Food, fame and the perils of post-feminism 4

Delilah Campbell reviews Julie and Julia

I love food and I like cooking, but films about food and cooking generally aren’t my cup of bouillon: they are boring, pretentious, and full of sexist clichés (food as love, cooking as seduction or—when women do it—self-healing.) It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to see Nora Ephron’s film Julie and Julia, the interwoven narrative of two American women who cooked. But in the event I enjoyed it: it’s funny, has some excellent performances, and the food is more or less incidental. I wouldn’t exactly call it a feminist film (though for a mainstream Hollywood product it is unusually woman-centred: written and directed by a woman, with women in both the leading roles and most of the supporting ones), but I did think it offered feminists some (forgive me) food for thought.

Julia, played by Meryl Streep, is Julia Child, author of the 1960s culinary classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Julie, played by Amy Adams, is Julie Powell, a New York office worker and wannabe writer who spent a year cooking her way through Child’s original 524 recipes and chronicling her progress in a blog. The premise for the film is the idea of a parallel between the two protagonists: as Julie puts it in one of her blog entries, they are both women who used their interest in food and cooking to change their lives and make something of themselves. But what I found more interesting was the contrast the film brought out between Julia’s situation as a woman in the pre-feminist 1950s and Julie’s experience in our own, ‘post-feminist’ noughties.

Julia’s story begins in 1949, when her husband Paul is posted to the US embassy in Paris. Bored by the endless round of bridge parties and teas which are meant to fill the time of expatriate wives, she enrols in the Cordon Bleu cookery school, where she is the only woman in her class and the only student not training to become a professional chef. Though she works hard to prove she is not just a dilettante, she is unable to overcome the prejudices of her supercilious teacher, and fails her final exam.  But her training pays off when she meets two other Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who are writing a cookbook for the American market. When their publisher rejects their manuscript, they ask Child to take the project in hand. Her narrative ends in 1961, when she finally takes delivery of the finished volume. The viewer knows (though she as yet does not) that the book’s publication will mark the beginning of her career as a writer and TV cook.

Julie Powell’s story does, as she says, have echoes of Julia Child’s—it too ends with its protagonist completing the project that will launch her new career—but there is also a significant difference. Whereas Child’s is the story of someone who cared about cooking and found fame as a result, Powell’s is the story of someone who wanted to become famous and saw cooking as a means to that end. These differing aspirations can be seen as a reflection of changing times. Julia Child belonged to a culture which defined women largely in terms of their domestic role, and did not encourage them to seek public recognition. Julie Powell, by contrast, grew up in a society which told women they could (and should) ‘have it all’; her notion of success was shaped by the values of a celebrity culture which equates achievement with fame, with being someone other people have heard of.

At the beginning of the film Julie is far from ‘having it all’. While her female friends from college have been building high-powered careers, she, about to turn 30, is stuck in a low-status job in a call centre. One of her friends, a journalist, writes a piece in which Julie personifies a generational ‘type’, the promising young woman graduate who has not fulfilled her potential. Understandably needled, and noting that her friend has recently raised her profile by starting a blog, Julie looks for a subject on which she too could blog and find an audience. It is in that context that she comes up with the idea of cooking all Julia Child’s classic French recipes in a year. The concept works: as her blog’s popularity grows, she begins to attract interest from the mainstream media, and when she is finally featured in the New York Times, the publishing offers flood in.

But what kind of achievement is this? Though feminists might not rate it all that highly, Julia Child undoubtedly made a real contribution to her culture: she was ‘the woman who taught America to cook’. She did become a media personality, but her success was built on her culinary expertise. Julie Powell’s success, on the other hand, was built on her mastery of the art of self-promotion. Fans of her blog read it not to learn about food and cooking, but because they related to Julie—her life, her relationships, her anxieties and insecurities, her personal journey through a 40-year old book of recipes.

This ‘journey’ formula has become ubiquitous, not only in the blogosphere but also in books and on TV. You set yourself an arbitrary task (ideally with an equally arbitrary time-limit) like travelling around Ireland with a fridge, hitch-hiking to Ulan Bator or spending three months in a shed, and write a blow-by-blow account of your experiences, thoughts and feelings. The ideal quest for this purpose is one that has no intrinsic point: its function is to provide a framework in which you can explore your real subject, which is of course yourself.

To my mind, the people who produce this self-absorbed drivel bear less resemblance to the Julia Childs of yesteryear than they do to the mass-market ‘celebs’ of today. Julie Powell, for instance, could be compared to Katie Price, an exemplary product of celebrity culture. She first came to the attention of the British public as ‘Jordan’, a ‘glamour model’ notable mainly for the size of her breasts. But she has since become much more famous by repackaging herself as ‘Katie’, and turning her life into an endless multimedia soap opera. Her latest doings are pored over every week in celebrity gossip magazines; each new volume of her (ghosted) memoirs goes straight into the bestseller lists; and she is currently starring in What Katie Did Next, a TV series from which we learn how she is faring after the break-up of the marriage which was chronicled in the previous series, Katie and Peter. Julie Powell’s career has followed a similar path. Having come to public notice originally through the media’s interest in her cooking blog (which subsequently became her first book), she is now mining the rest of her life for publishable material. Her second book, billed as ‘a tale of adultery and butchery’, updates us on what she has been doing since she finished her year of French cooking. Presumably her next book will tell us what it’s like to have a Hollywood film made about you. Though Julie’s product is more upmarket than Katie’s—she writes it herself, and the only breasts she mentions belong to poultry—in other respects they seem to me like kindred spirits.

