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CHAPTER 2

A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Food on Australian TV

CLARE MONAGLE

Michelle Bridges, one of the frightening trainers on The Biggest Loser, announced her pregnancy to Who magazine in July 2015 and explained her late-in-life fecundity as a result of her high health standards. Standing next to her in a series of photos was Commando, her equally intimidating Biggest Loser colleague, as well as her life partner and the father of her unborn child. In the glossy spread, Michelle explained how she had been able to beat the odds and become pregnant naturally at the historically geriatric age (in pregnancy terms) of 44. Michelle said:

All of my years and all of Steve’s years of looking after ourselves and taking care of our health and our bodies – it just goes to show for someone my age for it to happen so quickly it’s obviously got to do with good health.1

A number of fertility experts, prevailed upon by the blogosphere, chimed in with strong responses to Bridges’ claims. Their consensus was that Bridges’ aged pregnancy ought to be understood as the result of luck. The odds are against a woman in mid-life conceiving, but it is not impossible. That is how odds work. Lady fortune smiled on Mich and Commando, and now Australia will be blessed by the merging of their gene pools.

Bridges’ comments reveal a disturbing contemporary fantasy visible across Australian screens. This is the idea that we are what we eat, but not only physically. We are what we eat spiritually, emotionally and morally. Good things come to those who ‘look after themselves’, who practice self-care. The more pure goodness we put into our bodies, the more good things will come our way. That is the essential take home from Bridges’ comments; the idea that we can control ourselves, and our world, through the management of our bodies.

This is also the unspoken idea that is being preached by wellness advocates such as Sarah Wilson, Paleo Pete Evans and Smoothie Sally Obermeder. Tanned, lean and lissom, they have all built on television profiles to become gurus of goodness. They are the poster-people for their organic revolutions from within. Sort out your gut flora, and the rest will follow. Eschew ‘chemicals’, eat ‘clean’, go ‘paleo’, and you too might glow as if you are surrounded by sensitive lighting and a hair and make-up team. Your Breton striped shirt will pulsate with your energies, and your artfully tied top-knot will radiate the sun-kissed highlights you received while paddle-boarding. No bogan soft drinks for you, no tim tams, no junk food. Just tuck into some ‘natural’ foods, such as ‘ancient’ grains and beef just as the cavemen enjoyed it.

There was a time, apparently, before industrialisation, where things were idyllic. When we all exchanged our goods through bartering, at farmers markets. This was a time when there was no obesity and no diabetes.

A related, pervasive food fantasy dancing across Australian television, is that you are what you cook. Masterchef has taught us this. ‘Put yourself on the plate’ and ‘Cook from the heart’. Among the exposed brick of Masterchef’s mise-en-place, George, Gary and Matt exhort the contestants to look within themselves and find their essential self. They then ask them to pour that selfhood on the plate into a creation that embodies their ethnicity, as well as their love for family and their imbrication in community. Then, George, Gary and Matt eat this selfhood, look quizzical, and tell the contestant what is wrong with their dish. You have put yourself on the plate, and we are here to tell you that you are too salty, undercooked and, frankly, not to our taste. There will be flames, there will be Katy Perry, and back Amina or Alvin go to the bosom of home.

Food does a lot of work on Australian television, as it does more broadly in our culture. We display our taste through the tastes that we indulge. In Australia we are swamped with caloric possibility. In our suburbs we drive past multiple fast food outlets on every trip, each promising glistening affordable salty joy. In our gentrified inner cities, we walk or bike past the organic cafes and health-food stores that are proliferating. At the former we are served by uniformed employees, drilled in the art of upselling extra fries. At the latter we are served by employees in a different type of uniform, that of the large leather apron, ironic 501s and a bushy beard. In both cases, however, they sell relatively affordable abundance, geared to your class and geographical position. How we eat, and where we buy it, marks us out in all sorts of ways. Food is never just fuel, it is a measure of how we interact with the world around us, in the most literal and carnal of ways. And this plays out to the max in visual screen cultures, where our worthiness can be so easily signified through our visages. Contestants on the Biggest Loser are edited so that misery and shame seem to be written on their bodies, rendering them as fat bogans in need of a makeover stat. Matt Preston’s girth, on the other hand, is cravatted in fabulous fabrics, and is a measure of his exuberant but gourmet carnality. His fat is fine, because it doesn’t come with a side of underclass despair.

