Honestly, I’m not sure. But a few years ago, high from the fumes of finishing my dissertation and still waiting idly for my defense date to come, I binge watched the television reality show Cake Boss and became convinced that I needed to write an article about it.
Several weeks later, I had a publishable article, or so I thought. After a couple of revise and resubmits I lost interest in the thing, and my fleeting career in cultural studies ended just as it began. But I was thinking of it recently, in the context of how the twin narratives of the mythological American dream and white identity have worked discursively in supporting Trump’s ascendance.
So in my reticence to contribute any actual new words to the cacophony of Trump commentary, I instead present my old Cake Boss paper: untouched, unedited, and barely ever revised in the first place. I had fun writing it at least, and maybe someone will have fun reading it. If for some reason it ends up being of any academic use, I’d be curious to hear from you and of course would appreciate a citation.
Edit/Postscript: I was a bit silly in posting this, and a bit coy in my intentions perhaps, but I think my desire to ignore the orange-haired demagogue in the room stems from the conviction that at some point we’re going to have to start talking about Trumpism as a cultural force, and I think that necessitates—to a degree—that we stop talking about Trump as a political phenomenon. The question for culturalists and historians after this is all over and Trump has been analyzed to death is going to be: what realms of discourse in American culture can we bring meaning to, or take meaning from, in ways that are instructive?
Have Your Cake and Eat It Too: TLC’s Cake Boss and the Fantasy of the American Dream
Each week, the cable television “reality” show Cake Boss offers its viewers a visual feast of cakes. These large, ornate, custom creations are the work of master pastry chef Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro, Jr., the owner of Carlo’s Bakery. As the seasons progress, they become even more grand and intricately detailed, and the proverbial “bells and whistles” become less proverbial; these cakes actually move, light up, and occasionally shoot off fireworks. Cake Boss premiered in 2009 and has since become a success for the TLC cable network. The show has aired in more than 160 countries, and has spun off two other television shows (Witchel).
Each episode is narrated by Valastro, who speaks directly to the camera in between scenes that capture the bakery’s employees at work. Most of the episodes are centered around two or three large custom cakes that clients have tasked Valastro with producing, and the episodes almost always end with the cakes being delivered and unveiled in dramatic fashion at various celebration events. The show also depicts the general business of Carlo’s Bakery, where customers line up to buy smaller, standard menu item cakes as well as cannolis and other pastries and quickbreads.
But Cake Boss is about much more than sweets, or the people that bake and decorate them. From the start, the series places Valastro and his employees as protagonists in a story that conforms to a standard American immigrant narrative. Valastro’s late father, after arriving in the United States from Italy, had fostered the growth of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey after purchasing it in the 1960s. Several of the bakers and pastry decorators that work for Valastro, including all of those with the most seniority, belong to Hoboken’s Italian-American community.
“It’s all about famiglia,” Valastro, a fourth generation baker, frequently insists on the show (“About Carlo’s”). Most of the employees at the bakery are related to one another. Valastro’s sisters co-manage the bakery and tend to the front of the house, working the cash registers and serving customers. Two of his most valued chefs are also his brothers-in-law. Mauro Castano, Valastro’s “right-hand man” is married to Maddalena Valastro, and Joey Faugno, the head baker, is wed to Grace Valastro. The bakery’s most senior cake decorator, Frankie Amato, Jr., is Valastro’s cousin. And the bakery seems to feature a rotating lineup of extended relations working in lower level positions, like Anthony Bellifemine – Valastro’s wife’s cousin – who transitions from delivery boy to baker over the course of the series.
In a television landscape that is littered with programs that are cheap to manufacture and don’t ask much of its viewers, Cake Boss, well, takes the cake. It’s light, “wholesome” entertainment. The conflicts that take place among the bakery’s workers are superficial and are always resolved. Valastro’s presence on television and his increasing celebrity status seem to offer an antidote to the phenomenon of “reality show” celebrities who have little talent and are rewarded for their inherited wealth, vapid personalities, and outrageous behavior. Valastro’s technical skills are clearly the result of years of honing his craft, and the cakes that he and his team create are consistently impressive works of art.
