On MasterChef Junior, Innate Biases Are Hard to Beat

The charm of Gordon Ramsay's cooking contest masks the way it perpetuates certain race and gender norms among its young competitors.

Fox’s MasterChef Junior stands out even among the hundreds of cooking competition shows currently on air, not to mention the dozen or so other versions of the storied MasterChef franchise. For one, all the contestants are between the ages of eight and 13; for another, these children create dishes just as complex as any made by their adult counterparts. Some can barely lift the kitchen equipment, but that doesn’t stop them from sous vide-ing like they’ve been cooking for at least twice as long as they’ve been alive. It’s stunning to watch as tiny children execute perfect homemade pasta, macarons made from scratch, and salt-crusted branzinos, all under the somewhat terrifying watch of Gordon Ramsey.

Still, the mere novelty of watching kids cooking isn’t why MasterChef Junior has continued to garner solid ratings in its third season (with a fourth already on the way). There’s something genuinely touching about the way these children approach the kitchen. Where else can you see reality contestants literally squeal with excitement at a team challenge, or say, “I’m here to win, but also to make friends” without even a trace of irony? These kids are not only thrilled to be there, but they also clearly respect each other, cheering their friends on in a challenge or praising a fellow competitor’s plating technique. This unfettered love of cooking and lack of the usual sour scheming can make MasterChef Junior one of the more heartwarming, inspiring, and downright fascinating reality competitions on television—but it isn't immune from some of the usual pitfalls.

In its second season, the show started getting predictable, as could be expected; reality competitions tend to settle into a repetitive groove when they find a format that works. The problem with MasterChef Junior, though, was that the same kinds of kids kept getting the same kinds of comments. As a dedicated viewer, I felt uneasy about this in a way I couldn’t explain—at least not until the end of the second season, when the show had the closest thing it’s had to a scandal. Judges Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich had to cut two children from a losing team after they had struggled with a pop-up restaurant challenge. There was Oona, a fierce 9-year old girl who had a meltdown while manning the deep fryer, and Sean, a 12-year-old Asian-American boy whose steak blew the other team’s out of the water. Their team leader was Samuel, a 12-year-old white boy who'd been pegged as the gourmand frontrunner, and yet had both botched his fish and failed to bring his team together. Elliot sighed, took a pause big enough to hold a commercial break, and finally announced that the one to stay would be … Samuel. “Crucially,” Elliot said to a visibly surprised Samuel, “you were the one that looked the most comfortable in that environment.” Emphasis his.

My jaw dropped. First of all, since when should the veneer of confidence matter for a cooking challenge? You can’t eat confidence. Second of all, and most devastating: Of course Samuel looked the most at home in that environment. Unlike the others on his team, Samuel was a self-assured white boy. In other words, he was what most people visualize when they imagine a head chef.

The discomfort I’d been feeling snapped into place: MasterChef Junior bills itself as an inclusive show that encourages creativity and hard work, but it can still be a microcosm of the same old exhausting gender and race biases ingrained in daily life. That these biases can be less overt doesn’t make them less dangerous. If anything, coded sexism, racism, and favoritism is far more damaging than if it's blatant, because it becomes so much harder to change—or even to call out at all. The feeling that something’s fallen prey to bias is uniquely frustrating; without concrete proof, it’s easy to dismiss unease as over-sensitivity. The evidence that MasterChef had more sympathy for its white male contestants came in the form of Elliot saying outright that Samuel “looks” the part. With the implicit made explicit, it was easier to look at MasterChef Junior's two-and-a-half season run through a sharper and much less flattering light.

Ramsay, Elliott, and Bastianich are all very successful chefs, restaurateurs, and white men. And on screen, they have a history of favoring children who look like them, whether they mean to or not. Throughout the series, these judges encourage all the children, but reserve more heartfelt sentiments like “I see a lot of myself in you” for the boys who do indeed look like they do. It was clear season two champion and adorable blond Tennessee native Logan was marked for success once he was pulled aside for several one-on-one talks with an unusually earnest Ramsay. Logan seemed startled, but I wasn’t; Ramsay had said only a couple episodes earlier that Logan reminded him of his own son. There’s comfort in the familiar.

In the pilot episode, Bastianich asks the boys about their future restaurants like it’s a given, but his compliment when he tastes Sofia’s almond-crusted sea bass is to ask, “Could you do that again, or is this luck?” (In season two, he asks the same of Oona, when she bakes a spectacular blood orange passionfruit cream pie: “Is this a fluke?”) Later, Ramsay jokes to 12-year-old Jewels that she should take on one of the boy contestants as her boyfriend, “on the side, like mustard,” and he playfully asks Oona if she’d want to marry his son Jack, to which she scrunches up her nose and shakes her head. Sofia, Jewels, and Oona remain serious about their food despite the judges’ best efforts, but these jokes undercut their legitimacy as young cooks. The boys, on the other hand, don't have to deal with this kind of teasing. It'll be interesting to see what happens next season when Momofuku pastry chef Christina Tosi replaces Bastianich on the judging panel.