In what follows, I will discuss two recent moments when our screen food fantasies became unstuck. The unmasking of the fraudulent wellness blogger Belle Gibson revealed the credulity with which we consume stories of wellbeing through food. In this case, a number of media outlets had reported that the telegenic Belle had cured her cancer by eating organic. When it became apparent that she had lied about having cancer, she was excoriated in the press. As swiftly as this young woman had been elevated, she was then punished. In particular, her humiliation came at the hands of 60 Minutes, a program that has never feared taking the high middle ground. And Annabel Crabb’s interview with Scott Morrison as part of her Kitchen Cabinet program was also the subject of some controversy. Many viewers were pained and angered by the easy ride they felt that Crabb gave Morrison, suggesting that the light-hearted tone of the program let him off the hook all too easily for his policies. The argument of Crabb’s program is that cooking and eating reveals the more human side of politicians. Many of Crabb’s critics, however, felt that Morrison did not warrant this humanisation, given the inhumane nature of his policies. He may have revealed his love of Sri Lankan cuisine on Crabb’s program, but his political actions revealed his overall contempt for those seeking asylum from that same region. Kitchen Cabinet, on which there has only been two non-white guests, reveals the shallowness of our multicultural engagement. We might eat food from all over the world, but our politicians represent a very particular type of Australia. The cases of Gibson and Morrison both reveal our cultural desire to invest in the meanings of food, and the credulity we risk when we do so.

Entrée

Our hunger to assign deep significance to consumption can be seen very sharply in the case study of Gibson, wellness entrepreneur turned publically-shamed fraud. Gibson came to public attention in 2013 when she announced that she had managed her brain cancer through organic foods and natural therapies. Gibson was, and I sup pose must still be, a radiantly beautiful, apple-cheeked, young woman. She has long blonde hair and shiny scrubbed skin. She looks very well indeed. She was a mother of one, an infant son, a fact that added piquancy to her plucky story of self-devised recovery. Gibson built a big brand very fast. She deployed social media expertly in order to image her blonde vitality into a health promise. Eating clean, for Gibson, meant that she had scrubbed the cancer out of her insides and was pure again. Gibson was the cherubic child of new media, able to exploit the credulity of her Instagram followers to insist that she offered a proven way to health. She parlayed it all into her very successful app The Whole Pantry. And wait, there’s more, she promised that proceeds would go to charity.

Old media took notice of Belle’s success. She appeared on Sunrise in 2014 with Samantha Armytage and Andrew O’Keefe gushing over her remarkable recovery, and telling her how well she looked.2 Gibson was shown meditating in her minimalist white-interiored townhouse, as well as cuddling her toddler tow-headed son. She was described as an ‘ecopreneur’. Armytage and O’Keefe were dazzled, ‘Belle, you’re fabulous’ gushed Armytage, ‘for a person living with brain cancer, might I add, you look incredibly healthy’. Armytage declared The Whole Pantry ‘a sexy app’ (unfortunately reprising hideous memories of her brief show Bringing Sexy Back). Gibson was awarded one of Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Fun Fearless Female awards. She accepted her award, dressed in white, and declared:

At the end of the day I’m just human and I’m incredibly honoured that people do want to share my life and I want to share yours as well. I’m really honoured that we can come together on a platform like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and share those moments together.3

Gibson had built her empire on a dextrous use of many platforms, prioritising image over evidence, and she got away with it for some time. She was lauded in myriad publications, facts went unchecked, and she made a lot of money. The faith that met her extraordinary claims of fruit and vegetable based healing testifies to the desire of many to believe that organic miracles do happen, even without a whit of proof.

