together, showing how beloved this white man is among them.

What is the real difference between them? I’m befuddled. What I have is that she is both a) female and b) representative of a demographic that much of the mainstream US has come to loathe–white southerners–and he has a penis and European-sounding name and is the darling of world-traveler wannabes (a more affluent demographic and lifestyle), so he’s all good. She’s ‘greedy’ and bad for not disclosing a health problem in her private life because we’re entitled to knowing all there is know about her body. He used her ‘diabetes scandal’ to cut in on the media attention that was going to her in a cynical (but shrewd) celebrity business maneuver with his comments about her greed. And it’s not called out because he’s viewed as her social superior. They both benefit from it, and so do their various sponsors, but it irks me to watch them trade on cultural tropes while the rest of us play in.

2. I did not understand the “ha-ha, it’s funny/right that she has diabetes, serves her right” comments I saw from normally kind people. Again, we have no idea what she actually ate, or how much she exercised or not, and in reality, since when it is morally acceptable to exult when somebody else is going to suffer even if they played a role in their own suffering? I am highly dubious of the idea that Paula Deen gave diabetes to other people with her tv show. If she’s guilty, then so is the patron saint of butter and foodies, Julia Child.

Republicans are always citing desert as a social justice condition–they are, I’d argue, nearly obsessed with it, but most lefties reject the idea in a Rawlsian way (i.e. most outcomes, from talents to character to family, are largely matters of happenstance, not virtue), but BOY–NOT when it came to Paul Deen. When it came to this disease and the possibility of her suffering, these same people were like Calvinist ministers rebuking sin or a Tea Party mama pointing to a food stamps recipient on meth. If Rawls is right, then we don’t get to do stuff like that, even when it’s really tempting to cite behavior and ideas we deplore as something freely chosen and instrumental to downfall. Serves her right for not having a tv show that highlighted locavore vegans living properly!! Hmph!

3. I understand the outrage directed at her over her admission that she used racial slurs. And I understand (I think) enough about the contemporary celebrity media to understand the outcomes. Celebrity news is rather unfortunately with us to stay; it’s cheap to get and it sells. I’m somewhat worried about it, as I think it’s a distraction from real issues in the public sphere that displaces real political coverage and news. So if you think about her admission about a racial slurs she made years ago similarly to Tom Cruise’s comments about depression, you rather can see the cycle works: there is an initial disclosure, then a flurry of commentary, then there is another news hook (her apology) followed by more judging commentary–in this case, a lot of commentary about the South and what it is and how she represents this or that about it. Then her new book sells like crazy.

But this news cycle and her subsequent book sales never let us actually talk about it or come to any closure with it. For all the histrionics directed at her and the south, many of us heard those words in our houses growing up. Our parents were more than just racists or avatars of the South. They were real people, capable of loving and living and being parents and doing their jobs, who still used racist words and view the world with a lens of racism. This isn’t hipster racism (I’m still struggling with what this term means), but it’s no less timely because it’s not like it went anywhere. In the cycle of disclosure, outrage at her disclosure about the use of racial slurs years ago, and subsequent ire, we have a simulacrum of a disciplining and punishing bad behavior in which the subject is actually rewarded financially for the disclosure and public shaming. And those of us who don’t use the stigmatized words she did can rest assured we are the morally better, when we should not feel comforted in all likelihood. And the scandal will get put away, comfortably.

We should note that in my thinking about these things this morning, I am not actually worried about Paula Deen; she seems to be laughing all the way to the bank, like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore and Al Franken. I am worried about what the various socio-cultural representations mean and whether they enable social progress or hamper it.

*I kind of hope he does.

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

7 responses to “Puzzling through Paula Deen, what witch hunts are, and what to think

  1. Wait — have you ever watched her show?! Her whole shtick is that it’s fun to be “ba-a-a-d” (insert sly smile and wink here) by enhancing your cooking with as much stuff the doctors advise against as you possibly can. You’re right — we don’t know that she eats what she cooks on the show. But we do know that she makes her living by promoting counter-culture cooking — the culture being that which is aware of the responsibility we have for our own health and well-being. She scoffs regularly at people who avoid excessive consumption of sugar and saturated fats because they expect negative consequences from that behavior. She encourages her viewers to indulge, instead, because it’s “fu-u-un.” And whether or not she says such things just for show, she regularly discusses her favorite recipes, tells about when she and her family enjoy them, etc. And, even as she’s been doing these things, she’s been suffering herself with a killer disease that is directly related to body weight and diet. It’s the hypocrisy that makes us angry…..she’s been dieting to save her own life, even as she encourages her viewers to do the opposite. “I know first-hand this will hurt people, but I’ll do it anyway to make money.” THAT’s greed. Bourdain was spot on.

