Visual Processes of Hunger and Desire

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1999) has provided a context for the theatrical, spectacular, and visual properties of food. She traces the historical and cultural uses of food as performance and food in performance, moving through extravagant feasts to food as theatrical matter – art works, sculptures, durational performance. In this paper, I add to this list popular cultural food performances that primarily demand visual engagement. I find myself admiring food in restaurants, supermarkets, food counters, delicatessens, street stands and festivals; I gaze longingly at food in magazines and cookery books. I watch food on the television: food offers me a multitude of visual pleasures. Cooking programmes manipulate food, playing on the theatricality of cooking tasks (melt, chop, crush, spread) and the by-product of these transitions (sizzle, smoke, bubble). These physical processes are exploited as a seductive spectacle and entertainment. Through looking at food, I partake in what the film scholar Laura Mulvey has termed ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia’ (2009, p. 22).

My aim is to explore how femininity is produced and represented through the metaphor of food across a range of media via processes of looking, desiring, and consuming. I will argue that women and food have historically been visually aligned together, embedded within representational consciousness and braided into the fabric of ‘scopic regimes’. Central to my argument is the notion that food has been feminised through its position alongside women, subjected to ‘perspectival ways of seeing’ and exploited as a mechanism for constructing complex systems of ‘insatiable desire’ (Schneider 1997, p. 5).

Rebecca Schneider (1997) argues that perspectival ways of seeing have ‘inscribed women as given to be seen but not as given to see’ (p. 3). Thinking through this notion, I will argue that food and women are subjected to what I have termedthe hunger gaze – a matrix of ‘looks’ that incorporate erotic, sensorial, pornographic, voyeuristic, and perspectival ways of seeing and desiring. It is the conflation and the interplay of these ways of seeing that produce the hunger gaze, which I will examine via the visual tactics used in two representations of the culinary feminine – a term I use to signify the representation and construction of femininity through the medium of food. I will use Busby Berkeley’s abstract portrayal of the-female-body-as food in his 1930s filmic chorus girl routines. Manipulated as spectacle, his chorines look good-enough-to-eat and often resemble food. I will also use British television cook Nigella Lawson, who offers a unique cultural depiction of food and femininity that she constructs through intimacy, confession, sensuality and sexual desire.

Feminised Food spectacles

Rosalind Coward (1984) brings together the complex systems of desire and pleasure that circumscribe both women and food. She describes, for example, the ‘full colour pictures of gleaming bodies of Cold Mackerel Basquaise lying invitingly on a bed of peppers’ (p. 103). This familiar scenario is one among a plethora of seductive, tempting images of food that passively lie ready-and-waiting to be devoured as eye-candy. Food photographs such as this are ‘touched up and imperfections removed’, in the same way that ‘photos of glamour models…[have] skin blemishes removed, excess fat literally cut out of the picture (Coward 1984, p. 104). Building on Coward (1984), I would argue that food isfeminised as an objectified spectacle. Not only have women been associated with food (as mothers and providers), but also treated like food; desired and consumed through processes of visual objectification.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella Lawson available:

The culturally loaded image of the woman-in-the-kitchen is fraught with complexity. Unlike the male television chef, the female television cook is already part of a history in which women have been abstracted into the realm of the imaginary, as fetishistic icons of femininity and domesticity. As a post-modern icon, Nigella demonstrates an acute awareness of her visual apparatus and her citational image as a woman-in-the-kitchen. Nigella creates a complex culinary identity by layering together, and re-inventing, iconic, historically opposed, images of femininity. Her persona is fashioned on a paradoxical fantasy role of the domestic goddess/housewife that she plays up against her modern, ironic, sexy, fashionable and unconventional cooking style. This dual identity successfully welcomes a spectatorship that accommodates both archetypal fantasies of domestic perfection and a contemporary prerequisite of postmodern female choice, independence and pleasure.

Busby Berkely image

Busby Berkeley’s Chorus Girls. 42nd Street (EnRight 1933) Available:

The chorus girl is synonymous with decoration and spectacle, existing for her to-be-looked-at-ness, inextricably bound to systems of desire and visual consumption. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett recounts how theatrical props in the 1920s musical revues were fashioned into ‘food’ such as ‘fruits, vegetables, or a Manhattan cocktail’ (1997, p. 82). Chorus girls were often dressed up as various foods including sweets, chocolates or ‘dishes at lavish feasts’ such as ingredients for a “Follies Salad” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1997, p. 82). Constructed and manipulated through the metaphor of food, ‘these edible women… reverse the direction of food as a performing object. Here it is the showgirl…that is made into an object for eating, but in the absence of food’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2007, p. 82-3).

