MasterChef: Identity-making through discourses of food

As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat’, and in the post-Fordist era food is not merely an object of necessary consumption, but a product that shapes identity. Deborah Viviani (2013, p. 166) argues that “food lifestyle today is the result of individual choices dictated by tastes and trends. As it is no longer only rooted in the biological sphere, but involves the subject completely, it has a strong impact on the processes of identity building, belonging and identification”.

Indeed, the relationship between identity and food is now ubiquitous, and has been used by monopolized supermarkets to create new classes of mass-consumed products.

There is no doubt that the palate of the average Westerner has changed dramatically over the past few decades (working-class sushi, for example), but perhaps more importantly than what we eat, in consumer identity terms, is what we cook at home. These discourses of food, and in turn identity, are still largely shaped by the mass media and in Australia particularly by the reality TV hit, MasterChef. Such programmes create identity discourses by presenting a stable, dominant cultural image in the form of self-branding (Hearn, 2008, p. 502), and as MasterChef is both a competition between amateurs as well as a form of ‘edutainment’, it builds a strong sense of ‘aspirationalism’ in contestants and audiences alike (Seale, 2012). Alongside partners Coles, MasterChef has been attributed to a ‘MasterChef effect’ which, as Michelle Phillipov (2013, p. 507) explains, is “credited with significant impacts on the cooking, eating and shopping habits of Australians”. This is generally evident in increased sales of exotic, niche ingredients.

Yet while MasterChef and Coles display traits of the new networked capitalist society, they largely act like mass media corporations of old, re-centralizing power and the creation of meaning through consumption. Mark Andrejevic (2010, p. 236) believes “the promise of individuation was a strategy of the regime of mass society from its inception. Mass society’s ostensible self-overcoming becomes a ruse for the incitement to self-disclosure crucial to the rationalization of what undoubtedly remains a form of mass consumption”. In this context, while amateur contestants do share their own humble recipes, in the same process they – and their audience – are being taught to professionalise their cooking, and in turn are making previously niche ingredients mainstream. Hits on the show’s website and Facebook pages are massive, however these mediums are rarely used for true interactivity or feedback, rather as places for surveilling a dictated aspirationalism. This centralization of MasterChef as a meaning-maker is further apparent through sales of a wide array of branded utensils, appliances and cookbooks.

By looking at the proliferation of new foods, and how MasterChef challenged the public discourse of food being primarily about health, it will be shown that this centralized, top down, and hierarchical mass-media institution creates new consumer identities that largely ignore social factors such as class.

MasterChef’s ability to challenge existing public discourses of food, and create new ones, is perhaps most evident in its stoush with the health industry. Media and health professionals, who had previously created the dominant discourse of ‘health food’, derided MasterChef for its fatty recipes, and indeed the resistance to public health messages seems to be at odds with other programmes in the ‘lifestyle reality’ genre like fellow Network Ten mainstay, The Biggest Loser. Michelle Phillipov details how criticisms of MasterChef’s health messages, prominently around the gratuitous use of butter, was used by judge George Calombaris to promote a discourse of ‘real food’ over one purely about health:

“In 2009, at a time when MasterChef Australia was still promoting the connection between butter, sexiness and love, Calombaris sought to counter criticisms of the ‘unhealthiness’ of the show’s recipes by using media comment to state that the show’s emphasis is on the use of fresh, whole produce regardless of fat content. In doing so, he discursively connects MasterChef Australia’s celebratory use of butter with other criticisms of healthy eating ideologies, and in particularly, with that of the ‘real food’ movement, as popularized by Michael Pollan and others. The ‘real food’ movement is one that promotes local, seasonal food production and consumption, with an emphasis on wholefoods and in which butter is the preferred alternative to margarine. This is because margarine is understood as the industrial food product par excellence” (Phillipov, 2013, p. 512).

While part of this resistance can be attributed to butter manufacturer Western Star being a sponsor of the show, this direct challenge to the neoliberal individualisation of public health (Ouellette & Hay, 2008) is fundamentally about MasterChef wielding its power to shape consumption patterns, as well as identity. What one does or does not consume is central to group membership (Cherry, et al, 2008, p. 233), and in this sense movements such as the ‘real food’ one allow for much more flexible consumption routines in comparison to making decisions based solely on which foods are the healthiest. Despite the outcry, the show’s popularity remained, and while MasterChef is now backgrounding the use of butter and increasingly promoting the health benefits of ingredients, far from taking on feedback, the ‘real food’ discourse has been solidified by largely ignoring discussions around the continued use of fat – healthy ingredients are simply a bonus, and are also a bonus for Coles if it happens to promote a new product.

This year, Calombaris shed 20kg by “eating ‘good (real) food’ in moderation, exercising and choosing when to eat” (News.com.au, 2014), so perhaps MasterChef’s worldview is much like that of the ‘as part of a balanced diet’ clause on junk food products, and besides, if people get fat they can always go on The Biggest Loser. Neoliberalism is, after all, about individual responsibility, so people should therefore have a responsibility to consume indulgent food diligently, and as such, Phillipov (2013, p. 514) describes MasterChef’s continued popularity in the face of it shunning criticisms as an example of public health’s puritanism.