    Your condemnation of Anthony Bourdain is based on a pretty weak argument, too, by the way. Again…..do you watch any of his shows?! They’re about cultures all over the world, not eating. He eats what the locals eat, because, as he says, nothing teaches you more about local culture than the food traditions. Food and cooking also happen to be the common language he understands. I watch so I can learn about people and places I would never otherwise know about or understand. How is wanting to learn about the different people in the world, and what’s meaningful and important to them, in some way elitist?

    And “puhlease”…..Bourdain is “emblematic of a particular type of extremely privileged western male?” He’s a restless and troubled guy from Jersey, with a self-proclaimed sketchy history in the dark side of the cooking world (a wanna-be great chef), and, apparently, a scarcity of meaningful family connections to anchor him at home. I appreciate his open-mindedness, and his interest in wandering. Yes, his travel is educational — hopefully, it’s teaching all the privileged and self-satisfied white Americans who get to experience it vicariously to be more aware of the value of cultures and traditions different from their own.

    I see virtually NO commonality between Bourdain and Deen. To suggest that the only differences between them are 1) their sexes; and 2) their cultural cachet is absurd.

    • Again, Laurie, these are all the typical tropes invested in Bourdain by a certain class of people. You see no commonality between Deen and Bourdain? They are people who make their money representing lifestyles–you like his and you deplore hers. But their pay comes from eyeballs on the screen. THAT’S the commonality. Just because you approve of his trading on other peoples’ cultures for his tv show doesn’t change the fact that he’s trading on other peoples’ cultures for his own personal gain. His ‘self-proclaimed sketchy history” is part of the bad boy narrative that he *carefully* cultivates as part of a bootstrap redemption narrative that Americans LOOOOOOOOOVE and eat up with a spoon: See: George Bush, Jrs redemption narrative during his first campaign about his own addictions (which seem less like addiction and more like a way to invent a redemption narrative around years of simply sitting around being a rich fellow not doing much else.) Bourdain combines this with his adventurer narrative, and it works for him. Note: he gets to be bad: but her “fun to be baaaad” narrative causes you to be furious with her. Is there anything worse than A BAD MOMMY? No, nothing worse.

      So you ask me if I’ve watched his show. Yes, I have. The only reason it’s not about food is because it airs on the travel channel. My challenge to you is whether you have read his snotty books that are tell-all personal attacks on other travel and food celebs–told not because he’s hoping to do good in the world or to help us understand other cultures, but because he’s a CELEBRITY and he needs eyeballs and faux-controversy—like his butting into the original Paula Deen scandal–puts money in his pocket–gets him those eyeballs.

      And still…nothing you have said about anything here negates the near religious fervor of the condemnation towards her. “Our responsibility for our own health” is the EXACT SAME NARRATIVE of personal responsibility that the GOP lays on people. Oh, those gays, they deserved to die of AIDS *because of their lifestyle.* Oh, those people of color, they deserve poor health *because of their lifestyle*. Those women wouldn’t have to worry about abortion or pregnancy if they just lived right, the way we think they should.

      It’s extremely interesting to me that the left in the US in no way allows for personal responsibility when it comes to poverty, crime, drug use, sexual abstinence or many other things that on the right are seen as matters of personal choice–those are complex, difficult, situated disorders–but boy oh boy when it comes to Paula Deen and some fattening food on a cable TV network that people don’t have to watch and books they don’t have to buy or read and recipes they don’t have to make let alone eat, people like you want to draw a a direct causal link between some cake or some fried chicken and her health and the health of everybody in the universe. We’re all personally responsible for our own health, but not when Paula Deen is in the house. No, sir. SHE’S a bad lady. Not Martha Stewart who also schills bad for you food, not 100 other food/lifestyle celebs that also schill fattening food. Just Paula Deen. Bad, bad mommy.

      The bottom line: you like what he likes, and so he’s ok and above cultural critique, but you don’t like her and what she represents, so she’s the moral inferior deserving of suffering and social ridicule.

  2. You’ve said nothing to counter my points. I do not in any way admire Bourdain, nor do I hate Deen. Presumptions about my attitudes do not make arguments. I said NOTHING about her personal responsibility, as far as her own condition, either — you put that there. What I object to is her public endorsement of a diet that kills people, and her income being dependent on that endorsement. It’s hypocritical of her to pretend there’s nothing wrong with the kind of cooking/eating she endorses, when she knows first-hand there is.