Through the camera lens, Berkeley (1933) cultivated a particular kind of looking at women in his lavish chorus girl routines and developed the woman-as-food metaphor. His choruses became human tortillas, meringues and delicious extravagant spectacles. His routines exploited the multiple, synchronized female body as food through visual filmic tactics of continual motion from the camera (spinning, rotating, opening, penetrating); and the interplay between distance and intimacy (moving from visual consumption of the whole body via panoptic shots from above, to close up shots of the mouth, eyes and legs). Through large-scale choreographic images, Berkeley’s chorines are orchestrated into kaleidoscopic patterns resembling food, female genitalia, and acts of ingestion and intercourse. The chorus girl entangles pleasures in looking at women with sensory ‘hungers’ that invite a sexual, alimentary, and predominantly masculinised, gaze.

The cinema for Mulvey (2009) goes ‘beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness- […and] builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself’ (p. 26). I suggest that food media also objectify both food and women as spectacle. Nigella and the Chorus girls look good enough to eat, and I take pleasure in looking desiring and hungering for them. The separation in time between the chorus girls and Nigella points to the historical and cultural practice of looking at women through the metaphor of food. Berkeley’s chorines exist in a particular socially and culturally constructed ‘feminine’ space, and, as a product of that legacy, Nigella plays with that ‘space’, playing inside the gap(s) of femininity. As female food spectacles existing in different mediums and contexts, I would argue that Nigella and Berkeley’s chorines can be used to glean additional purchase on the hunger gaze, and mine the development of, and interplay between, media tactics of seduction that visually and metaphorically align women with food.

This scholarly research culminated in a theatre performance Good Enough to Eat (2010), which explored the ways in which processes of watching food and women that are bound to the visual machinations and apparatuses of film and television, can be manipulated through alternative field(s) of vision created in theatre practice. The show investigated the ways in which both men and women desire (hunger for) and ‘watch’ (consume) food and women in media culture. The hunger gaze was used to develop my own critical gazes designed to intervene in desiring ways of seeing food and women. The performance will be represented here via a series of visual and textual interruptions that appear in between my cultural argument. As with the audience for this show, as readers, I hope to draw attention to your role as watchers and consumers, always conscious of the ways in which you choose to negotiate your gaze.


Good Enough to Eat 2010 copyright Jenny Lawson

Nigella’s domestic goddess fantasy image is combined with the Show Girl in a tripartite theatrical, filmic, and televisual performance aesthetic. Spectators are invited into a mock television studio cookery programme. ‘Jenny’ plays the celebrity chef with the help of her cameraman who films the show, which is projected onto a screen at the back of the space. The show includes an array of visual culinary food spectacles, cooking demonstrations, confessions, indulgent moments; sweet foods with sensory appeal such as candyfloss, meringue, melted chocolate and cake; and a chorus of four Busby Berkeley inspired tap dancers. In an attempt to offer multi-perspectival looks at culturally habituated processes of seeing food and women, the audience are invited to recognise their role as spectators with the responsibility of negotiating the onscreen and onstage action. The projected images alternate between a black and white pre-recorded ‘fantasy’ of ‘Jenny’s’ perfect cooking programme, which exists in an alternative temporality to the live show, and two live feed inputs – one from the cameraman in the theatre, and the other from a static overhead camera depicting panoptic images of the space.

