The Great Socialist Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off isn't just wonderful entertainment. By prizing cooperation over cutthroat competition and solidarity over selfishness, it's also quietly radical.

Great British Bake Off hosts Mel Giedroyc (left) and Sue Perkins (right) with judges Paul Hollywood (center left) and Mary Berry (center right). (PBS)

By any standard logic of entertainment, nobody should enjoy The Great British Bake Off. There is no fighting, no cursing, no backstabbing. The contestants seem to genuinely like each other. The B-roll footage between segments features extended shots of assorted flora and fauna. In short, the show is exactly what the title says it is: a bunch of ordinary Brits standing around their ovens trying to bake. Yet, somehow, this is a recipe for extraordinary television, even for the American appetite.

Plenty of critics have tried to parse the surprising allure of The Great British Bake Off — or, as it’s known in the United States, The Great British Baking Show, because the company Pillsbury somehow trademarked the word “bake-off.” (In America, even the cutest of doughboys are ruthless capitalists.) Many have suggested the show is popular because it provides a refuge from the mess of contemporary life: it offers “delight, distraction, and a dash of happiness” amid a nightmarish political and economic landscape. It is, they argue, “a panacea for wounded British souls in recent years — a reminder that, no matter how bad things get, the fabric of the nation is built upon cups of tea and feather-light sponges.”

I think the opposite is true: the Bake Off is quietly radical. I know this might sound ridiculous, but hear me out. Underneath the heaps of flour and steady stream of baking puns is a challenge to the assumptions we often make about competition, incentives, and power in the contemporary world order. The Bake Off is not a smooth buttercream frosting lubricating the ravages of modern capitalism, but a reproach to its very premises. It offers a vision of creativity, ambition, and hard work that holds up the beauty of individual flourishing without extolling ruthless, interpersonal competition.

What goes on inside the giant white tent — among the flora and fauna, somewhere in the British countryside — might better be called “The Great Socialist Bakeoff.”

Torte a Better Future

From the outside, The Great British Bake Off seems like any garden-variety cooking competition. Each season begins with twelve amateur bakers from around the UK competing in a series of weekly baking challenges. In each episode, the contestants are asked to produce three different baked items, all of which must be completed — baked, decorated, plated — within a given time limit. Two of these challenges are revealed ahead of time to allow bakers to practice at home; one, judged blind, is revealed on the set. At the end of an episode, the two judges anoint one person “star baker” of the week, while also eliminating one person from the competition. The last contestant standing is crowned the winner. He or she is, for all intents and purposes, the best amateur baker in Britain that year.

The structure of the Bake Off is clearly one of competition. There are judges, time limits, elimination, and, of course, winners. Yet it conspicuously lacks many of the elements we normally associate with competition. The title of “star baker” carries no practical value. Star bakers do not get immunity from elimination in the next round, or money, or brownie points from the judges. If anything, winning star baker makes a contestant more anxious, as he or she now expects the judges’ expectations to rise like a well-proofed sourdough.

Nor does the overall competition provide obvious incentives. The contestants pour their blood, sweat, and tears (often literally) into completing the tasks. One baker commented that the time in the tent was far and away the most stressful ten weeks of her entire life.

For their hard work, winners receive no money. They don’t get a guaranteed book deal or television show. All they win is a decorative cake stand — and a pretty underwhelming one at that. Yet when contestants reflect on their experience on the show, emotion overwhelms them. They talk about baking the way runners talk about finishing a marathon or setting a new personal best. They are satisfied not because they have pushed others aside and risen to the top, but simply because they are proud of what they have baked. They are humans doing what they enjoy, to the best of their ability — not solipsistic maximizers who will only pursue their goals if they have the right monetary incentives to do so.

Capitalism’s ideologues often extol the extraordinary individual. They insist that only by offering unlimited incentives to the most economically productive (the job creators, the entrepreneurs, the prodigies) can we maximize growth and thus have the most prosperous society. The outsize focus on the extraordinary individual is the backbone of reality television, too. Contestants are often selected for their uncommon traits, which are then exaggerated and weaponized. To artificially inflate the level of drama, shows play up the extreme differences between individuals. What could be more dramatic, or foster more creativity, than a tiny bagpipe player competing for scarce resources against an eight-foot-tall ninja?

Bake Off contestants are almost impossibly ordinary. All of the contestants are amateur bakers. Their hobbies run the gamut from spending time with family to walking their dogs. None of the bakers were raised by wolves or suffer from a rare form of cancer whose only cure is baking a Victoria sponge. As Alex Clark writes in the Guardian, “Bake Off’s charm has always lain in its refusal to conform to the rampant back-story prurience of other reality television shows, the high-definition equivalent of curtain-twitching combined with a vapid belief in personal journeys.”

There are no ninjas, only nurses or teachers or college students — people who struggle to find time to practice their baking because they are grading papers or working a second job to make ends meet. (Even an appearance on television cannot excuse them from day-to-day economic exploitation.)

Yet these amateur contestants are not just baking run-of-the mill cakes — they are creating impressive, unique, edible works of art. Bake Off is a celebration of the average worker, of the man or woman on the street. Contra the trickle-down ideology of neoliberal capitalism, Bake Off reminds us that ordinary individuals are capable of extraordinary creativity. Excessive, pernicious competition not only fails to incentivize regular individuals, it diminishes their spirit. And while the white tent is a far cry from a worker’s paradise, the attitude the bakers express is reminiscent of Orwell’s description of his 1936 visit to leftist-run Barcelona: “Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

There’s No Pie in Team

In The Great British Bake Off, compassion and sympathy take center stage. Rather than suppress those human impulses, as capitalist competition often encourages, the Bake Off allows them to flourish. A failure in the baking tent is not greeted with schadenfreude but with understanding and support.