    I haven’t in any way criticized Deen for any lack of responsibility for her own health, either. I criticized her for blatantly advocating her viewers NOT to take health risks seriously. I have no idea what caused her own diabetes. But I do know that many of us will end up having the disease if we eat what she recommends eating. That’s the problem. Hate her for it? Nope. Glad she’s sick? No way. But I will not give her a pass on her hypocrisy. And why do you leap to the assumption that I don’t like — no, “deplore” — the culture she represents? The only reason I’ve watched her show at all is because I enjoy the traditions of southern cooking and culture. That assumption — that anyone condemning her doesn’t like the lifestyle she represents — is the basis of your whole argument, and there is simply no evidence to support it being true.

    Tell me — what would you think of someone who got paid to do promotions for something like, say, cigarettes? I would first be inclined to think s/he didn’t have a full understanding of what cancer was like, or that cigarettes could cause it. But what if s/he was actually suffering from cancer? And what if s/he he DID know cigarettes could cause it? Would disapproving of that person’s ethical standards in promoting cigarettes to the general public have one single thing to do with a sex-based bias? Would it have anything to do with disliking the culture that person came from?

    I begrudge no one making an income by attracting viewers/readers. Apparently you do, since Bourdain making money from his show seems to be the foundation of your argument against him. So what if he’s snotty? So what if he has a narrative? And why do you presume I like his lifestyle? I happen to think he’s an ass. I started to read “Kitchen Confidential,” but couldn’t wade through it. I don’t love the narcissism. But does he really advocate doing anything with his shows that harms his viewers in some way? If I glean something positive from watching them, how does that make me male-biased? Jesus, what a stretch those arguments are.

    “Trading on” cultures seems a bit cynical an analysis to me, too, in discussing either Deen or Bourdain (although you apply that cynicism only to the latter, for some reason). Selling a product is selling a product, whether or not it requires a persona or a narrative. It’s just a trade, and a way to make a living. I don’t see either one of them as “representing a lifestyle,” by spinning the narratives they do. They sell what they sell in markets that buy it. I question Deen’s ethics in promoting (emphasis on that word PROMOTING) a product she knows is harmful to the people who watch her show. I don’t see Bourdain promoting anything harmful to his viewers. In fact, I think shows like his do us a lot of good.

    So….after your snarky remark about “typical tropes invested in Bourdain by a certain class of people” I have to wonder this: what “class of people” do you think I fall into, exactly, that you’re so willing to insult and dismiss? And how do you not see labelling me and assuming to know what I think and feel as your own special brand of bigotry?

    I happen to agree with a lot of what you say — especially about people delighting in Deen coming to personal harm. I don’t get that…..but neither do I think, after reading your arguments, that it has much of anything to do with cultural or gender bias. What I’m observing, in the very broadest of perspectives, is that we’ve become a culture that takes sides, and sees the “other side” as something abstract. The vitriol we hear in politics, entertainment….well, everywhere…..about people who think differently than we do ourselves is alarming. It’s just an observation, though. I have no definite theories about what’s causing it, and can make no supported arguments, either. I think it comes to no good anywhere, though — even in condemning either Paula Deen or Anthony Bourdain for what they do or who they are.

  3. You are over-personalizing this discussion. I’m not talking ABOUT YOU, what you like to watch on tv, or anything else about *you.* I’m talking about *common culture reactions*–broad reactions among media markets and social media commentary–to people/personas who are THEMSELVES cultural commodities and thus, I’m sorry, are subject to critique for the manner in which they choose to promote themselves as commodities–because I think it may tell me something interesting about the cultures and markets they work in. Keep in mind we aren’t even really TALKING about Bourdain: we’re talking about his publicists and his managers whose job it is to make sure he’s making the moves that he is to stay in the news and in the columns. (And that’s not even talking about his show, in which there are plenty producers and editors making decisions about what we see.) So voila: Deen is ALL OVER the news with her big diabetes announcement, and he piggybacks on that with some of his snark about Deen. Is he right that she’s greedy? Perhaps. But why is he even commenting on it, and why are news outlets reporting it, and why are people listening? Why are media outlets playing up his comments instead of those of physicians or nurses? Did we need Bourdain to point that out? Why does it matter to me if he’s snotty? Again, you overpersonalized. It doesn’t matter *to me*. I’m not the subject of his snark. But the fact that he does engage in this snark tells us something about his image and brand.

