In Praise of the “New Men” of Bake Off

The Great British Bake Off isn’t just stirring up Twitter, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, it’s bringing a whole new demographic to the cake stand.

In Praise of the “New Men” of Bake Off

It’s difficult to phrase this without sounding patronising, but every time I watch The Great British Bake Off (which is, I should add, religiously and with untold mixing bowls full of enthusiasm and excitement), I’m astounded by the male contestants. And not just by their incredible bakes (and I really don’t think Norman’s ‘Pieful Tower’ got the recognition it deserved), but by their very existence. Here are a load of heterosexual ‘manly’ men, many of whom spend their day jobs in traditional male occupations such as IT and engineering and construction work, producing some of the campest cakes that Britain has ever laid its eyes on. The whole production makes my heart sing with joy.

OK, so yes, perhaps praising male bakers does sound patronising. In our post-post feminist world, why shouldn’t men enjoy a little bit of baking? It is, after all, a science (before Bake Off came along who knew just how intricate and complex the creation of a Rum Baba could be?) Yet baking has long been regarded as a feminine occupation, conjuring images of WI bake sales and Downton Abbey-esque cooks sweating flour in the bowels of grand houses, of lovingly crafted, maternal birthday cakes and frilly white wedding icing.

In this country at least, baking was for housewives. Not so in France, where a friend of mine got himself up at four o’clock every morning with almost militaristic discipline to embark on his training as a patissiere. Perhaps, like the French, we Brits have finally learnt how to take our cakes seriously, as the things of beauty and complexity that they are. And as we know, once something becomes ‘serious business’, men are going to want in on it.

Bake Off has provided a stage for a new kind of man. When the contestants are introduced, much is made of how the men bake at home with their children, a fact that never fails to warm my cold, cold feminazi heart. When I was a child, my father hardly cooked. Apart from nursing an ability to do incredibly inventive things with various cheeses, he had, I think, two recipes. One was for ‘Marmite Soup’ and the other, which he grandiosely termed ‘melange de legumes’ was for mixed veg bunged in the oven.

Imagine my surprise, then, when he became a stay-at-home dad for his youngest child, my half brother. Suddenly, he was baking his own bread. He was making his own pesto. He was producing the creamiest, most delicious trout paté known to woman. He was, in short, a new man. And it was wonderful to see.

Feminism has made many, many gains in recent decades, but as many women know, the unfair division of domestic labour is the final, feminist frontier. Women are still doing most of the housework, with only one in 10 married men doing as much cleaning as their wives. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a revolt. And the allocation of ‘blue’ jobs and ‘pink’ jobs still goes on in some households, which is why it’s so nice to see men engaging in a traditionally ‘pink’ activity and enjoying it.

Paul Hollywood can be credited in no small part for this. A big, brawny bear of a Scouser who spends his time wrapping little, delicate strands of puff pastry in spirals around perfectly poached pears. Yes please.

What’s even better about the gender mix of Bake Off is that it inspires other men to get in on the fun. Watching it with my boyfriend (who also never misses an episode) was a revelation. When I first moved in with him, he used to boil tortelloni for twenty minutes and we were using the blowtorch to light fags. But seeing Bake Off inspired him. Up he’d get on a Saturday morning, filled with thoughts of baking his own bread, or raring to go on the chocolate fondant. His biggest triumph was Ryan Chong’s famous 2012 Key Lime Pie, a creation that Paul and Mary dubbed “one of the best things they’d tasted in all three series of Bake Off.” And my God, was it delicious.

The stealth feminism of The Great British Bake Off has given birth to yet another ‘new man’, and for that I am eternally grateful to the programme. Though my waistline, less so, it has to be said.

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Written by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and the co-editor and founder of The Vagenda blog, which has now been turned into a book courtesy of Random House. She lives in North London.