Appropriation of Women’s Work

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

In 2002, the popular Food Network television station introduced the series Paula’s Home Cooking staring Paula Deen. Running until 2012, the show featured Deen at home preparing meals for her friends and family. The rags-to-riches story of a divorced, single-mother moving to Savannah, Georgia to pursue her culinary passions pulled at the heart strings of viewers. In the show, Deen focuses on preparing southern style cuisine: grits, fried chicken, and collard greens (to name a few). Her southern identity and charm define who she is in the vast Foot Network lineup.

The meals Deen typically prepares are known as “soul” food: a specific type of cuisine derived from African American culture in the South. Soul food is traditionally believed to have come from middle to lower class African Americans in the south; Deen embodies and appears as the complete opposite. If one tunes in to Paula’s Home Cooking, they find a white woman surrounded by luxurious décor, pricey appliances, and an exuberant amount of wealth. Her Southern cooking style relies entirely on the African American community of the South that she is not a part of. The fame she attained was based on her appropriation and capitalization of black people and black cultural practices.

Paula Deen undoubtedly owes her fame to the black community, but she is notably discriminatory and racist against black people. She has infamously posted photos of her son in brownface and used derogatory language aimed at African Americans. For a white woman to appropriate and capitalize off of the culture of black people in the South, one would assume she’d pay them some form of respect, but she does not.

Most people attribute Deen’s popularity to her comforting and nurturing nature on the cooking television program. When one begins to unpack her presence, and capitalizing off of black cultural cuisine, the thinly layered veil in her appearance of innocence is peeled back. What we find is that Paula Deen utilizes stereotypes of the “mammy” figure that is commonly used to designate a nurturing, matronly, and non-sexual black woman that cares for a household and/or family. It appears that she has become so knowledgeable on black women and black culture in the South that she has created a white version of the mammy figure, and capitalized off of it.

Black women have combated the stereotype and troupe of the mammy in every aspect of their representation, whether in film, television, or real life. When Deen capitalizes off of the problematic signifier of a specific black womanhood, she utilizes the struggles of black women to gain monetary profits and fame. Ultimately, she erases the long-standing activism of black women to resist such stereotypes and creates a white-centric view of the South through commodifying soul food for a white audience.

After Paula Deen was publicly exposed for her racism, the Food Network canceled her programs. Deen has lost her capital, but her appropriation of African American culture in the South remains problematic as reruns of Paula’s Home Cooking continue to be broadcasted. This holiday season, I urge you to turn off Deen’s show, and instead take note of the talented black women in the culinary world as you prepare your holiday dinners such as Barbara Smith and Pat and Gina Neely.

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