    And yeah–they are both selling. That was my original point. I don’t think I’m any less cynical about her and her brand identity than I am about his. I’m sorry, but you give every impression of approving and liking his brand. You call it ‘educational’ and ‘good for us.’ Those strike me as approving comments. You charge her with hypocrisy. In my dictionary, that’s a pretty strong indicator of disapproval and dislike. I don’t agree with you about his show. I don’t think your liking these things makes you bad or subject to gender bias; I just think you are wrong about his show being good for us, for a variety of reasons. When Bourdain uses his influence to help people in Mozambique create their own food and travel shows for the Travel Network, I’ll approve of him. Until then, he’ll survive even with my disapproval, I’m sure.

    In 10 years, when he’s Paula Deen’s age, will he be required to explain it if he gets diabetes?

    Again—though I don’t know why I have to explain this—whether you like Bourdain or watching his show really doesn’t indicate anything about how gender plays into this particular question. My suggestion wasn’t that people like him and dislike her because of gender bias–I said that he gets to engage in the snark and the public overeating (which he does) relatively insulated from criticism (all the while criticizing others) because of gender bias in media and cultural interpretations of eating a “crawfish the size of small dog” applied to a male adventurer versus fried chicken from a purported southern housewife. Keeping in mind, he is NOT a male adventurer but the face of a corporate brand, and she is NOT a home-loving southern housewife, but….the face of a corporate brand.

    You have valid reasons to be annoyed with Paula Deen and not disclosing her condition; I’ll buy those reasons. But I do think that there are roughly 400 other shows on Food Network with the calorie counts and food values not really much different than her schtick.

    So the answer to your question about would I be mad at somebody who advocated for smoking after he found out it made him sick, and would it be just gender bias or bias towards culture, etc. Yes, of course, I would be mad at that person…but within caveats. Having worked for a few years in economically devastated tobacco-farming and tobacco company territory, I do understand why a person who is for all practical purposes a corporate brand, with lots of people depending on them for paychecks, wouldn’t necessarily blow the whistle right away. It was still the wrong thing to do, but I do understand it. There is more to the decision than just a single, bad, bad woman with big hair and her own greed. She was a person who had multiple accountabilities as a corporate actor and who prioritized one responsibility over another–and made a mistake in so doing.

    But your smoking scenario leaves out a big deal: so the sick former smoker who still promotes smoking is a bad, bad guy. However, why is that person guiltier or more worthy of ire and sanction than the hundreds of nonsmokers who ALSO profited from the tobacco industry and never get sick themselves but also know about the evidence regarding smoking and health????

    So I look at Paula Deen, and think, that’s pretty bad for you food. But so is Cupcake Wars, Homemade in America, Southern Cooking with Trish, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and whole host of other shows. Deen may have made dissing healthy eating as part of her schtick (as part of a backlash I’d argue that has a lot in common with anti-environmentalism and other things)…..but she’s one of MANY dirty hands on the Food Network–but they don’t get the treatment. Based on the logic that she is wrong for promoting unhealthy lifestyles when she should know better….what’s Bobby Flay’s and Alton’s Brown’s excuse? It’s not like diabetes is exotic, or ONLY Paula Deen’s bad food can lead to diabetes?

    Frame it like this: why is Deen the only culpable smoker out that whole lot? Because she supposedly ‘got caught’?

    I have a problem with the Bourdain-Dean controversy because it was so OBVIOUSLY manufactured to play on exactly the socio-cultural and political divides you discuss at the end of your comment: North versus South, cosmopolitan global versus local, food adventurism versus comfort foods. Her fans are going to rally round around her (as they have–equally as inexplicable to me); and since her fans weren’t in general his fans to begin with, and vice versa, there is little cost–and a great deal of benefit–to the Food Network and the Travel Network (both owned by one media company–Scripps) of the apparent “feud” that accompanies this exchange–they both get and stay in the news, their fans remain their fans with the supposition of a rivalry that serves to boost brand as the supposed controversy leads newcomers into the fray. Poor Paula Deen! She’s being witch hunted! Let’s buy her book! Versus the people more inclined towards Bourdain’s type of cultural tourism.

  4. And, BTW, you’ve called me a bigot, essentially–my own ‘essential brand of bigotry’– for saying that you deploy tropes that appeal to a certain class of people. That’s out of line. Just because I noted that you draw on particular tropes to make your argument, tropes that are more socially accepted among particular and cultural empowered groups*, that Bourdain is superior to Deen does NOT mean that I think you are one thing or another, other than somebody who believes in things like the goodness of cultural tourism (you’re not alone in that; nor am I alone in my suspicions of it). Nor is the fact that you like Bourdain’s show an indictor of anything germane. Again, it’s not about you. Please stop making it about you and me and please stop accusing me of everything under the sun. I don’t care who you are, where you are from or what you watch on tv–and I don’t really think any of those things say ANYTHING about you. I think what shows up in programming and media IS culturally relevant. *IOW, people of ALL classes often buy into cultural tropes promulgated by elite cultural actors. Again: not about you or who you are.

