by Sam Rees
(Author’s Note: I had planned in advance to write about these things for this particular contribution, and whilst they may seem pertinent in light of Sarah Everard’s murder, I wish to stress that I am in no way trying to insert my voice into a conversation which does not need me right now, nor am I trying to use a ‘current event’ as fodder for Just Another Article.)
Mexican-American poet Luis Alberto Urrea once described masculinity as a ‘toxic curse’. He is far from the first thinker to pick up on the corrosive power of patriarchy, I do however like his choice of wording; it is toxic because it will kill you, and it is a curse because it is something which is done to you. Across the last year, like so many others, I have turned to stupid, low-frequency television in order to keep the brutal horror of reality at bay. This kind of programming often involves itself in casual stereotypes, especially on the American side, and builds lazy, false narratives stuffed full of confected drama and staged arguments. However, having been saturated in this junk-food television for the last eleven months, I am ready to conclude that the king of this format is one Gordon James Ramsay.
I am not about to pretend that I am in a position to criticise the man or his television career too harshly. I have enjoyed too many indulgent hours on YouTube watching him blow a gasket to claim that position. Nor am I about to condemn anybody who else who enjoys his content. I do, however, think it is important occasionally to engage with oneself about what is actually happening when interfacing with media moments like this. There is something which stares us right in the face when we watch Ramsay scream at someone for undercooking some fish, or he explodes at an unsuspecting chef, with the shrapnel and debris of his bad language flying in all directions. Ramsay is a man. He is, in some ways, the worst kind of man. He is a symbol of the kind of emotionally-regressed, status-hungry person who populates our imaginations and our folklore, as an example to young boys of how not to be. My feeling is, in spite of this, that although we may point to him and tell children not to be like him, there is an uneasy sense that we need him and others of the same persuasion in order for society to function. My question, therefore, is what does Ramsay tell us about ourselves?
There are several ways in which Ramsay comes to us as the Archetypal Male. It helps, for instance, that he emerged from a poor background, and ‘made something of himself’. This frames him as a struggler, as a pioneer, as someone with an in-built propensity to ‘go on a quest’. He is not especially bright, and I often find myself laughing at him, not with him. Indeed, my fascination with him tends to falter whenever I decide to watch him on a talk show, in which he is nearly always a thoroughly boring and unwitty character. But this in itself does not exclude him from the position of symbol of toxic masculinity, in fact, it almost reaffirms his place there. He has no real time for cracking jokes, and there seems to be an uneasiness he has with any male stand-up comedian he is asked to sit next to, as if their metrosexual proclivities and theatrical streak are all a bit too fruity for him. Despite being himself a hugely influential media figure, he always appears strangely suspicious of giving in too readily to the schmoozy atmosphere of a talk show couch. There is a sense, which is either authentic or is part of the image Ramsay wishes to push, that he does not really belong in these spaces, that he is a practical man, and his passions lie in craftsmanship, that there is an honest nobility to what he does, and this comes through in his relatively uncultivated manner in these environments.
So let us talk about the environments where Ramsay does feel comfortable. Let us talk about the environment which Ramsay controls and what this in itself means. It is interesting in a more macro sense that after consigning women to the kitchen for generations that men decided to invade it quite so pompously. I say interesting, but not surprising. I’ve worked as a lowly but proud pot-wash in enough kitchens now (go talk to the team at Tattersalls in Newmarket, tell them Sam sent you), to know how dominated by men these spaces are. The actual ratios speak for themselves: I believe overall I have worked with and alongside perhaps two women chefs and about fifteen men. I’m the last person who may have an answer to fix this, nor do I know why it is particularly the case in catering. I do know that a reason which is often put forward for why women don’t feel comfortable entering these workplaces in the first instance is because of how macho they are. I can’t disagree that whatever is meant by ‘macho’ in this instance, these places are it. The language crude, the energy aggressive and often quite dark, and the way in which women are talked about really quite inexcusable. I deeply regret, now that I don’t work in these kitchens anymore, that I didn’t pipe up more at the time to stop that sort of chat in its tracks. Overall, however, I don’t feel this is any sort of reason at all why women aren’t choosing catering as a career. To me, it seems to be a very lazy inversion of the reality, which is that these spaces are like this because they’ve been left to men to dominate. On an industry level, it feels like when someone discovers a barn in the American Mid-West which has been abandoned for years, and on opening the door, hundreds of thousands of rats pour out. Leave these places unmonitored and unattended, and an infestation of nasty machismo will quickly take hold.