The girls of MasterChef Junior were the ones who drew me into the show in the first place. During the first season, my Twitter timeline was consistently beside itself about Sarah, the nine-year old girl who blew Ramsay’s mind with a perfect molten lava cake and shrieked at her friend to win a whipped cream challenge by whipping it “like a man!” We shared our outrage when older competitor Troy dismissed her prowess by reducing her to her gender, and nursed our heartbreak after her final week on the show. Other favorites included first season runner-up Dara—the only girl and/or minority to make it to the finals—who always cooked with a calm confidence way beyond her 12 years. In season two, there was the blunt and ruthless Oona, and the consistently poised Adaiah. This season, excitable 12-year-old Jenna has had more screentime as a determined frontrunner, raising speculation that she might be MasterChef Junior’s first female winner. These girls are all great cooks, but for many viewers there's also something undeniably special about seeing young girls push for what they want without equivocation or apology, assuming they have a place in the room even though they don’t “look” the traditional part.

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When Time released its “Gods of Food” cover in late 2013, it was greeted with a hailstorm of criticism. For one, it was overwhelmingly male; only four women were included, none of them chefs. The feature also included a “family tree” of the culinary community that almost seemed to go out of its way not to include women, since there were many—like chefs Suzanne Goin, Barbara Lynch, or Dianne Foley—whose professional connections would have easily fit. In defending the piece to Eater, Time editor Howard Chua-Eoan insisted that “it’s all men because men take care of themselves. The women really need someone—if not men, themselves actually—to sort of take care of each other.” It’s an unsettling sentiment, but the worst part is, he isn't entirely wrong. A 2004 Tulane study on gender and race in finance revealed that white men not only gravitate towards other white men, but that they help each other in more significant ways than they would women.

New York City chef and restaurant owner Amanda Cohen told The New York Times that Time’s feature “simply did not reflect the reality that we see in the industry every day.” Like many female chefs, Cohen was bored of having the sexism conversation. She also wrote a scathing op-ed for Eater in which she insisted that women are a prominent and growing force in professional kitchens, but that Chua-Eoan may have been too busy going to events with the same people (read: men) to notice. This not only speaks to the importance of diversity, but of visibility. Being able to see diversity in an industry is the first step in changing the idea that one kind of person can look like they should be there.

Meanwhile, black children have rarely advanced far on MasterChef Junior. If they do stick around—like last season’s Adaiah—we hardly hear from them at all. This current season, nine year-old Cory’s hyperactive demeanor has gotten more screentime than any of the series’ other African-American boys combined. Black contestant Ayla didn’t have a single one of her dishes critiqued on camera for three episodes, and when she co-won the challenge on the fourth, her white partner Jimmy received every triumphant testimonial. Yes, there are fewer black children on the show than white, just as there are fewer black professional chefs than white. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 9 percent of chefs or head cooks in America are black. Even as black enrollment in culinary programs grows steadily, it still accounts for just a tiny percentage of the overall student population, as with the Culinary Institute of America (2 percent black). When PBS did a recent in-depth look on why there aren't more black chefs in the U.S., it found an “overwhelming” consensus that there need to be more black culinary role models to look up to, or at the very least, increased media exposure. Like MasterChef Junior.

This isn't about cherry picking petty grievances from an otherwise largely encouraging show. After all, these kids are across-the-board talented, and MasterChef Junior has made a clear effort to include fairly diverse casts. Still, the mere inclusion of diversity, while certainly a step forward, doesn't magically erase existing biases. There’s also the fact that watching a cooking show means not having any idea whose food is better or worse—which further means we have to trust the judges far more to tell us who does or doesn’t belong there. The sad fact is that girls and young minorities absolutely do absorb implications that they don’t quite fit the larger perception of what success in America looks like (i.e. white and male). A 2012 Indiana University study tracked children's’ self-esteem after watching hours of television and found that girls and black children consistently felt worse about themselves. White boys, on the other hand, consistently felt better.

This study, combined with Elliot's reason for allowing Samuel to stay, offers further proof that white boys more consistently get the message that they can succeed. They can embrace their ambition and run with it, while girls and minorities have to navigate their ambition through existing roadblocks of subconscious bias. This is especially devastating for a show like MasterChef Junior, which not only caters to a family-friendly audience, but purports to celebrate and inspire children who are especially susceptible to the message that they don’t fit in. For every successful white man who tells a white boy he looks like he belongs, there’s a girl or a minority who hears she doesn't.