Desirable ‘Vanishing’ Objects

The first move (or rather the first look) in my argument is to consider Nigella and the chorus girls as commodity objects that fuel a matrix of desires. Bejewelled and decorated in lavish costumes, Berkeley’s chorus girls embody capitalist desire. Set in the Great Depression, the meta-theatrical narrative of Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy 2006) depicts the financial collapse of a musical stage show. In Berkeley’s routine ‘We’re in the Money,’ synthetic gold coins are placed in the girls’ hair and in front of the crotch. The girls parade their ‘worth’ throughout the space in a tantalising spectacle, entangling sex, femininity and commodity capitalism in one image. Citing Sohn-Rethel, Mark Franko considers how the chorus girls perform ‘neither sex nor the commodity per se, but rather “exchange abstraction”‘ (2002, p. 34), which Sohn-Rethel defines as ‘the suspension of use’ (2006, p. 36). The physical labour of the chorus girls dressed as money, circulating money, mobilises commodity exchange. For Franko (2002), ‘[t]he chorine’s use is suspended by the fact that she is both the goods and the measure of value regulating their own exchange’; although this does not result in complete immobilisation, it visually suspends their performances ‘in an unreal spatial dimension’ (p. 35). Through these ‘visual tools of exchange abstraction’ (Franko 2002, p. 36) Berkeley’s camera techniques enable the girls to appear in two places at once, as floating in mid-air, or for their body parts to appear enlarged. ‘One thinks of […the chorine’s] display on revolving floats, staircases…Either the camera moves or the ground on which she poses moves; she herself has lost the art of movement’ (Franko 2002, p. 36). The chorus girls vanish into their own mechanised spectacle, becoming highly constructed visible objects that nonetheless disappear behind ‘the image of woman as image’, to borrow Lucy Fischer’s phrase (Franko 2002, p. 36).

As an individual personality, Nigella doesn’t ‘vanish’ in the same way as Berkely’s collective girls, but as a brand name, she objectifies and commodifies her image through similar visual tactics. Her television programmes are not only an advertisement for her products, they offer up facets of her lifestyle and persona for economic and visual purchase. In this way, Nigella’s labour and use, to apply Franko’s model, is constructed and suspended through the seamless flow of images that capture her successfully managing her domestic and ‘feminine’ duties; such as cooking, taking her children to school, food shopping, and beautifying herself. Like her food, we watch the before and after effect of her transformations as she moves between the roles of mother, housewife, family cook and party host, which also construct her as ‘the image of woman as image’. Like the chorus girl, these images are continuous and serve to suspend Nigella in a perpetual Ferris wheel of feminine activity that renders other movements or parts of her identity invisible. Yet, as a fetish object, Nigella exceeds visual representation; her image is continually re-played and re-presented, fuelling a desire to ‘have’ or ‘be with’ her, whilst her celebrity status separates her from ‘everyday’ women. Nigella, then, is subject to the impossible lure, which Schneider terms ‘the paradox’ of female representation; ‘[s]ignifying desire…we see her body [woman] everywhere, selling a dream of a future real to a present posited always as “lack”…always beyond reach, always already lost’ (Schneider 1997, p. 6).

The chorus girls and Nigella are presented equivocally alongside their respective commodity objects. This equivocation operates on economies of identity and separation: the chorus girls were typically presented as objects associated with ‘fashionable and luxurious femininity’ like corsets, furs, jewels and lace (Glenn 2000, p. 168); and Nigella visually complements her food by often wearing matching colours, such as a pale yellow jumper when making her lemon risotto (Cyriax 2002). Both examples construct a simultaneous circulation of desire between the women, the commodities they represent, and the women as commodities. Nigella and the chorus girls enact a desire for desire itself ‘that circulates in a system of infinite deferral replicating the vanishing point of perspective’ (Schneider 1997, p. 90).

These (vanishing) feminised commodity objects impact upon a female spectatorship positioning ‘the modern female as desiring consumer and consumable object’ (Glenn 2000, p. 165). A similar spectatorship is constructed through advertising, in which women notably play an integral part on both sides of the visual exchange. Schneider (1997) cites an advertisement in Vogue magazine for a Gianfranco Ferre sofa in which a woman is ‘draped upside down over the couch looking as though she has just been murdered’ (p. 119). For Schneider, popular advertisements such as this ‘figure the female body as infinitely inhabitable vessel for desire’ (1997, p. 119). The woman and the sofa are both desired as commodity and capture ‘the female consumer in her effort to emulate the drive toward disembodiment her culture offers as “femininity”‘ (Schneider 1997, p. 122). Schneider is reiterating feminist arguments here that expose how the female body signifies masculinity by possessing masculine desire, leaving all readings of Woman in relation to the male, as an object of his insatiable desire.

The advertisement demonstrates how Woman is ‘rendered invisible by her visible markings…[and] can find herself striving to appear invisible’ (Schneider 1997, p. 99-100), and infinitely vanishes behind the image of ‘general “Woman” – woman as disembodied desire’ (Schneider 2007, p. 122). I would further argue that her desire also becomes sexualised. She performs her own disembodiment – her guise of ‘femininity’ – and knowingly relinquishes herself as a passive seductive object. It is from this position, of knowingly possessing seductive desire, that the image of woman appears empowered by her own conscious invisibility, thus naturalizing the process by which a female desire (from a female spectatorship) becomes masculinized. The image successfully captures woman (on both sides of the visual exchange) in the hunger gaze, entangling her in potentially pornographic, sensorial and voyeuristic ways of seeing and being seen. In a similar way, Nigella and the chorus girls self-consciously acknowledge their visible-invisibility. My interest is to explore these tactics of visual seduction and mine the interplay between strategies of visibility and invisibility constructing (desirable) ways of seeing food and women.



