"1 Million Bake-Off Winner is a He"

Blog: "1 Million Bake-Off Winner is a He"

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“$1 Million Bake-Off Winner is a He”
by Sheri Wilner, co-writer of Cake Off

That headline popped out of the paper like a freshly opened tube of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. It was buried deep within the February 28, 1996 issue of the New York Times, yet it grabbed my attention and hasn’t let go since. The article reported that 1996 was the first year Pillsbury awarded a one-million dollar prize to the winner of the Bake-Off, and, “wouldn’t you know it,” the reporter mused, it was the first year in Bake-Off history a man won.


You be the judge.

Personally, I was incensed because a company like Pillsbury is built on the backs of women (how many men do you see serving their family dinner or using Pillsbury products in any of their ads?), yet when there was real money to be made for cooking and baking, it was given to a man.

From the first contest in 1949 up until 1996, the Bake-Off had been almost exclusively a female domain. Sure, you can say that was because of the societal and cultural norms during that time, but read any promotional material about the Bake-Off during those first decades and it’s clear why so few men came near. In the 1960s, for example, the contest was actually renamed The Pillsbury Busy Lady Bake-Off. (What man would enter that?) And up until the 1980s, they referred to all their entrants and contestants as female.

And so, in 1996 when the prize was boosted from fifty thousand to one million dollars, the largest amount of men in history entered, and a record number, fourteen, were chosen to be in the pool of one hundred total finalists. In previous years there had been just 0-4 men per contest. I haven’t done the math, but it seems possible that the amount of men competing for the first million-dollar prize is greater than the sum total of all men who competed in the prior forty-six years.

So, yeah, that article made me angry.

But also very confused and conflicted.

How could I say it was wrong for men to be accepted into the Bake Off, and even win it, when I zealously protest any sexism aimed in the other direction? And how could I be upset when such societal and cultural shifts indicated that men were now sharing (or at least participating) in kitchen duty, which was no longer exclusively known as “women’s work?” Did I really want the Pillsbury Bake-Off to stay as it was – a highly gendered event that perpetuated outdated stereotypes about “Busy Ladies” and “Happy Homemakers?” Hell, no. Men, if you want to cook, by all means, my oven is all yours.

But yet… I still feel like women were getting a raw end deal. We’re still expected to make three meals a day, every day for our families. Sure men are doing a lot more at home, but am I wrong that it seems like it’s more of a choice for them (how often do you hear, “what a good husband!” the one day a year he turns on the vacuum cleaner?) but for women it remains a duty.

And so the Bake-Off makes me feel like I do when I root for an actor who’s been nominated numerous times for an Oscar yet has never won. OK, so his work in this year’s nominated movie wasn’t his best, but come on, he deserves it for all those other roles he’s performed throughout his career.

Should Pillsbury have picked the “best performer” in 1996 or a woman who has been cooking and baking her whole life, with little to no reward?

Uncertain of the answer, I decided to write a play that poses the question to an audience: Should Pillsbury not have chosen a man to be the first million-dollar prize-winner, even though a panel of highly scrupulous judges deemed his recipe the best? Should they have waited until a subsequent year to give such a huge sum of money to a man considering it was really the first year in history men were even in the contest? What would I have done if I were a judge? Would I have purposely not chosen his recipe? Would I have talked myself out of liking it because of his gender? I have absolutely no idea. What would you do?

In the plays I most admire, all of the characters are both absolutely right and absolutely wrong at the same time. And so: a woman is furious that a man is next to her at a million-dollar baking competition. But it’s because there’s never been a man next to her in her kitchen at home. A man enters a million-dollar baking competition to show his young son that gender roles need not be followed anymore. But he arrives at the contest without a knowledge of its sexist history and an awareness of what his presence means to women who have been told for fifty years, “this is how we thank you for using our products.” I hope if you see the show, you’ll leave the theatre with the same questions I asked myself while writing it. And then keep asking those questions whenever issues of gender equality arise.