The Queen of Food Network, Paula Deen, has been fired for, as I’ve seen described by 50% of internet users, “being a horrible old racist white Southern lady.” That makes for a pretty concise opening sentence, so thank you for that well-thought-out-statement, people of the internet! If you've yet to read the legal deposition that led to Ms. Deen’s termination, here’s a cheat sheet for you:
- She used the “N-word” because, as she says, she’s old and from the South.
- She thinks that it’s okay to use the N-word, as long as it’s in a joke.
- She wanted to throw a wedding with a Civil War-era plantation theme, which would include an entirely black staff. Now, that historical phase spans a significant chunk of time, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment Ms. Deen wanted to recreate. I’ll describe better in her own words: “What I would really like is a bunch of little n——rs to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts, and black bow-ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.” Wisely, she opted not to go with this theme because it’s absolutely horrifying that someone would have thought of an idea like that.
- Just kidding! Her reasoning went like this: “We can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
- She thinks it’s okay for her brother to watch a little bit of porn at work, which I don’t want to elaborate on, because the fact that I’m writing a column with the terms “Paula Deen” and “pornography” in it is really far too much for me right now; you’ll have to give me a few minutes for that one.
I’m a humor columnist here, so it’s my job to write several dozen jokes about all of this, then clock out, and wait until Lindsay Lohan makes another movie or something. However, I’m stumbling on this one. There’s been something terribly awful and upsetting about this, beyond the obvious, and I’ve been struggling to pinpoint exactly what it is.
I wouldn’t consider myself a Paula Deen fan, but I don’t have the ire for her that much of the “respectable” food world does. Part of me can enjoy the woman in a classic American kitsch sort of way. (She puts butter on everything! LOLZ!) If you've read a bit about her life story, she’s a remarkable person for a number of reasons, and regardless of how I feel about a hamburger patty sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donuts, as a fellow chef, working mother, and entrepreneur, I can respect her for that.
I went over all the awful facts that came out to determine what, precisely, was bothering me about this so much. Initially, I thought it was that our sous chef is Jamaican and she’s as good as a sister to me, but then I felt that, perhaps, I veered far too much into the “some of my best friends are black” territory. (It’s true though! I’ve got lots of black friends — they’ll tell you how much I love black people, how I voted for Obama, and how that makes me a defacto expert on all race relations.)
I came to realize that I wasn’t even surprised by the words themselves — it wasn’t as if I’d never heard someone say them before. I’ve spent over ten years in the food business, so I’m no stranger to off-color jokes, offensive language, knife fights, sexual harassment, and yes, pornography. I seriously doubt there exists a single restaurant — outside of the Olive Garden or a similar mass-produced shithole — that’s not an abject HR nightmare. In the course of my career, I’ve heard slurs that I can’t even pronounce, and am still not entirely sure what they referred to, but understand they were meant with some sort of extremely perverted sense of affection. Honestly, if you’re looking for well-adjusted human beings who know how to properly interact with society, a restaurant kitchen is the fucking last place you look for them. There’s a very good reason why the back-of-the-house people stay in the back-of-the-house.
In spite of our abhorrent industry culture, I still can’t shake that this whole Paula Deen situation is incredibly fucked-up for reasons bigger than the specifics of what she said, or for the horrible things she’s being accused of, such as racially segregating the entrances and bathrooms for her staff (as these things have only been accused, not proven, I’m not going to jump the gun and judge her on them. This is still America, dammit).
After I read the deposition in it’s entirety, Paula released a video in which she begged for forgiveness. She asked for her children — her fans — to forgive her for the things that she said, as everyone has pointed out, many many many many many many many many years ago.
So now, as you did in your video to me, I will be speaking directly to you, Ms. Deen. Coming from the industry where your sins were reportedly committed, and as someone who has never been to the American South nor understands its culture, I will do my best to forgive your usage of the N-word (even though it makes my skin crawl). I will overlook inappropriate jokes, and anything that goes far past the boundaries of good taste. I will even overlook the pornography thing, despite the fact that reading this deposition has caused me to spend the last two days thinking about your brother, a Mr. “Bubba” Deen, diddling himself while watching “Whorientals Volume 2." (Side note: why isn’t anyone going after porn for being racist?)
Ms. Deen, for all the things I can force myself to overlook, I cannot move past the idea that you would entertain the idea of throwing a theme party where the staff would pretend to be slaves, or request “a bunch of little n——s” to “tap dance around,” and not once think, “Wow, this is seriously really fucking offensive stuff! Like Marge Schott-level type shit!” I do not believe this makes you a wicked, evil person as much as it makes you a completely ignorant fool for thinking of the idea in the first place.
Still, I don’t want to throw stones at glass houses; I know I’m also capable of doing and saying stupid things, and again — I truly don’t understand your culture. I don’t know what it was like for you to be a child in a country that was segregated. The Civil Rights movement was something that I, and many of us reading this, learned about in text books. We forget that this is something that happened relatively recently in our nation’s history, that there is still much progress to be made. You reminded us of that this week.