Good Enough to Eat 2010 copyright Jenny Lawson

Good Enough to Eat is laced with a matrix of desires. The show starts on screen depicting a black and white version of ‘Jenny’ inside a pristine, modern kitchen baking a cake. Moments later the live ‘Jenny’ enters the performance space wearing an apron denoting her as ‘Celebrity Chef’. In contrast to the confident onscreen ‘Jenny’, the onstage ‘Jenny’ confesses her anxieties to the audience – this is after all her first time as a celebrity chef. She is a bit nervous, a bit messy. She isn’t very good at fancy cooking manoeuvres, but above all she is worried that she isn’t ‘good enough’. This opening sequence sets up a pastiche of ‘Jenny’s’ desires (or hungers): ‘Jenny’ desires domestic perfection; she desires to please and entertain, but most of all she desires to be desired. There is a disparity, a gap or a lack between the two versions of ‘Jenny’. The onscreen ‘Jenny’ becomes festishised, fantasised, and desired by the onstage ‘Jenny’ who is always chasing after the image of her onscreen, fantasy domestic self. A cake also bakes in an oven onstage throughout the show implicating spectators in the desire to eat directly through food as the delicious smell of baking wafts and lingers throughout the performance space.

Sensorial – Visual Pleasures of a Pornographic Gaze

Expanding from desire, the second look in my argument considers how Nigella and the chorus girls function like food, as sensory seductive objects that entice a spectatorship through the metaphor of sex. Nigella is renowned for her hourglass figure and her feminine features remain exposed as she cooks. Her long, dark-brunette waves of hair are kept loose, her nails are perfectly manicured and she dresses stylishly, often contrasting her pale alabaster complexion and dark hair with striking blocks of bright colour from fitted jumpers or red lipstick. Her sensuality oozes through the screen: she uses sexual innuendos and vivid food descriptions in her commentary; she adopts a flirtatious cooking style, seductively tasting and touching her food; and she vocalises her sensory pleasures through ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ sounds.

Nigella’s sexually provocative tone is part of a trend that aligns food with sex and the erotic and stems from a history of women’s objectification. Bell and Valentine cite the iconic 1991 British Cadbury’s ‘Flake’ commercial in which a woman lying in a bath ‘longingly sucks a phallic shaped flake’ and note that ‘she is not only sexualised but commodified and presented as consumable too’ (Bell & Valentine1997, p. 54). Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo (1993) also cites a Jello advertisement in which a young woman eats a sensible low calorie dessert whilst sitting in a flirtatious pose with the printed provocative caption, ‘I’m a girl who just can’t say no, I insist on dessert’ (p. 113). Bordo observes that eating is both sexualised and contained in this image. It seems that rather than promoting feminine indulgence in food, advertisements have displaced the (problematic) desire to eat with the trope of sexual desire. Although the Flake girl and the Jello girl sit at opposing ends of the indulgence spectrum, both acts of eating are framed as sex. The women are suspended in a state of desire, positioned in a sexually charged submissive pose, and their acts of eating capture them in a mock surreptitious moment of erotic and sensual pleasure induced by the food product. Through her flirtatious cooking style, Nigella plays with, and perpetuates this cultural entanglement between women food and sex in her construction of the culinary feminine.

Through sex, food media is able to capture and reproduce the sensual appeal of food and induce a physical response in a manner similar to pornography. Like conventional pornography, food images operate via haptic perception, producing tactility through visual sensory input (a process akin to synaesthesia), which culminates in physical pleasure. Govan and Rebellato state that cookbooks and food TV ‘serve as vicarious eating’ (1999, p. 36). In this way, editorial imaging welds tactility, smell, and taste into our gaze and awakens our bodily senses constructing physical and psychological desire and hunger for food. The UK consumer chain Marks and Spencer utilise the ‘food-porn’ trend in their advertisements. A slow speaking seductive female voice narrates over the top of sensual food images – dark gravy pours from a jug, melted chocolate oozes from inside a pudding, always in slow motion, caught in a moment of transgressive excess or transformation. The foods interact and coalesce with each other for the pleasure of the viewers’ gaze. This hugely successful marketing campaign of fornicating food stimulates the senses leaving viewers hungry for more.

