Celebrity, morality and butter: Paula Deen affair points to something beyond the average tasty scandal


On June 19th, the unholy views of Paula Deen made a quick splash onto the mediascape. This despite the fact that the lawsuit against her had been filed last year and her deposition issued a month before.

By the 20th, #PaulaDeen was an official twitterized scandal. Soon after, it exploded to epic proportions.

Earlier Deen scandals, though surely mediatized, didn’t make enduring headlines or deep media imprints–soon half-forgotten by all but her ardent fans and that significant subset of North American society–the Food Network junky.

Despite the profound moral and physiological damage certain well-respected pundits saddled her with, Deen was hardly a household name (nor trending Twitter tag) after her cynical diabetes debacle: a simultaneous announcement of her Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis (years after she found out herself) and big pill endorsement. She was duly chastised, and all was mostly forgotten a few months later. If anything, her shows, kitchenware and endorsement deals only seemed to spike.

This time round, her name has been impossible to miss–and I’ve hardly met a single North American who doesn’t have gut-wrenching polemic to expel from their system when her name is mentioned. The cook, unaided by baffling testimony and disastrous subsequent public relations strategy, did not only “make” the front page, but found some prime real estate there–competing with Ed Snowden for top slot in the Google news ticker.

As a seasoned veteran of that long-time Food-Network-mainlining subsection of humanity, I’m left asking why?

We’ve heard a few reasons again and again. They can basically be summarized as: 1) Deen carries big media reach, 2) Deen has an influential brand, 3) Deen is a face to simmering societal tensions in the South. To be honest, “it was a slow news week,” is a more plausible rationale to me. Sure, those 3 factors helped make her remarks into a story, but not such a blockbuster one, not one that struck at the gut of the average Jill.

Money and influence may well be the traditional yardsticks of public responsibility. But put in context with countless other corporate, celebrity or political scandals, Deen’s footprint just does not hold up.

Compare Deen to global companies and public figures. Her brand might be relatively sizeable in the food world, but it’s hardly a drop in the greater media/consumer-scape. Nor is her selling power, business savvy, political influence, or earnings. Looking for moral disappointments in the latter areas? Check this list, or this one or this one.

Furthermore, to extol her comments as singularly representing racial tension is to minimize the countless acts of racial violence perpetrated daily in North America

So it brings up that same question: why did her comments cause such a stir? I’m not asking you why we care about the content of her beliefs. The lashing she’s received has been, to my understanding, 100% justified–and should continue as long as her beliefs go unexamined. But that horse has been beaten continually in media reports of her affair. I could post yet another critique, but I could never articulate it as eloquently as, for example, this open letter by Michael W. Twitty.

What I’m curious about is why a celebrity cook carries so much social weight?

To me, the scandal does much to reveal what we construct, and what we seek to extract from, celebrity cooks today? Time has shown us that for bankers, movie stars and tech gurus, a brief public shaming and temporary boycott (soon forgotten), puts many scandals to a quick bedtime. But with Deen, the level of personal insult is palpable. It never ends. The more she weeps, the more the public (and I stress, not only food fans but a much wider segment) lashes out in pain, hurt and anger.

There is something about the tangible, material and nutritive force of a cook, a home-cook at that, wherein the moral transgression appears to be amplified. It shows us two things. First, just how powerful the media image can be: has Deen ever really been a homey mama or just suave magnate? We never cared to ask. Second, it points to the idea that those who teach us to cook–and eat–by guiding us into the very intimate act of nutrition, of incorporation (literally building our bodies and fortifying our mental state) become de facto guides on derivative matters such as morality, the sanctity of life and social equality.

In other words, we subconsciously look to them to learn how to incorporate the world itself.

I maintain that the Paula Deen affair has reached this crux not merely because of one woman’s penchant for pre-Abolition America, nor her brother’s off-colour jokes. It’s partly because she has been successful at constructing we want out of the TV personality: that friend to fill the void, or better yet, to nurture us.

But most importantly–and the daily surge of headlines testifies to this–it’s because she’s a cook.


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