At this juncture, I’m trying to avoid resorting to a reductive argument in which I list the many, many occasions Ramsay has been overtly misogynistic, racist, ableist, fatist and in general a thoroughly problematic bully. Whilst we can all play this game, and it is easy enough to pull up any video of his and condemn the language used and the manner with which it is employed, I actually think it’s the least interesting lens through which to examine Ramsay as a figure of masculinity. For a start, it predicates itself on the presumption that I am better than him. While I would like to give myself the credit of saying I like to think I would never behave like him, I don’t think in this week of all weeks a man explaining why he is more enlightened and compassionate than another man is really what is needed. Besides, the truth is more complex than this. What is really uncomfortable is that on a structural level, our society is built on men like Ramsay, and the mythos which surrounds them.
Industrious. Hardworking, to the point of derangement. Highly competent at a skill which has tangible benefits; one can see the results of Ramsay’s labour. These are all, of course, admirable traits, and one can see why they are promoted, exemplifying, as they do, the masculinised capitalist dream of the alpha male breadwinner who sleeps three hours a night and never sees his kids. The issue is that these characteristics are then presumed to come alongside his atrocious behaviour, to be part of the same deal: the claim made of the man is that, as one of the greatest chefs of his generation, his passion and conviction spill over into rage and abuse. This is the calculation we have been taught to make for men for generations, that we must take the toxicity and bullying as a natural by-product of one so invested in their career. Again, it would be very easy for me to say this is complete nonsense and should be refuted, which is of course true. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is the reality. Framed a different way, Ramsay’s hysterics and dramatic outbursts are nothing close to the aspirational male figure, who is stoic, calm and stable. Indeed, when he finds himself in situations with men who he himself would deem to be ‘real’ men, for instance the programme he did working with the SAS, it is clear very quickly that he is totally out of his depth. Without the security of his kitchen environment, Ramsay is nothing more than an out-of-shape middle aged man, huffing and puffing his way across a moor trying to impress men twenty years his junior with far more admirable muscle-to-fat ratios.
The moral to all of this, I suppose, is watch Ramsay, but do so with a mindful eye. Notice the games that are being played, the ideologies which are being pushed. Think about how and why we as a culture need a figure like him, a bogeyman who represents the fears, and, dare I say, aspirations of many of us. This is certainly not a lecture, these are notes for myself as much as anything. At the time of writing, Ramsay is in the middle of a critical mauling, as a badly-conceived BBC gameshow of which he was the host is quietly consigned to the dumpster-fire of television history. This in a sense brings us full circle. From the brutal, passionate, unrefined lump, throwing burnt lamb furiously into the bin and screaming in a twenty-year old’s face, we now have the plastic-enhanced face of latter-day Ramsay, coddled by his media career, the coal-face a distant memory. He is now, more than anything, a parody of himself, a cartoon sketch of impotent male rage who, once removed from his specific area of skill, has nothing else to contribute. Ramsay was at his ‘best’, or perhaps we should say most viable, when in the early days he was filmed in the way one might film a wildlife documentary, observed in his natural habitat exhibiting natural behaviours. Now he is a monkey with a daft hat in a country with few animal rights laws, a prize pig wearing lipstick in some Texan county fair. It doesn’t suit him, and increasingly the guilt outweighs the pleasure of watching him. Still, I think his brand will continue to churn out mediocre and increasingly ridiculous content until maybe, just maybe, one day, he goes and gets the therapy he so desperately needs.
But in the meantime, I think perhaps we should all think a little harder about why we are watching him. Even in the thinking about it we can do some good, and perhaps begin to notice our complicity in the whole bizarre pantomime of masculinity which Ramsay represents. After all, we’re all idiot sandwiches at the end of the day.