Berkeley’s camera manipulates his chorus girls through similar pornographic and sensorial filmic tactics. In Berkeley’s routine ‘Dames’ (Enright 2006), the camera transports the viewer into lead male character Jimmy Higgins’ (played by Dick Powell) fantasy world, in which teams of beautiful women are seen waking and beautifying themselves. Through Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic choreography, the collective of girls is moulded into a human flower. As an emblem of female sex, the flower begins to pulsate and contract as the girls move in sequence becoming a vulva stimulated by the distanced, panoptic, all-consuming gaze of the camera, and resemble panoptic images of food. In the same way that food TV emphasises moments of penetration (slicing, cracking, stuffing), as food is cut into and opened up for the viewers as voyeurs to delve inside, Berkeley’s camera penetrates the girls repeatedly zooming in and out, shifting between the spectacular and the intimate. Both the chorus girls and food images have a static quality to their pose and the camera pans over their bodies revealing and scrutinising each part. The instances of movement capture the girls in a moment of transformation always gently turning, twisting, or rotating like the gravy pouring from a height. The similarity in visual tactics used across contemporary food media and 1930s musical film suggest that the seduction devices employed in food media are rooted in a performative visual tradition that objectifies, sexualizes and sensationalizes women.

Schneider states that ‘within the terms of perspective, there is no reciprocity – the seen does not see back’ (1997, p. 67). Yet both chorus girls and Nigella appear explicitly aware of the camera and tease the viewer with ‘knowingly’ provocative pouts and poses. In ‘Dames’ (Enright 2006), one of the chorus girls playfully dabs her powder puff onto the camera lens momentarily enveloping the screen and the viewers’ sight inside her puff and implicating them in a sensory and sexually suggestive experience. However, this action only serves to mark the woman as seen and produces and perpetuates the notion of female pleasure in being looked at. In his investigation into Ways of Seeing across the visual arts, John Berger (1972) observes how the common image of the nude female in classic Renaissance painting looks out of the frame towards the spectator, thus marking her as seen. He notes the visual tropes used to construct the demise of Woman, such as the common depiction of a woman gazing into a mirror looking at her own reflection. Berger argues that the real function of this strategy ‘was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight’ (1972, p. 51). Through their playful acknowledgement of the camera, Berkeley’s chorines similarly ‘connive’ along with this visual narrative and invite desiring female spectators to do the same.

Nigella, however, negotiates her visual contract differently and manipulates multi-perspectival modes of looking from both within and outside the hunger gaze. Nigella’s awareness of, and flirtation with, the camera is already a quotation of a particular kind of femininity; she playfully acknowledges her visible-invisibility and connives in perspectival vision through which she performs a ‘knowing’ awareness of her own self-construction as a ‘male fantasy’. However, in doing so, she invites her viewers to see themselves looking. As author of her own self-image, Nigella is granted sight and autonomy over her representation. Her objective irony potentially constructs a reciprocal gaze that enables her to look back at both the oncoming gaze and her own citational image. Nigella becomes the seen and the seer, the consumed and the consumer, hungry and hungered for, and she carefully treads a line between being, and playing, the objectified. Her paradoxical strategies of being and playing successfully place Nigella inside a gap between femininity and feminism, outside conventional (gendered) scopic regimes, and allow her to reclaim her femininity and sexuality on her own terms.

Candy Floss


Good Enough to Eat 2010 copyright Jenny Lawson

‘Jenny’ demonstrates how to make candyfloss as the dancers perform a dreamy routine with candyfloss sticks made from cotton wool. The cameraman zooms in on the girls’ faces as they suggestively and knowingly open kitchen cupboards and pour various sweet foods into their mouths including golden syrup, cream, and melted chocolate. The live feed input changes to an overhead shot as the girls lie down on the floor and make mock kaleidoscopic patterns using their legs, arms, and candyfloss. The dancers are presented as delicious, sweet, seductive spectacles, available for objectification. However, the dancers also function as estrangement device, interrupting the narrative of the food TV show. Spectators have to make a series of decisions regarding their gaze and their own scopophilia. Through activating their gaze, the audience become conscious voyeurs, and in the moment of experiencing pleasure they are invited to recognise the scopic regimes that bind them to a particular way of seeing.