Nevertheless, the show does traffic in a discourse that deserves critical attention. A careful reading of the show reveals that Cake Boss is permeated with banal but powerful symbols that reinforce a particular kind of liberal governmentality and worldview. The popular show presents a kind of Horatio Alger fantasy for a neoliberal era. While post-Fordist capitalism has been wreaking havoc on families across the United States, Cake Boss suggests that Americans can have their cake and eat it too: they can live the “American dream” in which meaningful, fulfilling, and well-remunerated work coincides with strong families and happy home lives. Buddy Valastro’s story is an exception, a mythic immigrant narrative that contradicts the social realities of the present.
The reader of this essay may benefit from a very brief elaboration on neoliberalism and liberal governance. Neoliberalism refers to the ideas and practices that seek to dismantle the postwar welfare state and instead foster states that promote free market activity. Its authors and most prominent advocates include economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Neoliberalism has been most notably endorsed and implemented by heads of government such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Augusto Pinochet (Harvey). But neoliberalism is best understood as an ideology that works through knowledge production rather than presidential or dictatorial edict. In the United States in particular, it has become a politics and a discourse that appears to be “neutral” or apolitical (Duggan xiii), because it capitalizes on traditional liberal American symbols that are taken to be normal. As David Harvey notes, invoking Antonio Gramsci, neoliberalism works through the dissemination of “common sense,” obscuring its own politics via culture (39-40).
Governmentality, as defined by Michel Foucault, is the “conduct of conduct” that originates in diverse ideas and material practices both within and distinct from the state (Dean 10). Society, its citizens, and their behavior are shaped not only by state institutions, but also by the production and circulation of knowledge and norms. Governmentalizing practices do not necessarily promote liberal behavior. Liberal governance then is the product of a particular kind of governmentality that works in the service of neoliberalism, and serves as the subject of our critique. And popular culture – Cake Boss, in this case – serves as our medium of study, one out of the many possible.
Media studies scholar Laurie Ouellette argues that reality television has the potential to work in ways that govern by “circulat[ing] instructions, resources, and scripts for navigating the changing expectations and demands of citizenship” (68). Ouellette and her collaborator James Hay, as well as other scholars such as Gareth Palmer and Anna McCarthy, have recently used governmentality as a means to examine reality television in the context of neoliberalism, particularly in the cases of shows that feature experts and entrepreneurs who help citizens negotiate their problems, often by offering instruction in self-conduct. My work here offers a case study that strengthens our understanding of the ways in which television offers instructions for living, while extending the analysis of others to incorporate ideas about the ways in which particular symbols of identity, community, and artisanry work in the narratives of reality television. Cake Boss is distinct from the shows that the aforementioned scholars have studied – programs such as Extreme Makeover, Wife Swap, and Supernanny – in that it centers around a stable cast of characters whose activities resemble those of a family on a scripted television show. With the success of not only Cake Boss but other shows of a similar nature including Duck Dynasty, this format deserves greater attention from scholars. Most broadly, this analysis of Cake Boss will suggests means by which we can critique reality television as well as more explicitly scripted forms of popular culture.
I want to make clear that the architects of neoliberal economic practices are not actually concerned with fashioning an economy out of small-scale family businesses. Cake Boss offers a model of neoliberalism only in the sense that it serves up a fantasy that legitimates post-Fordist consumer capitalism; the narrative of a “free-agent nation” is a specious discourse that might distract Americans from the injustices of the neoliberal economy, but it does not necessarily represent material reality or the plans of corporate or state actors invested in neoliberal projects. Discourses that celebrate self-managed workers and self-made entrepreneurs are not functional in the sense that they might create successful individuals, but they do function to strengthen the myth of the American dream – the idea that anyone can and should succeed based on his or her own merits – and to reinforce the notion that one’s failures to achieve such a fantasy are his or her own.
Finally, we should take note that although Cake Boss circulates potentially liberal governmentalizing discourses, it is quite likely that the show’s producers and its stars are not invested in the enterprise of spreading free market ideology. They may just really like cake.
Place, Nation, and Identity
Discourses of identity feature prominently in Cake Boss. In these matters, viewers might be most cognizant of the program’s invocation of what Valastro would identify as “Jersey, baby.” The show’s bakery is situated in downtown Hoboken, New Jersey, and both the city and the state are frequently invoked as objects of regional pride, especially when Valastro bakes cakes for organizations like the New Jersey Devils. Even when he is not serving customers like the mayor of Hoboken, he frequently boasts about doing things “Hoboken style.”
