Julia (2022-): Mastering the Truth of Cooking

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Now that I’ve finished season one of Julia (2022-) I’m ready to talk about it! Who else has binged the series and not felt an overwhelming need to make coq au vin? Who else suddenly got obsessed with perfecting the perfect French omelette? Sweetbreads, anyone? SOMEONE PAINT MY BODY IN BUTTER.

Honestly, what I want to talk about isn’t really the costumes (though they are very good), or the food (omg the food), but something that comes up occasionally on this blog, and something we ourselves have wildly differing and often capriciously fluctuating opinions on: What duty does a showrunner or filmmaker have to the actual history versus the “story” that is created decades or centuries after the fact and is consumed for entertainment purposes?

(Note: Since this post contains A LOT of spoilers, I very kindly put it behind a cut for those of you who want to be spared until you’ve watched the series.)

And just in case the cut doesn’t work, here’s a photo of Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child, warning you not to scroll past this point if you don’t want spoilers!

As I watched Julia, I found myself looking up various things in the show, either plot points that stuck out in weird ways or characters that came across more as caricatures than believable people. Did editor Judith Jones really march into Blanche Knopf’s office and demand that her incredibly influential boss effectively allow her to throw her career away to edit a cookbook? (Answer: Most certainly not.) Was producer Alice Naman based on a real person? (Answer: Sort of. Alice is based on several different influential female producers in public television, both Black and white, but French Chef producer Ruth Lockwood is most often mentioned as the main inspiration for the character, though she was white). Did Julia Child have a same-sex experimental phase at her all-girls’ college with a woman named Iris? (Answer: Unlikely.) Did Betty Friedan really deflate Julia’s sails so badly that it took Fred Rogers to console her before she could rally herself to continue the show and save the careers of dozens of people? (Answer: Doubtful — though she did go on to appear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.)

Most of these things did not stick out so egregiously as to distract from the story that Daniel Goldfarb crafted for HBO Max, so they were easy to set aside in the pile of “things to look up on Wikipedia later” and just let myself be swept up into the delightful little world of sunny kitchens and quirky television chefs. In fact, some of the historical inaccuracies actually made for more interesting storytelling in a broader sense.

For instance, while Ruth Lockwood may not have been Black, Alice Naman is based on Black women who did exist in public television at that time and whose stories may never get to be told except to be glimpsed through her. Giving Lockwood’s role to a Black character takes nothing away, but instead gives a broader view of the culture The French Chef was birthed into and helped shape. It was a groundbreaking show — Julia never lets us forget that fact — and it was groundbreaking for its gender and racial inclusivity during a time when there was very little of either, just as much as it was influential for the way it revolutionized public television content and cooking shows all together. In this sense, the “inaccuracy” serves a larger purpose in underscoring just how much of Julia Child’s world was brought to life by women and people of color, all working behind the scenes to ensure her success.

The Betty Friedan and Iris plot points, however, stuck out as slightly out of sync with the otherwise acceptable level of believable inaccuracies in the show, and I’m still not sure how I feel about them. As far as the Iris storyline goes, well, it really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s awkwardly presented (no doubt because such conversations are bound to always be awkward) and then dropped completely almost as soon as it’s raised.

I struggle with wondering if my discomfort with it is because Julia is obviously discomfited by Iris’s plaintive retelling of a night of drunken skinny dipping … and maybe more … or is it because it just seems so out of the blue to throw in a detail like that about a public figure’s whose entire life is pretty well documented without any real basis in fact? Or was it a hamfisted way of trying to acknowledge that, in real life, Julia Child was often described as “mannish”? If so, it strikes me as a weird way of introducing the character’s nontraditional feminine attributes when the show actually does a bang-up job presenting Julia as almost excessively traditionally feminine and certainly extremely heterosexual (as if there was any doubt with all the humping that she and Paul get up to every episode).

Especially when, in the very next episode, Julia is whisked away to a drag nightclub in San Francisco by James Beard and meets a young queen, the delightfully named Coco Van, who uses Julia as her inspiration in her drag show. I was dreading the awkward moment where Julia is confused for a drag queen herself, but the show steers clear of that low-hanging faux pas, and instead Julia has a magical night finding acceptance and friendship in unlikely places.

