Shmoop's Guide to Writing the Perfect Essay
We Americans like to believe that anyone can achieve anything in our country. This is, after all, what the term “American Dream” means, and we like to believe that the child of a millionaire and the child of an immigrant farmhand have an equal chance of success. We imagine backward regions of the globe that haven’t yet adopted our free markets and our representative democracy where geniuses are stuck whacking rocks with a hammer and delivering the pebbles to their overlords for a lifetime. In contrast to this scenario, we like to think that a dirt-poor child born in a ditch outside a trailer park somewhere in the Ozarks can scrabble his way to the top in our great nation. However, this mobility is but a myth. In the U.S. of today, people are likely to stay poor if they’re born poor, and the rich only get richer; our class system is as rigid as that of 16th-century England. Since the situation is so hopeless for most Americans, we are drawn to entertainment that makes us feel as though anyone can get rich. This is why Bravo’s fascinating reality show Top Chef is so popular. On the surface, Top Chef might appear to be just another cooking show, but closer analysis reveals that it is a representation of our class divisions
A close look at the contestants of Top Chef immediately reveals that they represent the American working class. Even their surface-level appearances and habits put them in an obvious class context. Many are covered in tattoos—the trademark of criminals, sailors, and low-class workingmen in generations past. Most of them smoke, drink, and curse like grubby rabble. Moreover, several are recent immigrants; newcomers to the U.S. have often filled the lower rungs of our class system, taking undesirable jobs. Most contestants are without college educations and explain in the close-up testimonials peppered throughout each program that the winnings from the contest would help them to solve problems common to regular working Americans: rent, debt, child-rearing, and so on. Esteemed media-studies scholar Dr. Trenton Ferdenberger writes: “We have an unconscious set of symbols and behaviors that evoke the poorer classes in our popular imagination. Savvy programming evokes these symbols without the viewer noticing and thereby, we perceive class without thinking consciously about class” (166). Top Chef is a great example of the sort of “savvy programming” that Ferdenberger describes. Though there is no explicit mention of wealth, poverty, or class in the show, the viewers have no doubts as to which the servile group is. Also, consider the contestants’ role: they are cooking food for other people. They are, quite literally, the labor force upon which the show depends. The class dynamic becomes all the more apparent when we closely examine the people the contestants are serving.
The judges on Top Chef represent the wealthy American ruling class. Head judge Tom Colicchio is very successful in his life outside the show—he is a fantastically adept restaurateur—but it is his behavior and appearance on the program that makes him a powerful symbol of the ruling class. He wears shirts with high, oversized collars, mimicking the chin-hugging regalia worn by English monarchs in portraits. His manner is detached, amused, and imperious. You can almost envision him holding his pinky ring out for a smooch from one of the contestants. Padma Lakshmi, the other main personality on the show, might at first glance indicate the persistence of the American Dream—she is from India but now takes the throne in front of Americans whose families have been here for generations. However, her family was far from poor and desperate. Her parents were highly educated and held good jobs; in her teens, she was quickly incorporated into the world of glamor and fashion. If anything, Padma Lakshmi represents neoliberalism and the global ruling class that now presides over the workers of the world. Even the minor players on the judge’s panel fit into these roles. Guest judge Anthony Bourdain, for example, plays the role of the rakish, globetrotting playboy, the spoiled prince, to a T. Indeed, while the contestants on the show might well up when talking about their sick kid or their supportive parent, the judges have quite different sources of emotion. They are disgusted and sad when confronted with overcooked pork belly. They are delighted and inspired when enjoying an imaginative carpaccio. They live lives of luxury, and the only thing they have to worry about is that luxury being imperfect.
The class dynamic in the show becomes most pronounced when these two groups interact. One signature move on the show is to change the rules halfway through a challenge. As the contestants are scrambling, trying to construct the perfect meal, the judges throw in some humiliating twist: Your ingredients will now be on a spinning table! You have to cook a dish someone else has started! Your new ingredients are fermented squid and Advil! This is not unlike a Wal-Mart manager saying: “Hey! You thought this was a 9-hour shift? Guess what, it’s 14! Ha ha! Also, go take a 90-minute break so we don’t have to pay you overtime.” The “judges’ table,” where winners and losers are chosen at the end of each episode, brings the class tension to a fever pitch. After working at a breakneck pace for hours on end to feed the judges, the contestants emerge— sweaty, disheveled, in grimy work clothes, arms behind their backs— to stand before the judges, who are seated at an elevated table. The judges look perfect. They are filled to the gills with good wine and the food these people made for them. Amid dramatic swells of music, they begin discussing how well each peasant has served them. Eerily, the process feels like a determination between regal favor that assures survival—”You are safe”—and death, or “elimination.” These interactions between the judges and the contestants affirm the total control the ruling class has over workers’ lives and that the only path toward survival for the workers is to please their rulers.
If this show only reminds us of the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, why is it so popular? Why is it so engrossing? Why do we love it so much? First, seeing our daily humiliations represented on screen, amidst high drama and high production value, can be cathartic. Our boring, everyday struggles for rent money and healthcare are played out in an epic reality TV show, and we feel bigger and more important for it. Moreover, the overarching plot of the show redeems our struggles. One of these poor struggling contestants will be “Top Chef.” He or she will be elevated to the level of high craftsman and rub elbows with the rich. This allows us to imagine that, as we navigate our absurd working lives, we too have a way out of our struggles. If we work hard enough to please our masters, they may one day invite us to sit at the table with them. This is the reason that several Americans will be glued to the TV tonight, weeping over the struggles of those who are like us, and cheering them on with all our might.