Cake Boss’s New Jersey is populated by Italian-Americans, much like another popular reality television show, MTV’s The Jersey Shore. Valastro and his co-workers are family men, either settled into or fast approaching middle age, and their behavior (and their physiques) bears little resemblance to the tanned, muscled, dipsomaniacal, beach bum party animals of The Jersey Shore. But Valastro occasionally delights in performing the “fist pump,” a dance move that has become associated with Italian-American New Jersey youth culture. On one episode, the star of MTV’s show, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, visits Carlo’s Bakery and has Valastro bake her a cake. Another episode has Valastro making a custom cake for a group of older men from “the community” who are depicted as “wiseguys.” The show playfully and ambiguously suggests that these men are involved in organized crime, and Valastro plays along, telling the camera that he hopes the cake impresses, lest he get on the wrong side of his clients. In other instances, Cake Boss simply tells the viewer its stereotypes instead of showing them. For example, Valastro declares in the first episode, “We’re Italians! We’re loud people!”
A series of episodes in the third season that ring a little more true have Valastro and his family visiting “the motherland: Italia baby.” In one scene, Valastro accompanies his mother to the house in which she was born in the town of Altamura. She explains how her family lived in one room – and that the horse stayed in the room as well. When Castano’s young son expresses incredulity at how different life was for his grandmother when she lived in Italy, Valastro succinctly comments, “these are the roots.” The Valastros’ trip throughout Italy includes stops at bakeries, where they try to glean inspiration for new items they might add to their menu. They also ride mopeds, eat pizza, reconnect with old family and friends, and shop for clothes. And they bake a few cakes, including a seven tier wedding cake for an Italian cousin and his fiancee. By interacting with family and a diverse cast of locals, often in their own language, Valastro, Castano, and the others are able to transcend a setup that might have otherwise appeared inauthentic.
Italy is decidedly in the family’s past, however. Italianness is central to the identity of the show’s main characters, but it is a kind of American white ethnicity that has been shaped by the history and discourses surrounding immigration and assimilation to the United States. For white ethnic Americans, the renascent celebratory ethnic culture of the late 20th and early 21st century is largely organized around cultural kitsch and not language, religion, or class commonalities. For Italian Americans in particular, food is at its center (Levenstein 2), and Cake Boss frequently plays up the place of Italian pastries like cannolis in Carlo’s Bakery as emblems of heritage and authenticity. What this discourse obscures is the way that the history of race and class in the United States has shaped how Italianness is understood and performed. The assimilation and success of Italian Americans largely depended on their becoming “white.” For some, this entailed allying with racist populist political coalitions that worked to break the class ties that otherwise might bind struggling immigrant and native black populations (Guglielmo and Salerno).
To Cake Boss’s audience, the program’s American nationalism may appear less overt than its regionalism or its celebration of Italian heritage. Yet Cake Boss celebrates an ascending immigrant narrative that remains central to the myth of the “American dream.” By romanticizing the lives of previous generations of Americans who were either born from immigrant families or migrated to the United States themselves, this narrative articulates a faith in the promise of American capitalism. It also continually positions established ethnic populations into a narrative about industriousness and morality. The generation of immigrants that achieved the American dream are often invoked in discourse that others African Americans and more contemporary immigrant populations, who are, according to this narrative, lazy, un-pious, or un-American. One product of such a discourse, according to historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, is that it creates a “resonance between neoconservative arguments and the street-level sensibilities of white ethnics” (203). In addition to Valastro, the show presents another distinct archetype of white ethnic working class producerism in Faugno, who in addition to being the bakery’s head pastry chef, also volunteers as a firefighter at the Hoboken fire department. His position there allows the show to signal its affinity with the discourse of the New York City first responder, which has worked since 9/11 to embody a range of white ethnic, masculine, working-class conservative symbols.
One episode in particular reflects the ways in which Valastro and his family situate themselves in terms of a hyphenated identity. In the fourth season, Carlo’s Bakery is preparing to ride a float in the annual Morris County Columbus Day parade. Valastro repeatedly informs the viewing audience as to why this is such a big deal. “For us, it’s not just another holiday,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity for Italian-American pride.” He even instructs the audience in a brief history lesson, in his own personable style, boasting: “You guys might not know this, but Columbus was born in Italy. He’s Italian like me, baby.”
Valastro decides that it would only be appropriate for his bakery’s float to feature one of his own personal creations. He designs a cake that will feature a figure of Columbus, and his three sailing ships on a sheet cake decorated like the ocean. He explains: “This is a great way to explain to the kids about our heritage. Because our history is our roots. I mean, I feel like it’s my duty to make this cake.”