You’re an easy target, Ms. Deen, and this appears to be a particularly gory celebrity feeding frenzy. I thought,perhaps, that’s why I’ve had trouble jumping in; it’s easy to kick a person when she’s down — especially when she’s famous — without asking yourself if you’ve been in the same situation.
I’m only thirty-two years old, and I know there’s already tons of shit I've said and wish I could take back. I know that I've spent those years doing dumb things, and, because of that, working harder to correct my mistakes and become a better person every single day. That pretty much is, from what I’ve gathered, the entire point of life. I’m certain that things I’ve said that were seemingly innocuous will be one day treated as harshly as the N-word.
(Quick aside: for the peanut gallery out there who doubts this, please state that you have never once, ONCE, in your life said that anything was “retarded”, or “gay.” Half the words in your repertoire now were, at one point, considered hideously offensive — idiot, stupid, dumb, bastard, pimp — the list goes on. What about “guido?” To my people, that’s about the most offensive fucking thing you can say to us, yet nobody has had a problem using it all over television and around the watercooler for the past few years.)
Ms. Deen, I understand the points both you and your supporters are making — about how no one should be judged solely on things said a long time ago. You’ve made mistakes, and now that those mistakes are threatening the empire you’ve built, you’re sorry. I felt like you should have addressed this much sooner, but I know there’s no shortage of people who see you as their cash cow, and at the end of the day it’s not about how you truly feel or don’t feel, what you said or didn’t say — it’s strictly about how much money you can make for them.
Now I’m beginning to see what wasn’t sitting right with me.
What’s come to light this week is the fact that you are guilty of saying vile, offensive, reprehensible things. These are things that, apparently, America can’t forgive. Nobody got physically hurt, nobody died, but enough people have been outraged by your statements that after years of success, you’re now a financial liability. Naturally, you've been fired.
For the eleven years of your life on television, your built a multi-million dollar brand on unhealthy food. Yes, I understand I own a bakery, but seriously, Ms. Deen, this is literally “go kill yourself” food. Deep fried lasagna? Deep fried shortening-laden pound cake? A sandwich made of deep fried chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks, fried in lard? In the comfort food-crazy aughts, you showed up on our televisions every day, with your kind smile and Southern charm, and made it seem like this food was nothing more than a big ol’ hug smothered in butter. Not a word about saving these meals for a special occasion, not a word about healthy alternatives or ingredient swaps — you were on television around dinnertime serving America heaping portions of fried chicken, butter and mayonnaise. Every. Single. Day.
Then you got what undoubtedly many of your disciples did from all that good ol’fashioned Southern cookin’ — diabetes. Then you kept your mouth shut about it for three whole years and continued going on-air, encouraging people to make your recipes, buy your books, order your food products, all the while knowing exactly what the diet you and “your team” were pushing would result in. You never preached moderation, though once your medical condition was exposed, you falsely claimed that you’d always been a proponent of it. Actually, “exposed” isn’t the right word. There had been talk of your diabetes circulating since your initial diagnosis, talk which you repeatedly denied, assuring your fans that you were healthy, that your “lifestyle brand” was absolutely in no way a threat to anyone's health, and everyone should just keep buying and eating. You finally admitted to your condition only after you signed an endorsement deal with a prescription drug that’s being linked to thyroid cancer and costs patients $400 a month. Mind you, if they ate right in the first place, many of them wouldn't need this medication.
There was an outcry, some bad PR for a few weeks, but you kept your job. Why? Because apparently we are completely okay with you killing people, Ms. Deen, as long as you don’t say anything racist, and you keep making a lot of people a LOT of money. Novo Nordisk got a celebrity with a built-in, unhealthy audience to hawk their new drug. Food Network got to repackage all your recipes into a “healthier” show featuring your son, and kept developing shows, books and other projects for you. Major retailers like Walmart would get “lighter versions” of your famous recipes to sell in their frozen food departments. It was shameful and disgusting to watch, but thankfully for you the news cycle is quick. After a few weeks of seeing the radiant Paula Deen back on tv, batting her crystal clear blue eyes and rolling out all those chariming southern sayings with that down home drawl — we all forgot that you’re in the business of hurting people for financial gain.
We have no problem with you encouraging people to give themselves diabetes or heart disease, no problem with you lying to us about the effects of the lifestyle you were preaching, no problem with Food Network knowing all too well about this and making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Those are the things people are willing to overlook.
But say things that alienate your audience, offend people who loved you, and cause profits to drop? Things that impact your marketing value? That’s unforgivable. That’s the sort of thing that gets you fired.
That’s my problem here, Ms. Deen. It’s not just the awful, despicable things you said. It’s not the warped antediluvian opinions you seem to have about race and American history. Deliberately lying to your fans, knowing you were hurting them physically so you and those around you could keep making money, then begging for them to come out and support you? Encouraging them to save your value when Team Deen and friends have spent two days in hiding?
Maybe this is why I have had a shortage of funny quips to make about you, Paula. Because this is about a lot more than just a few poorly chosen words, or offensive jokes, or the type of people you feel should be serving you. And unfortunately, none of it is really all that funny.