Within minutes of the latest Bake Off cast announcement last week, critics had sneeringly termed it ‘The Great Global Bake Off’.
Noting that seven of the twelve contestants reference diverse cultures and heritage in their brief biographies, it’s been termed by many on social media as ‘PC gone mad’, ‘pandering to the woke brigade’ and ‘not remotely British’.
Of course, they’re missing the point entirely. Whether Twitter (and certain publications) like it or not, Britain is a multi-cultural country and this cast brilliantly captures the diverse world we live in.
Such outcry is, sadly, predictable – no matter what the casting producers do. Two years ago, during my season, Bake Off was attacked by the press and social media for having too few contestants from ethnic minorities and too few contestants over the age of 50. This year, according to many, they’re too diverse and too old.
Year after year, those who can’t see themselves reflected among the line-up cry out in outrage. This cycle of criticism is frustrating, but it also reveals viewers’ desperation for on-screen representation.
That said, it is strange for Bake Off to be lambasted considering that one of its hallmarks is inclusion. From the outset, the programme has consistently featured gay and lesbian contestants as well as ensuring a mix of ages, ethnicities and disabilities are represented.
This year’s contestants are aged between 19 and 70, of different ethnicities, professions and talents. Following the success of last year’s winner, Peter Sawkins, who primarily baked gluten-free treats, this year’s youngest contestant Freya is also vegan – which will prove an interesting take on the format.
Bake Off’s on-screen diversity is not limited to this year’s line-up. Each year speaks for itself, presenting a range of contestants on a level playing field. Any adjustments required for those with additional needs are done discreetly and in consultation with contestants – whether that be mental health issues, disabilities or even allergies (a minefield in a tent!).
In 2018, so little focus was given to quarterfinalist Briony’s limb difference that many viewers didn’t notice until the series reached its mid-point, and a recent season of the spin-off series Bake Off: The Professionals deftly featured the franchise’s first deaf contestant with the simple inclusion of an interpreter where appropriate. The final shot of Bake Off in 2019 was winner David Atherton giving his partner Nik a kiss and a hug.
It is these subtle, simple acts that normalise inclusion. Creating spaces where all people are welcome and providing additional support without fanfare helps to familiarise audiences with those from marginalised groups.
This typically works in two ways. Firstly, for young people from these groups and backgrounds, seeing people succeed opens up a window of possibility: despite whatever obstacles they perceive, they need not feel limited as they may have done before.
Secondly, and of equal importance, is the normalisation of a broad range of experiences. For instance, straight people hearing contestants regularly refer to their same-sex partners or non-disabled people seeing contestants who use a wheelchair succeed just as much as everyone else.
While reality television is primarily for entertainment, it informs our understanding of the world around us and therefore has a responsibility to reflect a fair, tolerant and inclusive environment.
For instance, the recent third series of Glow Up broke new ground in its inclusion of its first non-binary contestant Jack, who uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. Pronouns were included for all contestants as seamlessly as their names, ages and professions. What felt like a small step for the series was monumental for many viewers.
For the first time on the show, non-binary people were seeing themselves reflected without sensationalised drama. Jack was simply a gifted make-up artist sharing their incredible talent. While their casting was an incredible breakthrough, the response from their fellow contestants and judges was equally pioneering.
Seeing and hearing Jack’s correct pronouns being used freely throughout the series was both heart-warming and informative – it was an important lesson in normalising language that cisgender people (queer or otherwise) can struggle with.
It felt natural, which is how it should be – though such representation is scarce on mainstream reality competitions. Even the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, for all its queer auspices, has only relatively recently begun the inclusion of openly trans, genderfluid and non-binary contestants.
Bake Off is yet to feature an openly trans, gender-queer or non-binary person – though they surely can’t be far off. For a show that resists gendered language (the contestants are referred to as ‘bakers’ rather than by their gender), it’s a logical next step toward full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community.
Representation is simultaneously simple and incredibly complex – it’s important to avoid box-ticking, but equally we must ensure that casts reflect the diversity of the world we live in.
It is near impossible for a single reality competition show to be representative of the entire British population – there simply aren’t enough contestants. We need to be realistic, but also must hold both ourselves and the media we consume to account.
What we can ask is that all demographics are considered, and that over the course of multiple series we see a mixture of people from all backgrounds. It should seem strange to see a programme where there isn’t diversity and we should call it out when we see it.
Yes, each show needs to select the best people for their format – but there will certainly be just as many worthwhile contestants from underrepresented communities, whose inclusion could be a huge step forward for those who are marginalised.
It isn’t political correctness gone mad, nor is it part of the ‘woke agenda’. Britain is made up of a wide-ranging mixture of people, and it’s about time our television reflected that.
Credit: Original article published here.