  5. Not about me? Really?

    “They are people who make their money representing lifestyles–you like his and you deplore hers. ”

    “Just because you approve of his trading on other peoples’ cultures ….”

    “……her “fun to be baaaad” narrative causes you to be furious with her.”

    “The bottom line: you like what he likes, and so he’s ok and above cultural critique, but you don’t like her and what she represents, so she’s the moral inferior deserving of suffering and social ridicule.”

    And you don’t care if he’s snotty? Then why did you use the term to argue against his “brand?” “My challenge to you is whether you have read his snotty books that are tell-all personal attacks on other travel and food celebs….”

    If you hadn’t put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head, and made it personal with your derision, I wouldn’t still be here. But you did. I responded and denied your assumptions. You answer back, patronizingly, that I’m making this about me.

    Logic defies you. This discussion is going around in circles. I try to make a logical case for Deen being a hypocrite, and again, you make it about me, claiming that my using that word is an indication of my “dislike” of her. You don’t answer my points, but tell me instead what you think is REALLY going on inside my head. I TELL you outright that I’m not fond of Bourdain or buying into his brand, but do get something good out of watching his show. Your response: “I’m sorry, but you give every impression of approving and liking his brand.” Really? You don’t see a difference there? And you accuse me of making this about me, for trying to correct the assumptions you made specifically about me?

    And then there’s this: “My suggestion wasn’t that people like him and dislike her because of gender bias….” after which you continue, “I said that he gets to engage in the snark and the public overeating (which he does) relatively insulated from criticism (all the while criticizing others) because of gender bias in media and cultural interpretations of eating a “crawfish the size of small dog” applied to a male adventurer versus fried chicken from a purported southern housewife.” I don’t think you could you come up with a better description of gender bias than that. Maybe your argument was that media and the interpretations of a culture en masse (if that’s a thing) are separate and distinct from “people?” “People” aren’t biased, but media and culture are?

    And if you’re not arguing gender bias, then what exactly is this passage supposed to mean: “What is the real difference between them? I’m befuddled. What I have is that she is both a) female and b) representative of a demographic that much of the mainstream US has come to loathe–white southerners–and he has a penis and European-sounding name and is the darling of world-traveler wannabes (a more affluent demographic and lifestyle), so he’s all good.” I don’t know how you could be any more clearly making your argument about gender than you do by using the word “penis” in it.

    I didn’t call you a bigot, “essentially” — I called you a bigot literally. I am probably using the word too broadly, and if so, I apologize. But maintaining there is some sort of distinct group of people (in this case, those who are different from you because they might enjoy watching Bourdain) by making unsupported, negative presumptions about their collective attitudes, class and behavior — the “world-traveler wannabes (a more affluent demographic and lifestyle)” — seems a pretty good articulation of bigotry. And what do you do, when I offer you my own views, to show those preconceived ideas don’t necessarily fit? You ridicule me for supposedly making the conversation about me.

    But still, your best example of bigoted attitudes, or at least of prejudice (maybe that’s a better word), is that phrase “certain class of people”…..even if you don’t feel you were saying it disparagingly or lumping me into it in order to presuppose knowing my personal opinions. I quote: “…..these are all the typical tropes [referring to my arguments*] invested in Bourdain by a certain class of people. You see no commonality between Deen and Bourdain? They are people who make their money representing lifestyles–you like his and you deplore hers.” But you were wrong about how I felt, and equally wrong about there being some like-minded class of people who like his lifestyle and don’t like hers. That group is a construct based only on your own opinions, and fails as a premise for your arguments.

    * Note, please, that you did not merely say I was “deploying those tropes to appeal” to that class.

    • Ok, I am done answering charges that I’ve belittled you personally. I’m sorry that I assumed you dislike Deen’s brand which I was probably too quick to do, but I am still not convinced it’s worth the drama engaged in here or that it affects my central argument. You don’t think Bourdain appeals to a ‘type’. Ok. I do. Again, whether you personally fit into the type or not isn’t the point, and really doesn’t affect how these two figureheads get discussed in media and social commentary. If you are right, and his fans are many and varied and diverse and his social import is greater than pandering modern-day adventure stories, then you’re right and I’m wrong. Entirely possible. I’ll worry about my terrible bigotry towards “world traveler wannabes” when they are systematically refused equal pay for equal work, required to wear specific clothing, subject to street harassment and violence, and other aspects of real oppression.