Grotesque Disclosures: Cultivating a Voyeuristic Gaze

My third look considers the use of fragmentation, spectacle and confession in representations of food and women. Caitlin Hines (1999) has explored the representation of women-as-sex-objects by examining the ‘woman-as-dessert-metaphor’ in the English language. Desserts associated with women are characteristically cut up into small pieces (cheesecake, cherry pie), or exist as fragmented items that make up a batch (cookie, crumpet, cupcake) (Hines 1999, p. 162). Moments of dissection and fragmentation are also laced into the visual contract that Nigella and Berkeley’s chorines construct with their audience. Through a pornographic lens, spectators are enticed into a web of voyeurism and invited to consume ‘slices’ and ‘pieces’ of female erotic body parts. The female mouth is commonly featured in Berkeley’s sequences, often mimicking the vagina. The opening number in Gold Diggers of 1935 (Berkeley 2006) depicts actor Winifred Shaw’s disembodied head floating in the distance while she sings ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. The camera gradually closes in on her face highlighting her sultry eyes, mouth and lips. An overhead shot of Shaw’s upside-down face captures her smoking a phallic cigarette, which, like food, penetrates her mouth in a sensory, seductive image. In Berkeley’s routine ‘Dames’ (Enright 2006), the camera dissects the chorus girls like food, enabling viewers to consume delicious bite-sized pieces; the girls stand bent over in a vertical line looking through their legs towards the camera so that the female mouth visually displaces the crotch. The camera travels through the line of multiple legs, penetrating their open smiling mouths.

In a similar fashion, the camera rarely depicts a complete image of Nigella’s body. Rather it dissects her figure, zooming in close on her sultry, smoky eyes, full cleavage, and her often open, feeding mouth. For Coward the mouth is

[w]omen’s most intimate orifice, often represented as the most personal aspect of self. Source of gratifications, illicit and delicious intimacies, the organ of confession, the mouth is strangely crossed by the structures of eroticism and prohibition which touch on women in this society. (1984, p. 117)

Nigella performs such oral gestures, framing her typically feminine experiences and dilemmas in and around her mouth. She vocalizes her oral pleasures, confesses her greed, and performs over-eating, eating alone and compulsively late at night. These acts of disclosure are packaged and presented to the viewers as (tasty) ‘pieces’ of inside knowledge to feed a curious, voyeuristic gaze.

Nigella’s confessional mode of address is part of her seductive, pornographic strategy. Coward makes a comparison between food photography and pornography and she describes the unequal regimes of pleasure that they construct. For Coward (1984), conventional pornography empowers the male and food pornography always already entangles any pleasure experienced by a female spectatorship with notions of guilt, servitude and subordination that circumscribe women’s relationship with food (p. 103). Nigella plays with this entanglement and uses it to construct a unique relationship with food and her viewers. In her ‘Everyday Easy’ episode from Nigella Express (Cyriax 2007), she makes a caramel croissant pudding after returning home from a party. Nigella explains that after a night of alcohol consumption, she craves rich carbohydrate-heavy food and her pudding is not only ideal, it is what she ‘needs. ‘ However, Nigella’s biological state of needing slips into a state of desiring, creating a subtext in which what might have been a late night sexual encounter between Nigella and a partner, instead takes place between Nigella and her food. Nigella seductively describes her ‘luscious, smooth, flowing caramel’ custard that she pours over layers of croissant (Cyriax 2007). Her ‘foreplay’ continues as she points up her sensual pleasures stating ‘mmm I can still feel the butter from the croissants on my fingers’ (2007). Wearing a sexy black silk nightgown, she dollops a large portion of the finished pudding into her bowl, stating ironically, ‘I’m going to be very very modest and take just half’ (2007). She takes a bite gushing ‘mmm…everything I hoped it would be…’, and begins to walk away, pauses, and turns back flashing the camera a knowing look finishing her sentence with ‘…and more’ (2007) – a humorous quip implementing the ‘better than sex’ marketing ploy and advocating the ultimate (feminine) satisfaction food can bring.

The camera follows Nigella to the bedroom where she eats her pudding alone in bed. Here she does not look at the camera, rather the viewers as voyeurs watch her in this, albeit highly constructed, moment of surreptitious indulgence. The scene moves into one of Nigella’s midnight fridge-raiding sequences that close her programmes. She pours left-over cream over the remainder of the pudding and eats it out of the dish with a large serving spoon. In this sequence, Nigella becomes the ultimate desiring woman charged with an insatiable hunger. An example of what I term grotesque disclosure, this places Nigella in a very familiar feminised space, resembling guilty acts of secret eating and gestures towards an unhealthy, emotional dependence on food.

