thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Reality TV and the Privacy Problem

In Food, Food Network, reality TV, spoilers, Television on July 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

Chelsea H.

Several weeks ago, my favorite Food Network Star contestant went home (obviously, if you aren’t caught up this is going to be a spoiler…).

Emily Ellyn’s promo photo (courtesy of Food Network)

Emily Ellyn: she of the ham fascinator, of retro rad, of the best ’50s glam librarian glasses I’ve ever seen. The competition will not be the same without her. I’ve been trying to process this dismissal, and have come up with some surprising (to me) thoughts about Emily, Food Network, the show itself, and the phenomenon of reality television and how it deals with the personal, the private, and the public stage.

One of the big pushes on Food Network Star seems to be teaching the contestants how to tell stories (well, maybe “teaching” is misleading. It’s really about badgering them to tell stories). This is, the producers feel, the primary way an FN personality can connect with home viewers and keep them coming back. Contestant revelations – stories of weight loss, of self discovery, of childhood, of family – are richly rewarded even when the quality of food slips.

Until her final week on the show, Emily had been doing pretty well. One week the judges questioned whether the “lunch lady you always wished you had” persona was the “real Emily” or not, but this seemed reasonable. She was learning about how to present herself on television. They all were. But Emily was interesting (I thought), she was inventive, and her “Retro Rad” idea of making 1950s comfort food modern and cool was a different and original point of view. Would I be sucked in every single week by the thought of learning new ways to make pot roast and casseroles? Maybe not. Would I be pulled in my Emily’s spunky personality and perfectly retro, almost Ms. Frizzle style? Definitely.

Ms. Frizzle. Love her!

But apparently the spunk and the style were not enough for the judges. During her final episode, Emily was criticized for revealing nothing of her history, her family, her background. In one of her “confessional” segments, she remarked that she didn’t want to talk about her family, or her background, or her life prior to the show. She didn’t say why, but she just didn’t want to. Alton Brown, her mentor and would-be producer of her now never-to-be-produced show, questioned her about where this throwback POV came from. Her response was uncomfortable laughter. She couldn’t explain it to him. The most Alton was able to pull from her was that the 1950s – this era she was devoted to – represented to her a simpler time of idealistic family togetherness and joy. Disregarding all the problems with that perspective, this suggests to me that Miss Ellyn, as Alton was fond of calling her, did not have a perfect childhood, or family life, or perhaps even adult life. She drew on the past to find a better alternative. She called on “Retro Rad” to imagine the way things might have been, or the way they could be, or the way she wished they were.

Okay, I can accept that. Maybe she’s been divorced. Maybe her parents have been divorced. Maybe she had some rough memories that were inappropriate – or too uncomfortable – to bring to television. Maybe she is just a more private person than some of the other contestants, and doesn’t believe that connecting with an audience over food equates to baring her home life. But she was not able, despite being asked repeatedly by the judges and then going on the chopping block, to reveal a single narrative about herself or her life outside of the show. And so she was eliminated.

I have mixed feelings about this. Obviously, I liked Emily. A lot. She had a fresh but still comfortable perspective. She seemed like someone I would trust to teach me things about food. I would hang out with her in her kitchen, where she would probably have owl shaped salt and pepper shakers and the coolest ruffled aprons ever. So I was irritated that the judges chose to eliminate her. If she had things in her past she wanted to keep private, why shouldn’t she be able to?

But then I started thinking about the network, and Food Network Star as a show concept, and finally, by extension, the medium of reality television itself, and my mind changed just a little. Let me explain what I mean.

I turn to FN to get cooking inspiration. Well, sometimes. Sometimes it’s for the pure entertainment. But that, for me, tends to come from shows like Chopped or Worst Cooks in America or, as noted, Food Network Star. When I tune in to the “in the kitchen” shows, I find them hit or miss. Sometimes, I must admit, I get tired of hearing about the lives of the people I’m watching. I want to learn how to make a sabayon. Why do I have to know that this reminds you of a friend’s party? I want to see that cool technique you use. Why do I have to listen to a story about your last vacation? Obviously someone thinks this is important, since it permeates most of the shows FN offers. Despite loving her blog, for example, I found myself unable to watch Pioneer Woman’s series, mostly because I wasn’t interested in what was happening around the ranch; I just wanted to see what she was cooking (and also because, since I first read her voice rather than hearing it, I imagined her sounding totally different and her real voice throws me off).