It did not last, however. Fairfax reported in early 2015 that a number of charities to which Gibson said she had donated money had not received any cash.4 The Australian followed up Gibson’s cancer claims, ascertaining that there was no evidence whatsoever that she had suffered as she claimed.5 Norman Swan, health reporter for Radio National, declared on Media Watch in relation to the Gibson case that ‘The general rule in health and medical journalism is the same as any other form of journalism, if it sounds too good to be true it usually is.’6 The wellness blogger and cancer survivor had been found out, but only after a number of people had been taken on an unwholesome ride.

Gibson, then, had to be punished. She was interviewed at length in the Australian Women’s Weekly in May 2015. The contrast between her angelic appearance and her alleged mendacity was striking to the journalist who interviewed her. Clair Weaver asked ‘is this young woman really capable of masterminding one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history?’7

The apogee of her public shaming came during her 60 Minutes interview with Tara Brown, for which Gibson was reportedly paid $45,000.8 During this interview, Brown marshalled the arsenal of old media to tear down the winsome and weepy Gibson. Old tabloid tricks were rolled out. The story began with Brown addressing the camera with, behind her, a baleful image of Gibson and an image of her book The Whole Pantry. The caption read ‘The Whole Hoax’.

Brown declared ‘Belle Gibson is not a victim. She is a fraud.’ The interview was conducted in an interrogative shot-reverse-shot style, setting up the two women as combatants. Every gotcha moment from Brown was matched with a reaction shot from Gibson, focusing on her befuddled face. The camera zoomed in, the screen faded, and the vision was accompanied by accelerating drumbeats. 60 Minutes, of course, claimed to be unmasking the truth, but if so this was not without their rhetorical flourishes and the reported substantial cash payment to the alleged fraudster.9

Brown insisted, repeatedly, that Gibson declare what was true and what false. She asked whether she would be prepared to sign a statutory declaration vouching for her version of the truth. Old media stood its ground here, deploying its hackneyed editorial practices to insist upon itself as judge and jury. Tara Brown posed firm and erect at the beginning of the report. Her hair, following anchor-woman convention, did not move. She dressed as sharply as Julie Bishop, and seemed to have worked on acquiring as imposing a death stare as the Deputy Prime Minister. Her styling was mature corporate: she has been around the block and she will not be seduced, unlike those naïve social media youngsters (including Armytage and O’Keefe here) by Gibson’s glossy vegetable shots and mane of artfully tousled hair. Just as The Bachelorette put Sam Frost in a soft turtle-neck jumper whenever the show’s producers wanted to depict her childlike turmoil, so too was Gibson dressed in a woolly pink jumper bathing her in soft colour. Power dressed Brown, all angles, stared her down in the shot-reverse-shot corral and shredded her girlish softness with contempt: ‘How can we believe anything you say now?’

60 Minutes devoted an entire hour to Brown’s hard-hitting piece. We saw much vision of Gibson at the South Melbourne Market, sniffing vegetables and squeezing fruit. We saw photos of her receiving her Cosmopolitan award. We were treated to the afore mentioned footage of Armytage and O’Keefe giving Gibson a rapturous reception on Sunrise. The denouement came about two thirds into the production, with a section in which Brown explored what this story meant for ‘the truth’. Once again Brown framed the conversation for us. What were the stakes here? She told us of Gibson: ‘She’s broken the inherent trust we place in each other’. The problem is not late-capitalism, commodity fetishism, advertising culture or political spin. The problem is not tabloid media culture that elevates beautiful young women for their purity and miraculous narratives, and then punishes them harshly when it seems they are not as pure as they claimed. The problem is not, of course, that programs like 60 Minutes regularly pay people for interviews, in order to produce their tales of truthful 60 Minutes reporters versus lying charlatans. No, it is Gibson who has destroyed the ‘inherent trust we place in each other’. That is a heavy burden for anyone to bear. Why is Gibson so bad? Brown told us that ‘She sold her sob story to the world’. But 60 Minutes was, supposedly, buying.