The demonstration is grotesque in its clichéd use of food and sex, and Nigella plays an exaggerated version of herself – distancing herself from the realities of unequal regimes of pleasure, to return to Coward (1984), induced by food and pornography. In order to secure a female spectatorship, media representations of food-induced feminine pleasure need to be handled carefully via a particular set of strategies, such as those in the advertisements cited by Bordo (1993). As demonstrated above, Nigella’s strategy involves playing with the entanglement of pleasure/pain that arises through seductive food images resulting in women’s complex and ambivalent relationships with food. By framing her food habits as a grotesque parody, Nigella is able to disclose her typically ‘feminine’ vulnerability and emotional dependence on food, whilst simultaneously performing the supposed satisfaction of her repressed desires and transcending her guilt. This enables her to seduce and construct a unique relationship with food and her viewers, and particularly a female spectatorship, through her simultaneous identification and disidentification with feminine food anxiety.

However, Nigella’s confessional moments of indulgence are clearly playful and ironic. I would argue that the viewers are never pushed too far and potentially alienated by either the dangerous identification with the implied food-pain, or disidentification through repulsion/disapproval of her grotesque and indulgent food-pleasure. Instead, Nigella invites her viewers to partake in the joke at the expense of ‘femininity’. She ironizes herself as grotesque spectacle, simultaneously demonstrating and mocking her own unstable relationship with food. Through Nigella’s humorous abstraction and quotation of a culturally recognisable cliché, her self-mockery functions as a seductive spectacle that naturalises and reiterates female food anxieties, thus further embedding them into un/conscious cultural narrative.



Good Enough to Eat 2010 copyright Jenny Lawson

‘Jenny’ performs a ritual of drinking milk intermittently throughout the show as an act of confession and ‘secret’ eating. She self-consciously opens the fridge and the cupboards retrieving different sized cartons of milk, varying between full fat, semi-skimmed and skimmed. As she drinks, ‘Jenny’ discloses neurotic food rules and secret eating habits to the viewers. It is not clear if these confessions are real and a tension between being and playing is signalled here. The drinking of milk becomes entangled with the construction of intimacy, echoing the often personal and uncomfortable midnight fridge-raiding moments in Nigella’s programmes. Yet, the performance of both Nigella’s and ‘Jenny’s’ food secrets are never really secret. These acts of surreptitious consumption are always already made public through the culturally visible trope of female anxiety and guilt concerning food. ‘Jenny’ invites spectators to ‘see’ the milk differently adopting alternative modes of consumption and camera angles. Milk is scrutinised via a panoptic shot from above as ‘Jenny’ slowly sips a carefully measured 150ml of milk. Later, ‘Jenny’ drinks a litre of full fat milk, pouring most of it over herself in a moment of ‘indulgence’ as the camera captures her refracted multiplied image. ‘Jenny’s’ milk drinking creates both spectacle and chaos that results in an (abject) excess of milk, and she is invited to look at herself onscreen and consume herself consuming. ‘Jenny’ and the milk are captured in a multiplied and repeated image of insatiable hunger. This perpetual system of desire leaves the female chasing after her own tail, as the more ‘Jenny’ looks at herself, the more she disappears.

The Co-Optive Desires of an ‘Anorectic’ Gaze

To conclude, my final look investigates what I term an anorectic gaze, developing from Schneider’s assertion that Woman as the ‘[e]mblem of consumptive desire and designated capitalist consumer…sets out to consume herself in an anorectic frenzy of logic of the vanishing point – attempting to consume her own inaccessible image, chasing after disappearance infinitely’ (1997, p. 71).

Through military choreographic precision and carefully synchronised movements, Berkeley’s de-individualised chorus girls appear en masse. Berkeley demands a visual contract that positions his mass female unit as a reductive icon for femininity itself, rather than a diverse female collective. The cinematic spectacle resonates with Mulvey’s assertion that the visual presence of women in narrative film works ‘against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation’ (2009, p. 19-20): functioning as grotesque spectacle, the chorines are unable to produce meaning. For a female spectatorship identifying with, and simultaneously desiring the chorus girls, female sight is fractured. The chorus girls co-opt, or ‘connive’ (Berger 1972, p. 51) to re-quote Berger, in a female desire through the guises of commodity capitalism, which are always only legitimised through patriarchal desire. The desiring female gaze becomes masculinized. Women are left desiring/consuming their own image-as-spectacle while theiranorectic gaze vanishes inwards rendering them invisible.

