Playing Fair in GBBO
by Graig Uhlin — Oklahoma State University
February 11, 2017 – 15:35
“I didn’t come here to make friends” is a clichéd mainstay on reality television, but would seem an odd fit for Great British Bake Off. The tone of the show is so relentlessly nice that it is difficult to imagine the same type of confrontation that typically results in hearing that statement. Other competitive reality programs encourage and promote “sabotage” between contestants. GBBO has no equivalent of the catty remark “I didn’t steal the bitch’s dye” from Project Runway (season one), nor does it make undermining fellow contestants a defining feature as on Survivor or Big Brother. Instead, GBBO creates an atmosphere of mutual support and camaraderie, and this marks its distinctiveness as a British (as opposed to an American) series.
When incidents of possible sabotage do arise, their rarity generates an overwhelming reaction from viewers, as with the overheated fan response to the “meltdown” (or “bin-gate”) when contestant Iain Watters’ Baked Alaska became a liquid mess after another baker removed it from the freezer. My featured clip from GBBO’s 2016 Christmas special points to how mean-spiritedness cuts against the show’s brand by turning an accusation of cheating into a joke. Returning contestant Chetna accuses fellow baker James of “cheating” when he rearranges the plaits of his Kanellängd after seeing hers. Host Mel Giedroyc then announces, “Bake Off first, we have a cheating incident!” Chetna’s accusation lacks any animosity, and the joke stems from knowing that the bakers routinely borrow from each other.
The good-natured ethos of GBBO is an essential feature of its appeal. The program distinguishes itself from other reality competition shows by de-emphasizing its competitive aspect. While reality TV often distills market-based principles – by turning being watched in labor exploitation, as Marc Andrejevic has argued – GBBO foregrounds both the bakers’ amateur status (they bake for the love of it) and its pastoral setting (the non-industrial as the site of the “homemade”). Especially to American audiences inured to reality TV contestants justifying their actions by wanting to “win,” GBBO appears as the locus of fair play and cooperative spirit, free from economic or social anxiety.