There’s something amiss in the Bake Off tent, not quite rotten but still not quite right. It’s visible in the eyes of the contestants as they wait nervously for Mary and Paul to judge their baking. It’s in the wringing of hands, the stressful sighs and the general air of fear. It bubbled to the surface most overtly when, in episode one, one of the contestant’s Black Forest gateaux kind of just fell apart in an oozing, chocolately mess. Minutes from the deadline she began to cry and comedian Sue Perkins came to console her saying “it’s just a cake” to which she replied “it’s not just a cake.” If this is indeed the case and it is not just a cake then that begs the question what exactly is it?
As the Court of Denmark in the play Hamlet comes to act as a metaphor for the entire body politic of the country, symbolic perhaps also of Elizabethan England, then perhaps there are ways in which the Bake Off tent is a metaphor for our own society. From birth onwards we are relentlessly judged – our parents/guardians/carers tell us how and how not to behave, our teachers deem us worthy by giving us marks and grades, professors at university do the same except the marks tend to be lower, our bosses tell us if we’re good or not via the medium of money (if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job), mainstream advertising likes to remind us that we’re not good enough, newspapers like to scapegoat and blame whole groups of people and even our friends and loved ones will often be there to remind us what we could be doing better.
It is from this societal context of relentless comparison and competition that the twelve bakers arrive at the tent. Judging only what I’ve been shown in the first hour-long episode it seems like lots of them have something to prove – they want to prove they’re good at baking, really good. This could be a healthy, competitive attitude but when one contestant explained that her mum had told her not to bother coming home if she got kicked out in the first round one does start to wonder. Furthermore, as Paul Hollywood reminds us, the contestants, whilst great bakers, are at “the bottom of pack of great bakers”. It’s so hard to be the best especially when Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to have a monopoly on bestness anyway, it’s an ever elusive goal that we can be goaded into pursuing even though we’ll never attain it. It’s basically the mantra of our society – work harder, be better, work harder still and one day you might be happy (oh, and don’t complain whilst you’re at it, all that stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of thing).
And then there are the facial expressions. The grimaces of fear and anxiety as Berry considers the flavour and Hollywood judges the sogginess of the bottom juxtaposed with the sighs of relief when the baked goods have been judged worthy. It seems like one major ingredient in the Bake Off tent is desperation as contestants try to fill the holes in their hearts with nods of approval from Mary Berry and a delicious assortment of baked goods. The idea that these people may already be more than enough just as they are and don’t need to prove anything to anyone seems an alien concept when it all comes down to being the best.
At the end of the episode one of the contestants (the one whose cake collapsed) admits that she feels like she’s “been initiated into truly what Bake Off means”. What, then, is that? Is it to strive constantly to impress others hoping that their admiration will yield a sense of worthiness? Is it to chastise oneself for every soggy bottom and forget to celebrate every other solid bottom? Is it to whip guilt and despair with a tantalising sprinkle of unattainable hope all served on a dish of insecurity? If so it sure makes for compelling viewing!