After Brown framed the third act, we then entered into a bizarre conversation about the nature of truth. Brown declared ‘The only thing Belle can’t spin is the truth’ and ‘Belle can’t keep up with her own truth’. Finally, in her best interrogative tone and with a hint a sarcasm, she asked Gibson ‘Do you accept that your reality doesn’t match reality’? This is a question from another era. It should have been Ray Martin asking the question, or Jana Wendt. It should have been George Negus in his safari suit flirting with Dolly Parton or getting stuck into Arafat. The assumption behind Brown’s question was that there is a real, and she knows what it is. This was a conceit that was possible in Negus’ day, when the journalist swashbuckled across the world, sending visual missives back to an Australia trapped in the world of analogue TV. But if the past 15 years or so of reality television have taught us anything, it is surely that there is no such thing as reality. Reality is a trope, in which we put people in difficult situations and watch them either flounder or flourish. The dramedy Unreal, which satirises dating reality television, makes that very clear with its title. Reality is not real.

60 Minutes, of course, knew and knows this. The interview with Gibson reads like a last gasp of Old Media asserting its monopoly on reality. That ship has long sailed. The story about Gibson was broken by Fairfax and The Australian. There was nothing investigative about the 60 Minutes report. Instead, Brown put an attractive woman with mental health issues, and a clear appetite for fame, under the pump on national television. Where have we seen this before? The answer is on just about every reality television show ever made. The major difference between this episode of 60 Minutes and your average episode of The Bachelor is that Gibson was paid much more handsomely for her troubles than the women who line up to receive those roses. There are scores of wellness bloggers ready to evangelise smoothies to the world. Gibson was a prophet with feet of clay, and she will not be the last person to promise the world in an acai bowl. The 60 Minutes expose did not tell us anything about the how of Gibson’s fraud, about the credulity that enabled her to be believed and valorised. Rather, Brown’s takedown revealed, yet again, the work we want the body to do in our culture. We expect purity, of both consumption and contagion of any sort. And we will punish, very severely, those who fall short. This is something well-known to any contestant on the Biggest Loser, forced to endure humiliating physical challenges on screen to atone for their impure corporeality.

Main

In the opening sequence to Kitchen Cabinet, Annabel Crabb bakes a cake. Dressed in her customary retro 1950s housedress, she deploys an array of pastel coloured implements to sift flour, separate eggs, cream and ice. The sequence is styled Country Women’s Association meets Generation X hipster, part artisanal, part ironic. The big reveal at the end of the credits is that the cake she bakes is actually in the shape of the Australian Parliament. She retools the clichés of the houseproud housewife to insist on the link between the nation and food. This is the conceit of Kitchen Cabinet, that if we cook and eat with our politicians we will know something new about them, and something new about our democracy. The blurb for the show asks us ‘Join Annabel as she gets beyond the sound bite and helps us understand the curious creature that is the Australian Politician.’ Based on the very old idea that eating together is a gesture of equanimity (a memo, apparently, that Judas did not receive), Crabb cooks and breaks bread with politicians. The politician produces the main course, while Crabb arrives with dessert in hand. The prevailing tone is one of respect and bonhomie. For Crabb, the occasion of food enables also an occasion of civility, one that refuses the adversarial binaries of the two-party system.10

Crabb’s Kitchen has been receiving some heat. In Season 5 of the series, she interviewed Treasurer Scott Morrison at a beach house and was treated to his ‘ScoMosas’, his version of a Sri Lankan appetiser. Morrison described his conversion to Sri Lankan food, recounting a trip he took to Sri Lanka with Julie Bishop to work on immigration policy when in opposition. He described eating at a ‘dodgy restaurant’ and staying at a sub-par hotel, without sheets and with very small towels. The horror. The food, however, was good, Morrison exclaims. And he treats Crabb to his sub-continental delicacies. As they cook and eat, Crabb asks Morrison about his childhood in suburban Sydney. Morrison describes his young years of church and citizenship, helping out his dad who was both a cop and a local politician. Morrison is firmly God and Country. But lest he seem all white bread, let’s not forget he’s making ‘ScoMosas’.11

As Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison had determinedly ‘Stopped the Boats’ and enforced a regime of mandatory detention for all asylum seekers who attempted to enter Australia by boat. As a result, the policies of the Abbott government had receive sharp criticisms from both the United Nations and the Australian Human Rights Commission. This had been a government happy to vilify the refugee Other and to trade on the xenophobic anxieties of Australian voters. To see Morrison laughing it up with Crabb, and garnishing his white privilege with some spicy Sri Lankan foods, was a bitter pill to swallow for some viewers. Morrison’s love of Sri Lankan cuisine, combined with his seeming callow disregard for the victims of that country’s policies, seemed to point to the shallowness of the Australian multicultural project. As a nation, policies are regularly pursued that trade on racist anxieties. And yet, we are not racist because we eat curries.

Crabb’s critics charged her with allowing Morrison to obfuscate the cruelty and brutality of his policies via the show’s friendly format. Morrison was allowed to perform a geniality and mildness that stood in sharp contrast to his ruthless policies. It could seem an obscenity to have two such well-fed and privileged white faces chortling in a beach house over ‘ScoMosas’ while children suffered in detention. In response to Crabb’s argument that kitchen cabinet humanises politicians, Amy McQuire wrote in New Matilda that:

Crabb fundamentally misses the point of journalism. It’s not about humanising those in power, it’s about humanising those who are let down by those in power. But perhaps it is symptomatic of a wider problem, the fact that our most famous journalists, with the greatest platforms, now have more in common with those they are supposed to challenge, rather than those who are being let down by a corrosive political system.12

McQuire read Kitchen Cabinet as a cosy expression of our ruling class, journalist and politician alike, cooking co-conspiratorially while pretending to be on different sides. McQuire’s criticisms were echoed by Sarah Keenan in The Conversation, who focused particularly on the relationship between food and the body politic:

Food ostensibly serves as an apolitical social lubricant for Crabb to show politicians’ human sides, but food has a political life of its own and has long served as a marker of cultural proficiency and belonging. Kitchen Cabinet’s staging of ‘casual’ food preparation and consumption with the nation’s most powerful people reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to.13

For Crabb, the criticisms warranted a response. She deployed her Sydney Morning Herald column to defend the project of her show. She suggested that programs like Kitchen Cabinet were much more than entertainment, but served a democratic function in bringing all voters up close and personal with their representatives. She declared:

I don’t think you can possibly separate what people are like from what they do. Political leaders – like every single one of us – are shaped by the things that have happened to them and to the people close to them. Those factors – what they’re like – exert a considerable and usually invisible influence over the most important decisions a political leader will ever make. Namely: which issues they are going to choose to die in a ditch for, which they will pop in the too-hard basket, which they might compromise on. This is the stuff that realistically drives the political process. And fleshy, human, and deeply subjective stuff it is too. Knowing what a person is like is powerful. Why should it only be political journalists and insiders who get to see it?14

In so doing, Crabb reminded us that the personal is political, and suggested that if we want to understand our political cultures we need to make sense of their affective frames. Know the pollie, and we will know more about the world that informs their decision making, is her argument. But that is where Kitchen Cabinet stops, and this is the gist of the criticisms made against the show. Crabb attempts to reveal the human wielding the whisk, but she does not push them to explain that humanity in relation to the policies they implement. How does Morrison go from ‘ScoMosas’ to children in detention?