“You know, this is where we live; this is where we’re from,” Valastro says, communicating the degree to which he and his community’s Italian pride sit at the intersection of Italian and American identities. Perhaps more than any other, the Columbus Day episode explicitly reconciles his Italianness with his American identity. Emphasizing the point even more, Castano reveals in this episode that he has decided to become an American citizen. Castano is a resident alien of the country, even though he came to the United States when he was seven years old, in 1976, thirty five years before the episode aired.
In the following season, in one of the series’ more moving moments, Castano becomes a United States citizen. And fittingly for the show, the citizenship ceremony coincides with the creation of a cake. For the Statue of Liberty’s 125th anniversary, the park rangers at Liberty Island ask Valastro to bake an appropriate tribute. Rather than create a slab of a cake that might be ornamented with Statue of Liberty themed decorations, he decides to make a cake version of the statue itself that will stand more than ten feet tall.
To further the plot, the episode has Valastro and Castano take a trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Valastro recounts the story of his great grandfathers arriving in America, and imagines them entering the harbor: “To see that, coming from a little town in Italy, and then be like, wow, this is the land of opportunity, this is the land of dreams. So for me, its an absolute privilege to do anything for the Statue of Liberty because it means alot to me.”
As the bakery gets to work on the cake and Castano prepares for his ceremony, Castano elaborates throughout the episode on how he feels about becoming a US citizen. “I love America,” he declares. “I mean, Italy’s always in my heart, but the United States is number one.” The show depicts Castano as working especially hard on the Statue of Liberty cake. He also flexes the knowledge that he has gained in preparing for his citizenship test. He tells the sculptors and decorators of Carlo’s Bakery the meaning of the seven spikes on Lady Liberty’s headdress, for example. (Apparently, they represent the seven seas.) When decorating the detail work at the bottom of the cake, he boasts to one of the bakery’s workers that it features “Roman columns,” because the statue is of a “Roman goddess.” Just as Italians have done with Columbus, Castano reconciles his American heritage by borrowing its symbols, and transforming a narrative of Americanness into one with a central role for Italians and their culture.
Cake Boss makes little of Castano’s privilege in being able to shrug off the citizenship question for most of his life, and it misses the opportunity to contrast his story with those that face a much harder struggle with immigration. The show hews to a traditional discourse on American immigration, in which white, Judeo-Christian Europeans arrive at a land of opportunity, work hard, and assimilate to become good Americans. In fact, Castano notes that in the thirty five years since he came to the country no one ever asked him if he was an American citizen. “I got mortgages, I got credit cards,” he admits. “It was never really something that I needed to do.” He says that he finally became frustrated over not being able to vote in elections, and that was when he decided to initiate the citizenship process. The episode concludes with Castano’s citizenship ceremony on Liberty Island, in which he is surrounding by 124 others who are completing the process of naturalization, but they remain entirely in the background. The frame that the television camera captures in this sequence remains strikingly narrow.
Jacobson argues that since the 1960s, white immigrant ethnic identity has itself become a kind of normative American identity that figures into conceptions of American nationalism. Resurgent ethnic identity, he suggests, is not proof that assimilation has been resisted, but is rather the end result of assimilation itself (128). Ultimately, national identity and its discursive symbols are dynamic; they are borrowed back and forth by diverse interest groups and shaped to suit social and material contexts. For example, African American historical figures like Crispus Attucks and Martin Luther King, Jr., have been wielded as figures that might challenge norms and hierarchies of power, but they have also been used as objects of governance (Browne; MacLean 340). The historical memory that circulates in Cake Boss works to strengthen regional and national identities, and to affirm claims to ethnic heritage. But its discourse is one that speaks little to power.
21st Century Producerism
Cake Boss idealizes a discourse that appears to be on the rise: that of the entrepreneurial economy. In the postwar era, the path to success was laid out in corporatist terms: skilled workers were expected to join large firms and become “organization men.” In a post-Fordist economy, the narrative has increasingly become more individualistic and articulated in terms of the service and tech sectors of the economy. Success is no longer to be found in rising in the ranks of a business. In a “free-agent nation” (Klein 253; Surowiecki) it’s in creating one’s own living from scratch. This discourse takes countless forms; software engineers seek to design “apps” on their own dime rather than within a large company like Microsoft, for example. Artists and craftworkers commit their free time to creating items that might sell on “etsy,” a web marketplace for handmade goods. Chefs invest in food trucks and traffic in “artisanal” food. Workers are doing this kind of work not solely as a means of creative fulfillment, but also because the economy offers little alternative.