Not only was Julia Child not a kindred spirit, if she had been judged on the criteria applied to women by the media now we would probably never have heard of her. She was none of the things a woman has to be today to be successful on television, or readily marketable in any medium—not young, not slim, not conventionally pretty, not approachable or vulnerable or sexually alluring. Already middle-aged by the time she broke into print, she was a large woman, both tall and big, with a loud, booming voice and a somewhat overbearing manner (Meryl Streep does a good job of suggesting these qualities without caricaturing them). She was lucky that she started out at a time when the standard for female TV cooks was not set by Nigella Lawson, who I have heard described approvingly by media professionals as someone women fantasize about being and men fantasize about—well, I’ll spare you the end of that sentence.

Other details in the film reinforced my suspicion that women 50 years ago were in some ways less in thrall to oppressive gender norms. For instance, Julia’s pleasure in food appears untouched by guilt or anxiety about her weight, whereas Julie worries frequently that her self-imposed regime is making her fat and unattractive. Julia’s relationships with other women—her sister, her editor, her collaborator Simone Beck—are characterized by warmth and mutual regard; Julie’s relationships with her female friends are marked by envy and resentment. When at one point she tells her husband that she doesn’t actually like her friends and asks him what she should do about it, he responds that he doesn’t know, because only women have that problem. ‘Men like their friends’, he declares. The implication is that women compete with theirs.

Both Julia and Julie are very pointedly provided with supportive and loving husbands, without whom their wives allegedly could not have achieved what they did. For feminists this aspect of the film has considerable potential to irritate, but I found it less annoying in Julia’s case than in Julie’s. Julie’s husband’s ‘support’ consists largely of reassuring her when she complains that she is getting fat, tolerating her French recipe obsession and eating the food that results from it. Even his tolerance has limits: when a recipe goes wrong and she has one of her periodic meltdowns he accuses her of being completely self-absorbed and walks out for a couple of days. (Distressingly, I found myself completely on his side: she is self-absorbed, and her worries about her weight seem ridiculous given that the actor who plays her is a typical Hollywood waif.)  Paul Child, on the other hand, comes across as an urbane and politically progressive man who loves Julia deeply and supports her unconditionally. I did suspect that his prominence as a character reflected the film-makers’ desire to make Julia more sympathetic (translation: less ‘unfeminine’) by harping on her ability to win the love of a good man. But at least the idea that she could not have forged a career without her husband’s active support has some foundation in historical fact. 1950s husbands had real authority over wives: the fact that Paul treats Julia as an equal, wants her to succeed and is not threatened by her success makes her gratitude to him seem less cloyingly undeserved than Julie’s tributes to her husband.

The popularity of Julie Powell’s blog and its subsequent transformation into a mainstream Hollywood film both speak to something I have written about in T&S before (see ‘Housewives’ Choice’, T&S 42): the recent vogue for domesticity and the cult of the ‘domestic goddess’. Since I first wrote about this, there has also been a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s and early 60s, the period immediately before the feminist second wave and the era par excellence of the domesticated woman. Clothes shops are full of 1950s dresses; coffee shops sell luridly-iced cupcakes; dramas set in the 50s and 60s are all over our cinema and TV screens. The best of these are not just nostalgic celebrations. The American TV drama Mad Men, for instance, set in a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s, is in my opinion one of the sharpest critical examinations of sexual politics ever seen on television. However, that doesn’t seem to be why most people like it: among fans as opposed to critics, discussions of its merits focus less on its political analysis than on its authentic evocation of period style. (‘The women may have been second-class citizens, but wow, those outfits were cool!’) Another much-canvassed theme is the old-fashioned allure of the central male character Don Draper, whose unequivocally dominant style of masculinity is apparently seen by many as a regrettable casualty of feminism. What the programme itself frames critically—the extreme inequality of pre-feminist gender relations, and the emptiness of lives circumscribed by what Betty Friedan called ‘the feminine mystique’—is exactly what many of Mad Men’s admirers consider most worthy of celebration. There are even fans of the programme who spend serious time in cyberspace impersonating their favourite characters—writing daily diaries in which they document what their fictional 1960s selves are wearing, doing and reading.