Dessert

The Katering Show was a web series that emerged in 2015, and went viral. It has since been picked up by the ABC. Hosted by two very funny Kates – McClennan and McCartney – the series of short episodes satirised food culture in Australia. The most shared episode was that which examined the Thermomix, the $3000 German appliance that inspires extraordinary devotion in its owners, and be fuddlement in the rest of us. As they said of the appliance, ‘it’s something that you buy for yourself because you’ve always wanted to join a cult, but you don’t have the energy for group sex’.15 Their targets also included quitting sugar, organics, farmer’s markets, paleo and the racism that occurs when ‘ethnic’ food cultures are appropriated by the white imaginary. In the first episode, when explaining the premise of the show, Kate McClennan explains that Kate McCartney has been diagnosed with a number of food allergies, which preclude her from eating a number of things. The Katering Show will explore how Kate McCartney can keep herself healthy, but also still cook enjoyable food. Kate McClennan explains why this is necessary, why it is a problem that her friend must have such a restricted diet: ‘She was missing out on the food culture revolution that was happening all around her. Street food, raw food, cooked food, food porn, regular porn. She was missing out on all of it’.16

The ‘food culture revolution’, as the Kates imply, is a joke. If a revolution is an overturning, then our televisual food cultures do nothing of the sort. Rather, food on screen in Australia reinforces the bourgeois imaginary, accommodating difference as long as it conforms to the genre of a freshly sourced food dream. Food in this context does not bring us together, or enable us to embrace our differences. It is the object through which we fantasise cosmopolitanism, within a polity that fails to deliver it.

 

1‘We’re having a baby’, Who, July 27, 2015.

2‘Health, Wellness and Lifestyle App’, Sunrise, broadcast 28 February 2014 https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/21742703/health-wellness-and-lifestyle-app/#page1.

3‘Belle Gibson Healer: She definitely had Cancer’, Cosmopolitan, www.cosmopolitan.com.au/health-lifestyle/lifestyle/2015/4/belle-gibson-interview-aww/.

4‘Charity money promised by “inspirational” health app developer Belle Gibson not handed over’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2015, www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/charity-money-promised-by-inspirational-health-app-developer-belle-gibson-not-handed-over-20150306-13xgqk.html.

5‘Mega-blogger Belle Gibson casts doubt on her own cancer claims’, The Australian, 10 March 2015, www.theaustralian.com.au/business/megablogger-belle-gibson-casts-doubt-on-her-own-cancer-claims/news-story/de179f2f17de51d1071096eb7bd2bdee.

6‘How the media fell for Belle’, Media Watch, 16 March, 2015, www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s4198886.htm.

7‘Belle Gibson: The girl who conned us all’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 June 2015, www.aww.com.au/latest-news/real-life/belle-gibson-the-whole-story-21124.

8‘Belle Gibson promises to tell the whole truth: I have lost everything’, news.com.au, www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/belle-gibson-promises-to-tell-the-whole-truth-i-have-lost-everything/news-story/dd6e5b8b3a31d7f13b7805214332e5a5.

9‘The Whole Hoax’, 60 Minutes, June 28, 2015, http://www.9jumpin.com.au/show/60minutes/stories/2015/june/the-whole-hoax/.

10Kitchen Cabinet, www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/kitchen-cabinet/.

11‘Scott Morrison’, Kitchen Cabinet, 28 October 2015 http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/kitchen-cabinet/LE1427H001S00.

12‘Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic’, The New Matilda, 29 October 2015 https://newmatilda.com/2015/10/29/junk-food-journalism-why-annabel-crabbs-kitchen-cabinet-is-toxic/.

13‘Recipes for racism: Kitchen Cabinet and the politics of racism’, The Conversation, 12 November 2015 https://theconversation.com/recipes-for-racism-kitchen-cabinet-and-the-politics-of-food-50516.

14‘Kitchen Cabinet: Appetite for justice fuels unjust desserts’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2015, www.smh.com.au/comment/kitchen-cabinet-when-policy-combats-off-the-menu-20151106-gksnir.html.

15‘The Katering Show: Thermomix’, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yr_etbfZtQ.

16‘The Katering Show: Mexicana Festiana’, https://youtu.be/J55vgxNaaBY

Small Screens

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