In popular culture, discourses of entrepreneurialism are reinforced by the popular reality show Shark Tank, which rewards savvy amatuer inventors with venture capital from a panel of millionaires and billionaires, and the scripted television sitcom Two Broke Girls, in which two young waitresses attempt to build their own cupcake business. In the 21st century, the “American Dream” is most often articulated in popular culture in individualistic terms, in which everyone is the boss of his or her own small business. This newest iteration of producerism, like its predecessors, elides the problem of class conflict and instead draws upon the mythic American past in which allegedly ubiquitous artisan and yeoman classes were the drivers of the economy and, in ideal circumstances, the benefactors of its growth. Cake Boss contributes by allowing its viewers to live vicariously through the unalienated labor of its protagonists.
It also suggests that in an industrialized world, the best food products, those worthy of fetishization, are those that are made by hand and decorated meticulously to fit the needs of each individual consumer. Yet never on the show is there any mention of how much each cake might cost Valastro’s select clientele. Almost every custom cake is portrayed as something Valastro is doing for the client as a kind of favor or tribute, and money is never discussed. But certainly by the time the show had become popular, and Valastro was making cakes for Tim McGraw and Michael Bloomberg, it is difficult to imagine that most Americans would be able to afford his treats. Cake Boss makes for aspirational viewing; the show asks its viewers to imagine the day that they too could visit Carlo’s Bakery and buy one of his creations. And they comply, lining up outside of the shop in ever-increasing numbers (Sachs), even if they cannot afford its higher end products. Like other reality shows in which wealthy Americans show off their large homes and their fancy cars, the show celebrates conspicuous consumption as a product of achieving success.
Although Valastro is in charge of Carlo’s Bakery, his workplace is portrayed as more of a fraternity than a hierarchy. In the series’ first episode, he emphasizes the fact that he is the show’s eponymous boss. “The orders go from God to me to you,” he tells his employees. “When I say something, I want people to jump.” But the workers frequently prank each other, and the pranks are often reciprocated so that Valastro becomes a target. Bellifemine, for example, is only a delivery boy when he seeks to repay Valastro’s hazings in kind, and their attempts to get one another soaked in water or doused by gallons of flour unfold over several episodes. This fraternity atmosphere does not appear to extend to the female employees that work the back of the house at Carlo’s Bakery. Even though women are shown to be the most talented modelers and decorators at the bakery, they stand outside of the core crew.
Valastro rarely admonishes or disciplines his employees, although two exceptional instances illustrate the ways that the show depicts employer-employee relations. First, the show captures the firing of one employee, in the fifth season, but that employee happens to be Valastro’s sister, Mary Sciarrone. Like her sisters, Sciarrone helps to manage the bakery’s retail operations and service customers. She becomes increasingly ambivalent about her job, and makes a habit of coming to work late, being rude to customers, and raising her voice at the bakery’s employees. In a dramatic confrontation, Valastro fires Sciarrone. “At no time do I like or feel good about yelling with my sister,” Valastro confesses to the camera. The show effectively depicts the conflict as one in which Valastro must choose between what is good for his business and what is good for his family. And as in other instances in the series, Valastro’s losing his temper makes for entertaining viewing. But the show resolves the conflict quickly. Sciarrone returns to work at the bakery later in the fifth season, giving Valastro the opportunity to reiterate the degree to which he values his family. Not only is she rehired, Sciarrone is brought on as a cake consultant. Rather than having to work the retail end of Carlo’s Bakery, she is now, along with Castano, in charge of meeting with the business’s higher end clients.
As an aside, it’s important to note that like any other “reality” television show, Cake Boss’s events are scripted to varying degrees. Here, and in other episodes, Valastro most likely plays up his temper for the cameras. It’s also clear that scenes are sometimes re-enacted so that they can be filmed from multiple angles. For example, in one episode, when long-time employee Danny Dragone knocks over a cake, causing it to split in half, the seam where the cake splits is visible even before the cake topples over.
