The first evening of Bakeoff is over, and all is at it should be. Twitter is crammed with puns, Sue Perkins is slipping innuendo into any (Madeira cake) crack possible, and everyone agrees that the right person left in the first round. Someone didn’t turn the oven on because they’re so used to the Aga at home, someone had a cake collapse, and someone sparked a controversy over wearing a hat in a marquee (does it count as indoors? is it disrespectful to Mary?)
But in all this splendid and satisfying confection, there is one question still to be asked. Was Stu set up? This is not a bake-based conspiracy theory. I am not suggesting that he was the target of sabotage. He added that beetroot to the Black Forest Gateau of his own volition, and with malice aforethought. I just mean that everyone’s delight at his leaving the show first made me wonder if he served a deeper narrative need. Was he in there to be a convenient target, and to leave early, making the audience feel better? Is Stu the scapegoat for our baking sins?
Stu, to me, looked a bit like Paris Geller from The Gilmore Girls. One of those characters whose purpose is to draw fire and audience ire. One of those characters who’re surprisingly like the protagonist when looked at from a certain angle, but who’re definitely shown to be In The Wrong. (I’m thinking early Paris, obviously. Not the later editor of the paper or the craft-obsessive.)
Without Paris in the frame, we might think Rory was maybe, possibly, a bit of an over-achiever with a set of neuroses developed because of her mother. She might look over-competitive, insecure, desperate for validation. But she doesn’t, because Paris is there to be those things in a more dramatic and obvious way. She draws the audience’s attention and disapproval in a way that prevents them from noticing Rory’s flaws.
You notice the same sort of device all over fiction. Mr. Slope turns up amidst a group of clergymen who’ve all done very nicely out of their careers to show you what a money-grubbing parson really looks like. Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin both have a habit of introducing figures who disrespect women or act vindictively, in order to make it clear that their main figures shouldn’t be accused of that. I seem to remember various knights in Malory hastening to demonstrate how a violent sociopath looks and acts, in case you were confused by the heroes (though it’s been a while since I’ve read Malory, so am open to contradiction on that.) Of course these characters aren’t simply there to fulfil this function, but it’s part of what they contribute to the work.
It’s not their difference from the heroes that makes them useful, it’s their similarity. They can be condemned and criticised in order to reassure the audience about the heroes. And Stu, with his hat, and his beetroot cake, and his tattoos and his nose ring, and his postmodern-retro-authenticity-shtick, looked an awful like a large sector of the Bakeoff audience. Or perhaps he looked like what they worry they look like. Hipsters, in other words. A term only ever applied to others. None of us are hipsters, despite our liking craft lager and beards and rockabilly, tastes which we all possessed long before hipsters made them a thing. Before they were cool, you might almost say.
Maybe I’m over-reading (and even if I’m right, I think we can probably all agree that I’m over-reading), but Stu looked to me like a way to banish the anxieties of the audience. I don’t think the Bakeoff audience are worried they’re twee and old-fashioned, I think they’re worried they’re blandly hipsterish and smugly retrochic. And Stu was the perfect way to exorcise that anxiety at the very beginning of the series. The audience could revile him on Twitter, glory in his banishment, and settle down for the rest of the contest having gratefully decided they were nothing like him. Stu was set up to symbolise everything a certain section of the Bakeoff public don’t like about themselves, and to then be symbolically destroyed in the first round. Mind you, that hat was terrible. And I can’t stand beetroot.