The XX Factor

The Year of the Domestic Goddess Train Wreck


Nigella Lawson, DGTW

Oli Scarff

As 2013 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us. Review with us.

When a transcript of a deposition Paula Deen had made in a discrimination lawsuit became public in June, as you may recall, everyone went bonkers. This was mostly because sensible modern people were appalled by Deen’s statements, which seemed straight out of the Jim Crow era: She admitted to using the n-word countless times in her life, and she explained her desire to host a wedding with a “true Southern plantation-style theme.” But in addition to a legitimate sense of outrage, the nonstop media coverage of Deen’s racist utterances (and her ensuing PR implosion) was fueled by schadenfreude: There was something perversely gripping, even satisfying, about watching the public ruin of a woman who’d built her reputation on being domestic, maternal, and competent.

Turns out there was much more where that came from. In 2013, the flawless facades of many female celebrity cooks’ lives cracked and splintered. Nigella Lawson, the woman who ironically ushered the term “domestic goddess” into the lexicon, admitted to using cocaine in a tawdry trial involving her two allegedly thieving personal assistants and a maniacal, abusive ex-husband. Giada De Laurentiis sliced her finger pretty badly during a live television special, belying the perfect knife work viewers see in edited Food Network montages. Martha Stewart, our era’s original domestic maven, attracted negative attention for tweeting unappetizing photographs of food. (This transgression seemed to elicit more indignation than even her jail sentence in 2004—insider trading we could accept and forgive, but blurry, poorly framed iPhone snapshots of French onion soup go counter to everything Stewart symbolizes.)

The Stewart brouhaha in particular points to the tightrope we now expect cooking show hosts to walk: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, professional homemakers like Stewart could whip up gorgeous meals in dream kitchens on TV and then go home to their private lives. Audiences remained blissfully ignorance of the discrepancy between image and reality. (This isn’t to say anyone thought the Stewart we saw on television was real, exactly, just that we were complicit in the fantasy she peddled.) Now, with celebrities expected to stay in touch with their fans 24/7 on Twitter and Facebook, Food Network stars have to keep up the image off set—which is impossible. No one, not even Nigella Lawson, is as competent in real life as Nigella Lawson appears on television.

But as tempting as it is to blame social media for this year’s proliferation of TV domestic train wrecks, it’s not quite accurate. In two of the juiciest cases mentioned above—Deen’s and Lawson’s—unflattering details came to light not because of the social-media-era pressure for celebrity chefs to be on all the time, but because they were under oath in a court of law. Twitter may be the great equalizer, but there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned deposition to tarnish an impossibly immaculate image.