Some people take this kind of period nostalgia to an even more bizarre extreme. A recent documentary on BBC4 explored the peculiar world of ‘1940s couples’, men and women whose real lives are lived as far as possible in a carefully constructed time-warp. They dress only in original 1940s clothes (albeit anachronistically sourced on eBay); their meals are cooked in kitchens equipped with period appliances, and they socialize mainly with other 1940s couples. In interviews it also became clear that they conduct their marital relationships along unreconstructed 1940s lines. Women do all the domestic labour and see taking care of their husbands as their purpose in life—even though the ones in the programme had jobs outside the home as well. Gender egalitarianism was repeatedly cited as an aspect of modern life that they were consciously trying to escape from. This wasn’t, however, an expression of their political beliefs, for they appeared to have no politics at all. Actually I think I would have had more respect for them if they had been ranting ideologues proclaiming the virtues of patriarchy—but in fact they were more like six year-old girls dressing up to play a gigantic game of house. What appealed to them about 1940s femininity was quite simply that in their eyes it was glamorous. They wanted to return to a time when the dresses were frillier, the teacups daintier and the men more chivalrous. They were focused entirely on the surface trappings of gender, and completely unthinking about the substance—as though domestic servitude were a small price to pay for silk stockings and perfectly-applied lipstick. On reflection, the word I would use to describe this is not ‘deluded’ or ‘reactionary’, it is ‘decadent’.

Is Julie and Julia another example of this retrograde, apolitical fascination with domesticated femininity? I think the answer is yes and no. It does seem likely that the current wave of period nostalgia helped to make the film a commercial proposition, a potential vehicle for a star like Meryl Streep. But like Mad Men’s treatment of the 1960s, Julie and Julia’s treatment of the 1950s is not primarily nostalgic, nor apolitical: on the contrary, in fact, it is shot through with what are obviously modern (liberal) feminist assumptions. Julia Child is portrayed as a proto-feminist heroine, the indomitable free spirit who refused to be ‘just a housewife’. But that glosses over aspects of her story which a more radical feminist might want to explore—in particular the historical irony that her own career was made possible by the feminine mystique. She wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking for what she referred to as ‘servantless American cooks’, or in other words middle-class housewives whose restricted opportunities outside the domestic sphere gave them the time and the inclination to learn how to bone a duck. It was only because so many other women felt the need to be perfect housewives that Julia Child was able to become something else.

The same liberal assumptions can be seen in the treatment of Julie Powell as a contemporary analogue of Julia Child (we are dealing with the kind of ‘feminism’ whose preferred narrative concerns an individual woman finding her dream, whatever that dream may be). But if instead of buying into the analogy you concentrate on the points of divergence, it becomes possible to read this film in a way its makers almost certainly did not intend. I read it as a parable about the perils of post-feminism—that postmodern variation on traditional anti-feminism which relies less on overt male chauvinism, and more on women’s willingness to subordinate themselves.

As the film shows quite clearly, though without making a big deal of it, women today face very few of the institutional barriers that confronted their counterparts 40 or 50 years ago. I am not saying they can ‘have it all’—sexual inequality has not disappeared—but the more privileged among them do not have to settle, as Julia Child did for many years, for being economic dependents and appendages of their husbands. Nor are they any longer obliged to stay silent and unresisting in the face of the kind of sexism which is dramatized in Mad Men. Yet there they are, the post-feminist generation, voluntarily imposing all the old double standards (and some newer ones, like the media- and sex-industry-driven demand for eternal youthfulness, extreme thinness and hyper-sexualized self-presentation) on themselves and on each other. There some of them are, like Julie’s friends in the film, announcing their equality with men by losing no opportunity to put other women down; and there are their mirror images, women like the female halves of the 1940s couples, positively revelling in their freedom to embrace subservience as a lifestyle choice, and conveniently forgetting that the women they hail as role-models had no choice about it whatsoever.

Post-feminist women behave as if feminism had never happened, or as if they are sorry it ever did. They insist that they are ‘empowered’ by whatever it is they have chosen to symbolise their rejection of feminist dogma, be it promising to obey their husbands or taking an evening class in pole-dancing. What this rhetorical gambit always puts me in mind of is the spoof headline with which the satirical newspaper The Onion once marked international women’s day: ‘Women now empowered by anything a woman does’.  And you could hardly have a clearer demonstration of its vacuity than the juxtaposition of Julie and Julia. This shows that women are not ‘empowered’—arguably indeed they are particularly demeaned—by a culture which equates ‘making something of yourself’ with commodifying yourself to appeal to popular tastes in exchange for the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. That is why Julia Child will be remembered long after Julie Powell has been forgotten.

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4 thoughts on “Food, fame and the perils of post-feminism

  • allison taubman

    Great to see T&S with a presence on the web–look forward to continued debate on radical feminist issues in general and food in particular…

  • Kate

    Interesting read, thank you. I didn’t see this film primarily because I find the basis for Julie Powell’s “fame” irksome and I’m grateful you’ve articulated why for me.

  • Jacqui B.

    I really liked this review, very insightful! I also can’t help but dislike Julie Powell after reading this, even though I had never heard of her…

  • Jenny

    I am saddened that a post on T&S will dismiss people using a gendered insult — “six year-old girls dressing up to play a gigantic game of house.” I am further saddened that it wants to criticize the behaviors of a class of women who are already oppressed by social expectations instead of discuss the patriarchal forces behind it.