The ‘real food’ movement, and associated ideologies, also help to create an aspirationalism that breeds the identity of a new consumer elite. As Kathleen Collins (2009, p. 250) points out, “those who can afford to are once again marrying food with ideology. We equate food choice – including where we shop – with morals and ethics. While it’s not unusual for hosts to mention free-range chicken or organic produce, it is generally not a focus or explained, but this is changing”. Organic produce, for example, has seen skyrocketing sales, and supermarkets like Coles have capitalized by stocking up on both third-party and home-branded organic products. Likewise, new so-called ‘superfoods’ have taken off, and are now mass-consumed goods that MasterChef has helped to promote through the use of ingredients like quinoa and acai. Exotic – and expensive – ingredients are being normalized across a broad range of class identities, and MasterChef, along with Curtis Stone, who’s appeared on the show as a professional chef and guest judge, have been key ambassadors in helping Coles to promote fresh produce and free-range eggs and meats, among other things.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique thing about food in the post-Fordist era is the proliferation and normalization of niche products within institutions of mass consumption, and that these institutions are still very much inward looking, and create discourses and consumer identities in a top-down, hierarchical way. In creating new classes of products, Coles, and in turn MasterChef, aren’t simply responding to feedback, but are promoting consumption of more expensive products through a food identity that’s ever more important in modern society. Brands like MasterChef and Coles may appear to be part of the networked society, however they’re using these tools to sell products to consumers that transcend stagnant class boundaries. For example, some ingredients have been reported to have had sales increases of up to 1400 per cent (The Herald Sun, 2011), and there are often cross-promoted items in Coles stores. Carolyn Dimitri and Luanne Lohr make the changing demographics of people buying organic food clear:

“Recently, most studies characterized organic consumers as Caucasian, affluent, well-educated, and concerned about health and product quality. While this type of consumer still purchases organic food, current consumers of organic food are far more diverse and not as easily characterized. Income and ethnicity are no longer significant predictors of who purchases organic food” (Dimitri & Lohr, 2007, p. 161).

MasterChef is in a somewhat unusual situation because of its broad demographic reach and its attempt to speak to a range of class identities. Indeed, contestants represent various social and cultural groups, but in representing these groups MasterChef also tends to gloss over the differences in how these groups would normally eat, and always presents amateurs as aspiring professionals rather than being meaning-makers in their own right. As Tania Lewis (2011) points out, “the MasterChef kitchen is portrayed as a level playing field where crème brulée is ‘working-class food’ and where labourers and lawyers alike can aspire to the same goals” (p. 114) and that the popularity of a perceivably pompous judge – former food critic for The Age, Matt Preston – “reflects food television’s broader scope in relation to cultural representations and its role in democratising culturally exotic and bourgeois forms of taste for a broad audience” (p. 110). MasterChef makes the consumption of identity-based products an aspiration for everyone, but as Kathleen Collins explains, these aspirations are difficult to reach both financially and intellectually because class and identities are fostered not just through food, but the culture and consumption around it:

“There always has been and always will be a divide in the world of food, not only because one needs to have a certain amount of disposable income in order to enjoy food as a leisure activity, but because even for those who do have the means, there will be some new ingredient, restaurant, appliance, or health benefit that’s unattainable because it is beyond the psychic reach of the culturally ignorant. What’s portrayed on these shows, as populist as they claim to be, is still an elite world where having good knives in your kitchen is a basic assumption and eating fresh, local, and at home is the ideal” (Collins, 2009, p. 225-226).

Beyond food itself, MasterChef is a broad empire of consumption, and this creates identities because “while the material form of the brand as an image, logo, or trademark was initially intended to guarantee quality, it has now become the sign of a definite type of social identity” (Hearn, 497). There are MasterChef branded knifes, pots, pans, pasta makers, graters, torches, chopping boards, rolling pins, oven mitts, aprons, scales, lighters and pestle and mortars, among other things, and recently, MasterChef has been running a cross-promotion with Harvey Norman for a lucky viewer to win a new kitchen, presumably up to the high standards of aspirationalism set by the program. This consumer aspirationalism, whether it be to become a top amateur chef or simply to be perceived as one, creates class identities and what could be considered the ‘ideal’ lifestyle, all while MasterChef largely ignores issues of class entirely.

Through its internet presence, MasterChef is also ignoring true feedback and interactivity. Its website gets more than 1.2 million unique hits monthly, and close to 50 million per year, and it also has 1.3 million Facebook ‘likers’ and 150 000 Twitter followers. Yet user interaction is low, and much of the content relates to recent episodes or new MasterChef products. It also ignores bloggers (Seale, 2012, p. 30), instead conducting promotional business through the mass media. Mark Andrejevic (2010, p. 242) says that “if it is not difficult to imagine how interactive media could help promote more democratic forms of mediated communication, it is even easier to envision their role in allowing for ever more sophisticated techniques for the exploitation of the work of being watched”, and in this sense MasterChef and Coles use the internet for surveillance in order to secure their dictated discourses of food, rather than seeking feedback that could create opposing ones.

In doing this, MasterChef can very much be likened to Eric Louw’s (2001, p. 149-150) assertion that “global network capitalism has found a way to commodify identity and, in the process, to create self-policing populations, because once one has adopted the discourses and practices of one’s ‘chosen identity’, one act in accordance with the ‘requirements’ of this identity”. Perhaps because audiences are becoming disengaged, it appears as if the popularity of MasterChef may finally be starting to wane, however if it, or a similar concept, is able to make better use of the coercive possibilities of social media, one can only imagine the discursive power it would possess.