Similarly, the Betty Friedan episode still has me hung up on what I’m supposed to take away from it. In Episode 6, Julia is asked to be the guest of honor at a public broadcasting gala in New York City, and it’s there, in the afterglow of her moment of triumph, she quite literally bumps into Betty Friedan, feminist author of The Feminine Mystique. The conversation starts amicably enough, though Friedan suddenly changes the tone and launches into a vicious attack on The French Chef, and Julia’s role in setting the women’s movement back decades by “shackling” women to the kitchen, trying to master complicated recipes and unrealistic standards to please their husbands, when they should be out marching in the streets for equality. It’s an attack that comes out of nowhere and leaves Julia shaken to the core.

She leaves the gala in a daze with her trusty sidekick Avis De Voto and devoted husband Paul, but at the last minute asks to have a moment alone, sitting on a settee in the grand foyer of hotel while she tries to collect herself. Up walks a young Presbyterian minister who sees she’s upset, and she impulsively asks him to sit with her a moment. He tells her that he likes her just the way she is, and somehow everything is better. The episode as a whole is so neatly packed with heavy-hitting emotional blows to Julia’s apparently very fragile ego, that it almost renders itself a spoof on Julia Child’s real life run-ins with the women’s movement. Throwing Mr. Rogers in at the end was the bow on top of the emotional gut-punch package.

Without delving too deeply into the extensive cultural history of The French Chef, it is no question that feminists like Friedan viewed Julia Child’s work as regressive and antithetical to the advancement of women as equals to men. There’s a particularly virulent undercurrent in second-wave feminism that all but alleges that Child was a traitor to her sex by rigidly adhering to traditional ideals about a woman’s place in society, and Child herself tended to downplay any suggestion in her lifetime that she should be viewed as a feminist trailblazer (though, as this Jezebel article, written after the release of Julie & Julia in 2009, points out, Child “made good food democratic” and helped people all along the gender spectrum to embrace the joys of cooking).

The early 1960s was before the time when feminism could allow itself to embrace domesticity and view it as an act of agency, however, and the run in with Betty Friedan meant to synopsize the intricacies of the cultural tug of war happening in the women’s movement. Episode 6 does poke at this overtly historical fact, but again, it really doesn’t take it anywhere. The episode ends with Paul, himself struggling with effectively reversing roles with his wife and becoming the stay-at-home partner instead of the working partner, sort of acknowledging that different people have different truths about their version world, which Julia finds as unsatisfying to hear as I do.

Is personal truth more correct than factual truth? Is historical accuracy really more accurate than fiction? Do the things I’ve outlined above, and that others have raised elsewhere on the internet in discussion about this show, serve to provide contextual cues about Julia Child’s world and her place in it? But does that really make it “true”? We already know we are living in a post-truth world, which leaves this very much an open-ended question that likely will have no satisfying answers.

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. Do you?

13 Responses

  1. Boxermom

    I just don’t why they thought it was necessary to add all these things that never happened. Wasn’t Julia’s real life fascinating enough? After reading My Life in France, I certainly thought so. :)

    Reply
  2. Cheryl from Maryland

    I found the inserts of Betty Friedan and Iris to be problematic but in essence trivial. Probably because I still see the fight to have “women’s issues” and “women’s skills” such as cooking, sewing, child care, home care STILL going on and not folded into “people issues”. Friedan was an important person, but her take that Julia cared about cooking to please her husband rather than cooking to Julia was a skill and an art and can be for any of us to be limiting.

    Reply
    • Saraquill

      Years ago, I saw the documentary “What Are You Afraid Of?” about feminist movements originating in 1970s Japan. A line that stuck out to me was from a woman who visited to US to study the Second Wave here. She was unimpressed. “They all want to be men. I like being a woman.”

      It bothers me that male coded stuff is still treated as inherently better, like pants and STEM.

      Reply
  3. Donna Scarfe

    My husband and I knew of Sarah Lancaster’s work through other British series (The Last Tango in Halifax) and had seen the other film (Julie & Julia) and was curious how this would turn out. She is excellent as Julia Child- voice type and mannerism – that you just fall into the story and ride along and the food- OMG! It made you hungry just watching her make a simple omelette. My husband is the real cook in the family so for his May 3 birthday I got him The Book – Mastering the Art of French Cooking- and he’s done the Boeuf Bourguignon and Fish Fillets Poached in White Wine with Mushrooms. It was heavenly! I can hardly wait for (hopefully) season 2!