In the same season that Sciarrone is fired and rehired, Valastro admonishes “Cousin Jay,” in a second example of personnel trouble at the bakery. He does so in a manner that highlights the paternalism behind Valastro’s management mindset, or at least the way in which it is depicted by the show. Jay is working as a delivery driver, and on a long-distance trip to Florida, in a moment of carelessness, he refuels the bakery’s truck with standard gasoline instead of diesel. When Valastro learns that his truck is stranded in Savannah, Georgia and requires significant, costly repairs, he becomes livid.
Valastro introduces Jay to the viewing audience by explaining how he expects to cultivate the young employee. Although Jay is new to the bakery, Valastro tells the camera, “I trust him, I’m making him responsible, you know, [so he is able to] watch my back, [and] look out for the best interests of the bakery.” After he learns of Jay’s mistake in Savannah, he appears to take it personally. “I’m really disappointed in Jay,” he states. “I’m looking for him to be a leader, and he didn’t do it.” Later he adds, “I am going to keep him, but he’s got a long way before I trust him.”
Valastro’s words suggest a management style that seeks to inculcate self governing behavior. And as young as Jay is, his response seems to suggest that he has internalized an entrepreneurial understanding of labor. “I made a mistake, I want to learn from it,” Jay tells the camera. He decides that he needs to earn “everybody’s respect back” and “move forward and still achieve the goals that [he] wanted to when [he] first came here.” Jay is signaling that he is looking to make the same upward movement as did “Cousin Anthony” Bellifemine, who transitioned from delivery driver to baker. At Carlo’s Bakery, even the newest hired laborer thinks like an apprentice.
The matter with Jay is resolved a few episodes later. Valastro and his team have constructed a massive, beautiful cake for the designers of the popular animated motion picture series, Ice Age. The cake features detailed models of all the films’ characters, and includes a model of a pirate ship – edible, of course – that moves atop the cake’s sugary ocean surface via hidden motor. Jay is tasked with driving the delivery van and bringing the cake safely to its destination. It’s a minor task, but the show dramatizes it as one that will set Jay back on Valastro’s good side. Amato is shown giving Jay some grief, and articulating the stakes he tells Jay, “Here’s your chance to redeem yourself.” Valastro then tells the camera, “Cousin Jay is trying to earn back our trust.” After Jay delivers the cake without incident, Valastro comes back on screen, and reinforces Jay’s redemption narrative. “You gotta learn to forgive and forget,” he says, adding that “Jay is doing the right thing now.” Although Jay’s arc towards responsible employee behavior appears rather contrived, it serves as an example of how Cake Boss models neoliberal conduct.
The show never depicts workers being remunerated, earning pay increases, or negotiating for wages. In an environment in which the work is rewarding and dynamic, it may be perfectly reasonable to assume that Valastro’s employees have little reason or wish to complain about their jobs. And it is clear that at least for the core characters of the show – Valastro and his family, including his in-laws Castano and Faugno – money is not a concern. Cake Boss takes great pains to illustrate their roots in working class culture, but it also shows off their houses and, occasionally, their spending habits. The show contributes to a discourse that depicts artisanal, unalienated labor as not only normal but lucrative, in an era in which it is increasingly unattainable. And it suggests nothing beyond individualistic entrepreneurial ideology as a means to reach it.
Cake Boss contributes to discourses that elide or smooth over the problems of neoliberalism by constructing fantasies of success. In this it is by no means unique. But there also exist traditions of counter narratives to the Horatio Alger myth in popular culture, which feature more critical depictions of the white ethnic American experience. These counterexamples, which situate themselves at the same intersection of white ethnic identity and American entrepreneurialism as does Cake Boss, help to further illuminate the problems with the show.
Consider, for example, the 1990 film Avalon. This story, written and directed by Barry Levinson, narrates the assimilation of a fictional Jewish family in postwar Baltimore. The Krichinskys, having arrived in the country just prior the first World War, have met success in America for a generation by forming a tight family circle. But after the war, the younger generation of the family, having grown up in America, prove to me more avaricious and less sensible in business, and are more eager to abandon their family structure for high status suburban living. Their uncle who still lives in the city, in particular, feels the sting of the changes that America has wrought. After arriving late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun to eat without him, he chastises them for having forgotten their less fortunate relatives and fleeing to the suburbs. The Krichinskys’ success doesn’t last – their business burns down in a fire, and they don’t have insurance; having expanded too fast and stretched their credit too thin, they could not afford it. The materialism and individualism of the United States, the film seems to suggest, slowly hollows out the family’s traditions, social relationships, and values. When one of the main characters is stabbed in a mugging, the family elders remark that this crime, carried out because of money, would never have happened in the “old country.”
Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996), like Cake Boss, features a cast of Italian-Americans who are in the food business, but its underlying message is quite different. Tucci and Tony Shalhoub star in the film as immigrant brothers, the business-attentive Secondo and the master chef Primo, who are together trying to operate a small authentic Italian restaurant. While their food is fantastic, they fail to navigate the perils of American capitalism. As the restaurant succumbs to its competition, a glitzy bar run by a shrewd businessman who is much more at ease in making the compromises that America requires, the two brothers launch one final attempt to save the restaurant: an extravagant meal which they expect jazz musician Louis Prima to attend. When Prima doesn’t show up and the failure of the restaurant is certain, Primo decides to leave his brother and go back to Italy. America, he declares, “is eating us alive.” For Primo and Secondo, the bonds of family break under the strain of trying to succeed in their new home. Tucci’s frustrated characters yearn to believe in a mythic America; for example, Primo’s love interest describes a book that she is reading as being about pioneers who traveled west, and Secondo’s lover looks to move to the “vast” west so she can find a “cowboy with a horse.” Secondo himself expresses confidence in the idea that “in Italy, you work hard, and there is nothing, but [in the United States], you work hard, and up, up, up, up.” When he visits a car dealership, he is seduced by the promise of mobility and affluence embodied in a Cadillac sedan. But Big Night suggests that for all of the country’s myths and symbols, for some there is little space to actually go.
The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic mafia trilogy about the Italian-American Corleone family, is perhaps the most famous story to dramatize the intersection of white ethnics and American capitalism, and thus requires little elaboration here. In America, the films suggest, material success is gained at the cost of moral integrity. In flashback scenes throughout the second film, the audience learns that the ghettos of New York City were places in which immigrants had to be scrupulous and cunning in order to survive. Old world filial piety and close knit family relations are of continual importance to the Corleones, but these ties are tested and severed by the dirty business of making money. Each of the three films dramatize the deaths of at least one of Michael Corleone’s close family members, illustrating the human toll of the “American dream.”
Cake Boss, on the other hand, suggests that in America one can have it all. Buddy Valastro not only runs a successful business, but he does it without seeming to compromise any traditional values or norms. His work is dynamic, artistic, and fulfilling. And he surrounds himself with family members and workers with whom he seems to have relationships that are only strengthened by the business of doing business.
In the fall of 2013, Buddy Valastro, as chairman of the Small Business for Christie coalition, publicly endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in his campaign for re-election (Celock). Valastro might have been risking his status as a widely loved New Jersey icon by endorsing a conservative politician. In recent years, food establishments such as Whole Foods, Papa John’s, and Chick Fil-A have encountered backlash after endorsing Republican candidates or their policies.
On the other hand, it has become axiomatic in mainstream political economic discourse that small businesses are key to economic growth and widespread prosperity. Such assumptions help to perpetuate producerist mythologies and “cultural values” that are often ascribed to or championed by white ethnics. In couching his support of Christie in the language of small business, Valastro might have succeeded in capitalizing on the populist appeal of small business producerism. After all, he would only be extending the discourses that pervade his television show. It should also be noted that Christie himself has become adept at performing an archetypical New Jersey-ness. Like Valastro, Christie presents himself as the product of a working class, ethnic, Jersey culture. And like Valastro, his charisma is only enhanced by his short temper (Wallace-Wells).
Matthew Frye Jacobson argues that the “mythic figure of the [white] immigrant…plays a prominent role” in antimodern and anti-statist discourse (197). Much like Chris Christie then, the figure of Buddy Valastro works to cloak neoliberalism in the narratives of uplift and empowerment embedded within ethnic populism. These narratives look to a pre-welfare state past and find their solutions in romantic fictions of community, family, and artisanal or entrepreneurial labor.
There is much to admire about Valastro, his family’s story, and the television show on which he appears. This essay is not meant as an indictment of him, his family, his community, and certainly not his wonderful cakes. Its purpose, rather, is to consider the ways in which popular culture works conjuncturally within the context of a neoliberal society. It suggests that while discourses of artisan production and ethnic pride might very well have the potential to work in ways that foster dreams of unalienated labor and multiculturalism, they also have the potential to work as instruments of liberal governance, to serve as deceptive fantasies, individualistic myths about how to succeed in a post-Fordist America.
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