Take the third episode of the seventh season. Candice, the eventual season winner, struggles to get her brioche loaf out of the oven and onto the plate. She isn’t sure if it is cooked, and time is running out. She has no choice but to take it out and pray that it is baked all the way through. More immediately, she needs to find a way to get the piping hot brioche out of the pan before the clock hits zero.

The other contestants could have watched with glee as they saw one of the most talented bakers struggle, knowing their own chances of success would increase. Without hesitation, however, three fellow bakers rush over to assist Candice with her brioche. They manage to extract the cake from the pan and present it to the judges. (It was still undercooked, but it would have been worse if it was stuck in the pan.) Contestants — ostensibly competing for the same prize — assist each other so often that BuzzFeed even made a list of the times that bakers stepped in to offer a helping hand.

Selasi, a semifinalist in the same season, explains: “Everyone is very, very friendly and helping each other, and it doesn’t actually feel like a competition. It ends up feeling like a group of friends, baking together in the same kitchen and just having fun.”

It turns out this is not accidental — breaking the vise grip of vindictive competition requires active, determined effort. The initial impetus came from the show’s original hosts, the comedians Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, whose job is to introduce challenges, make baking puns, and offer sympathy to the bakers by reminding them that the hosts themselves know nothing about baking.

Mel and Sue apparently walked off the set in the first season “because of the attempts to manufacture drama, X Factor-style, which had left contestants in tears.” Perkins elaborated: “What we were saying was ‘Let’s try and do this a different way’ — and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their soufflé collapsed, but nobody’s crying because someone’s going, ‘Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?’ Many of the bakers have sad stories, but guess what? We never touch on any of them.”

We normally assume that the drama of reality television comes from interpersonal competition, as only one contestant can attain the coveted prize. For contestants, the competitors are their peers: some people have to win, so other people have to lose. Once contestants identify the target of competition, the sabotage and subterfuge begins: if you deviate in any way from the ruthless path of maximal efficiency, someone else will swoop in and take your place, leaving you with nothing but a soggy bottom.

So how does the Bake Off manage to achieve riveting television without cutthroat competition? Mel and Sue’s supportive environment does not eliminate the thrill of competition, but redirects it away from petty feuds between different contestants. The competition is between contestants and themselves (to do their best) and between contestants and the judges: namely, Paul Hollywood — officious cook, bread aficionado, and bearer of the fakest-sounding real name of all time.

Mel and Sue are constantly on the prowl for material to lampoon, but their most prominent target is Hollywood: it is as if their job is not only to introduce challenges and make puns but to cut Paul Hollywood’s ego down to size. Paul Hollywood has power, and arrogance oozes out of his pores. Mel and Sue are there to give the rest of us a sort of winking acknowledgment that nobody likes people like that. There’s no need to make fun of contestants when you can make fun of the egotistical man-boy in the front of the room.

All of the contestants feel they are together in battling the menace of Paul Hollywood. Nobody wants anybody to be subject to a withering criticism from such an unsympathetic man. When Candice’s brioche turns out to be raw inside, the other contestants aren’t elated that their foe has been knocked down; rather, they shoot her sympathetic looks and rush over to console her, knowing full well that a similar unsparing cake knife may slice through their own creations soon enough.

Val, another contestant on season seven, suggests that the bakers were not only teammates but fellow soldiers. Referring to Selasi, she says, “I remember I was doing my gingerbread, and it collapsed. I’m going ‘Ahhh!’ and I think it was you who said, ‘I’ve got some glitter.’ You threw some glitter over to me and put icing sugar and glitter all over it and we just kept it going. And that’s what bakers do. You shout out that you need a bowl or a whisk, and one of your baking friends will get it for you. You know those trenches in the war? It’s kind of like that.”

Although war may be a bit of an extreme comparison — despite the scores of gingerbread men that have fallen in the Bake Off line of duty — the solidarity that Val is referring to is so palpable you can taste it. The bakers are more like teammates than competitors, more partners than rivals. Being part of a team shifts the pressure off of any individual, giving each person the space to succeed. Creativity (and puns) abound.

Choux Me the Money

Unfortunately, even the giant white tent of socialism cannot completely escape the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism. In 2016, the production company decided to move the show to a new channel in pursuit of higher profits (BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster and the original channel, offered to double the price it had been paying, but the production company refused to accept anything lower than quadruple). Mel and Sue quit, saying they were “not going with the dough.” So did Mary Berry, the judge with the second-fakest-sounding real name of all time. Only Paul Hollywood stayed on.

The new version of the show features another Mary Berry (Prue Leith) and two new hosts. I hesitated to watch it, feeling almost like an anti-union scab betraying the radical vision of Mel and Sue. Thankfully, even if the new version can never fully shake off the stench of corporate greed enshrouding its rebirth, it still maintains the fundamental spirit of the original show.

The hosts are more outlandish with their antics but still promote cooperation and solidarity. The contestants still view Paul Hollywood with the same mix of fear, respect, and defiance. And the bakers are still mind-bogglingly regular people whose unabashed ordinariness would disqualify them from any other show on television.

They are still just human beings trying to behave as human beings, not cogs in the capitalist machine.