    Reply
  4. MJ

    Came to the blog today thinking about this series and hoping to find a discussion about the fashion, and really glad to have found this! I haven’t seen the later episodes you mention yet, but so far, I’m enjoying the show a lot. I think there is a lot of the push-pull about gender roles and feminism playing out early as well. Like so many other based-on-a-true-story products (I’m thinking of Hamilton as the biggest recent one), for me the hope is that the show will drive people to go find out more for themselves, and so any historical fudging that serves an agenda vs serves “truth” will have a net positive effect. That said, it concerns me that creating historical events out of whole cloth causes harm, even if they are so private and personal in nature that there’s no way to really know what happened.

    Reply
  5. Saraquill

    As much as I liked the character Coco Van, I’d have preferred something closer to what Julia experienced. Queer acceptance took time for her. It would have been cool to see that worked into a subplot.

    Reply
    • Susan Pola Staples

      I’m a fan of the show and of an age to remember some of this. I was a child in the 1960s. I seem to remember one of the proponents of the Women’s Movement saying that we just want the right to be whatever we wanted. That could be a scientist – I’m a lousy math person and really hate math – or a gourmet chef. Julia Child cooked because she loved to, like you mentioned. And I liked the casting of a POC as Alice bc I found her totally believable with Harvard, Radcliffe and the other universities in the Boston area. Julia Child was a tour de force who captivated her audience. Loved how she converted the male producer by teaching him and his wife to cook French food and love it. Will there be a post on the fashion?

      Reply
  6. susan l eiffert

    I haven’t seen it yet, but expect the divine Sarah to do well. My Life in France is a great read. Frankly, Julia was an excellent role model: Served in the OAS during the war, decided on her own to master the art of – you know. Had the balls to enter a male dominated class and profession IN FRANCE! Remained her authentic self throughout. Embellishments not needed . And Sarah? You are an excellent writer!

    Reply
  7. MrsC (Maryanne)

    Oh gosh, I think this is an attempt to make the story “relevant to a modern audience.” Things that would just not get talked about, have to get talked about because to give them a pass these days is not ok. But it sounds awfully ham fisted. I blame a show runner who thinks that audience needs cue cards too.

    Reply
  8. MaryD

    Yes!!! A good friend was her tenant (Julia had an apartment in her basement) for a few years (in the late 70s) while going to grad school. My friend said that the whole portrayal was really not the person she knew pretty well–Julia was a very ambitious women with a good sense of purpose, not the sort of aimless bumbling klutz portrayed–and she would have NEVER dropped an F-bomb (Julia kept to the old fashioned rules for ladies). A few points that I also found factually wrong–while Julia supported friends that were gay later in life, she did not back gay rights (and extremely unlikely to have visited a drag bar in 1962). There were no black producers at WGBH in the 60s. Avis was a good friend and the initial editor of the Art of French cooking but there is no indication that she ever volunteered to assist the television production. Mr. Rogers would have never been invited to a 1962 fundraiser in New York, considering that his show didn’t start until 1968 (I am actually one of the kids who showed up to his Boston appearance in the documentary about this)–according to Wikipedia, he was working for his ordination at that time. I also take issue with the portrayal of Russ Morash as againsts how-to shows–he really dug into that in his career and pretty much made most of the home shows PBS became known for in the 70s and 80s. Marion Morash is an accomplished cook (and blonde, FWIW) who was published, made regular tv appearances with cooking segments on many television shows (including Julia’s) and has a James Beard award. Overall, the show morphed Julia’s personality into the one we’d like to have today, but the real one wasn’t quite so progressive, I’m afraid.

    Reply
  9. Marie In AZ

    Sorry, I don’t know, but there was one point I puzzled over: in the series, Julia frequently uses blue language, to the amusement of all. Yet, in “Julie and Julia,” Child refused to meet with Powell in part because of Powell’s cursing, and yes, “because she [Powell] wasn’t a serious cook.” I wonder about the truth…if there is any truth to either of those statements.

    Reply
  10. Mary L Pagones

    I think the more recent history is, the more difficult it is to grapple with fictional inaccuracies. I know some history buffs who go ballistic at Shakespeare’s free and easy use of it, and I admit, as a literary person, I’m more interested in the drama.

    Having grown up watching Julia and reading My Life in France, I do think that Julia was fundamentally a blue-blooded member of the American elite who was all about promoting the art and technique of French cooking to everyone. It was her life’s calling and I do think she believed enjoying cooking and making mistakes, yet learning proper technique, was important. But she was never wholly in step with some of the changes taking place in American society. Even today the Michael Pollan “cook at home” locavores promote an eating style that often over-burdens women to make sure the rest of the family eats healthfully.

    Reply

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