Given the prevalence of personal narrative and background that fills so many of the shows on FN, it seems like my preference for instruction over virtual friendship is in a minority. If a host is personable, creative, and has some cooking expertise, I will watch. If the meals sound gross but the host has lots of stories about his or her children/spouse/friends/pets/hometown, I’m changing the channel. But enough people seem to like this (over?)sharing format, so it makes sense that Food Network Star privileges and demands this of its contestants.

So Emily’s reluctance becomes a slight conundrum. On the one hand, she auditioned for a reality show she had probably watched before for a network she had certainly watched before, and therefore she should have known the privilege they place on sharing personal stories and expected she would have to do the same. Even if her family life were miserable, surely she has a happy memory or two acquainted with food – a moment with a friend she could have called on. She could even have made something up! Is it wrong to have asked her to share something with her viewers to draw them in? On the other hand, she auditioned for Alton Brown’s team, meaning Alton would produce her show. If Alton as a producer is anything like Alton as a host, Emily’s show would probably be less about cozy-up-in-my-kitchen-and-let’s-have-girl-chat and more about quirky, skit-driven methods of teaching you interesting techniques and cooking secrets. I love that. That’s why I would have watched it. But it does raise the problem of what Emily was expecting, and whether her expectations were reasonable for the medium she chose.

So this is my question, and I pose it to you, GLGers: should a complete relinquishing of privacy be a requirement of contributors on reality television shows? Is it a necessary element to the medium for people who subject themselves to reality TV to break all walls, reveal all secrets, share all history whether it’s fluffy or streaked with misery? And if it is, is that a good thing?

  1. To answer your question, I hate that having “personality” means being confessional. We see this all the time on ANTM as well. I wonder if there’s a pull here between what viewers want out of their reality stars. I think i like them to seem like someone I would like to be friends with (or, entertainingly, would decidedly NOT like to be friends with). But others want them to reveal all their lives seedy details.

    • Yeesh. Fun with grammar and punctuation!

    • Yes, being confessional OR being overtly noisy and effusive. I think you’re right that there’s an imbalance of sorts between camps of viewers, or at least a slippage between what some fans want and what network bigwigs think fans want…

  2. I don’t know this show, but I really like this post. I don’t think contestants on reality television shows should or need to play this “confessional” game by hamming up their own personal narrative in order to gain viewer support. It feels forced and disingenuous. However, I do think there is a space for serious, honest communication within this medium. For example, if Emily had gone into that troubled childhood and how it was wrapped up in the idealistic image of the fifties, that would have been interesting on a genuine level. I am less interested in cutesy stories of how her mom made meatloaf for her when she was sick as a child. From what you have said here, I am glad she didn’t play this game, but there also might have been a missed opportunity for real, authentic communication. Stories can be extremely powerful. They might be the most powerful thing there is. But they need to be real, authentic, honest, and vulnerable. It sounds like Emily wasn’t ready for that, but I applaud her for not running in the opposite direction of vapid sympathy-mongering.

    • Thanks, Jacob. I will note; on the same episode in which Emily was ousted for not sharing enough, another contestant – Ivan – was praised and rewarded for sharing what seemed like almost too much. When asked why he doesn’t share, he revealed a story about dumpster diving with his brother when he was a child because they were so poor. I agree that Emily may have missed an opportunity to touch the judges on a deep level, but I wonder why, given that it may be she’s not comfortable sharing a comparable moment (if she has any, which she may not!), it’s a reason to deny her a contract.
      This is a different post entirely, but this issue seems to me a possible key difference between the kinds of shows that flourish on Food Network, and the kinds of shows that flourish on Cooking Channel.

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