Women, then, are co-opted into self-consumptive cycles of desire. Bound to vision, women’s roles as spectators are complex; as Berger has stated ‘[a] woman must continually watch herself…taught and persuaded to survey herself she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her’ (1972, p. 48). These fractured sight(s) of woman leave the female spectator in a constant state of hunger resulting in a kind of visual anorexia in which the more they look at themselves the more they vanish. Although there are aspects of Nigella’s performance strategy that momentarily free her from the hunger gaze, her sight is fractured by her own promise. Part of a culture in which food and women function to seduce a consumer audience and perpetuate the voyeuristic gaze, Nigella ultimately reduces women and food to the ‘vanishing point of perspective’ (Schneider 1997, p. 90). As a female spectator watching Nigella, I am always left looking, desiring, longing, and (ineffectually) chasing after my own image.



Good Enough to Eat 2010 copyright Jenny Lawson

‘Jenny’s’ excessive milk drinking leads into a spectacular sequence in which Jenny and her dancers recreate the ‘Friday feeling’ moment of food indulgence used as a marketing ploy in the British Cadbury’s ‘Crunchie’ chocolate bar advertisements. As the dancers pose onstage with beautiful cakes and sweet treats, ‘Jenny’ is captured onscreen gorging on milk, ‘crunchies,’ and cakes. Consequently, the seductive spectacle is ‘swallowed-up’ by ‘Jenny’, who momentarily refuses to disappear, entangling pleasure and repulsion. The routine climaxes as ‘Jenny’ gets carried away with her food-high and attempts to join in the dance. However, a shower of popcorn falls from above covering the stage, dancers and ‘Jenny’ resulting in another female-food-spectacle that ultimately collapses into the grotesque. ‘Jenny’ is left exposed in the space, covered in remnants of milk and sugar as the audience and her cast stare at her, in a moment of awkward ‘uncertainty’. ‘Jenny’ ends the sequence by reading out loud an uncomfortable ‘food confession’: ‘Last night I ate half of a whole massive trifle at half past four this morning. Why? Because I am fucked up in the head’ (Lawson 2010).

In Good Enough to Eat (2010), I attempted to expose the hunger gaze and manipulate it as a resistant strategy in order to adopt what Schneider terms ‘a refusal to vanish’ (1997, p. 71). This involved exploiting strategies of reversal, disruption, seduction, pastiche, excess, and multi-perspecitval modes of seeing the culinary feminine, from both inside and outside the hunger gaze. The moments of grotesque spectacle involving ‘Jenny’ and the tap dancers were deliberately intended to interrupt the cooking show narrative and ‘freeze the flow of action’ producing ironic ‘moments of erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey 2009, p. 20). However, the spectacle was always undercut by grotesque disclosure, interrupting and preventing a total, all-consuming moment of visual pleasure. Potential moments of ‘erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey 2009, p. 20) were displaced and subverted into subdued, exposed moments that refused to vanish – in which the woman, ‘Jenny’, looked back at her voyeurs after tricking them momentarily with the hunger gaze.


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Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books Ltd.)

Berkeley, Busby, dir. (2006). Gold Diggers of 1935. 2006 [DVD] (USA: Warner Brothers)

Cyriax, Dominic, dir. (2007). Nigella Express. 2007. [DVD] (Australia: North Pacific Ltd & Pablum Productions Ltd)

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Enright, Ray. (2006). Dames. 2006 [DVD] (USA: Warner Brothers)

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Glenn, Susan (2000). Female Spectacle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

Hines, Caitlin (1999). “Rebaking the Pie: The Woman as Dessert Metaphor”, in Bucholtz, Mary, Liang, A.C, & Sutton, Laurel. A, eds. (1999). Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press)

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (2007). “Making Sense of Food in Performance: The table and the stage”, in Banes, Sally & Lepecki, Andre, eds (2007). The Senses in Performance (New York: Routledge)

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (1999). “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium”, Performance Research: On Cooking, Vol .4, no.1, Spring 1999 (London: Taylor & Francis)

Lawson, Jenny, dir. (2010). Good Enough to Eat. 2010. [Performance] (First Performed 20th January 2010: Stage@Leeds, UK)

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Mulvey, Laura (2009). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Visual and other pleasures. 2nd Edition (Bazingstoke: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN)