Tuesday, July 28

under the bus

as promised, this blogpost delves randomly into a few rhetorical facets of the reality television show Hell's Kitchen, mostly it's about  some of the rhetorical commonplaces I noticed were shared among competitors across the show's 15-year run.

we finished watching the most recent eighteenth season of Hell's Kitchen last week, I think. (time is a giant blur because of summer and the pandemic, so who really knows when anything has happened.) it's quite a show. as uber-sensational as its episodes can get (emotionally-heightened music! suspenseful voice-over! dramatic pauses between every three words Ramsay says!), it's not too bad. my favourite segments are all the cooking challenges: de-vein as many jumbo shrimp as you can in 10 minutes exactly; cook 10 perfect mushroom and chive omelettes before the other team does; teach a semi-clueless college student or super model or Olympic athlete to cook your signature recipe using only words, no demonstrations; or create a delectable and perfectly-cooked dish using a random combination of one protein, one starch, one vegetable, and one "wild card" ingredient like truffle or blue cheese or something.

the challenges are always my favourite part of reality television. some people like all the interpersonal scheming and the drama of alliances and betrayal, but that's way less interesting to me than seeing how the variously credentialed guest judges will react to the contestants' cooking.

but anyway. the rhetoric of Hell's Kitchen. why not? there's a lot that could be analyzed along those lines. for this post, I'm dwelling on the idiom that stood out to me the very most among all eighteen seasons of carefully-edited contestant confessionals-- "to throw someone under the bus."

among the hundreds of chefs who have competed on Hell's Kitchen over the years, we see plenty of common rhetorical moves. chefs (especially in season premier episodes) insist that they're "not here to make friends, but to win." they refer to each other throughout as "dead weight" or "fat" that must be "trimmed" from their team. after any particular stressful dinner service (and they're all pretty stressful, no matter what), there is talk of so-and-so having gotten "in the weeds" and messing everything up for the kitchen. chefs hoping to prove their skill talk about "stepping up to the plate" to show the world what they can really do. these last two are sports metaphors, extended beyond the contexts of golf and baseball to describe competitive cooking instead.

if I was doing some serious rhetorical-linguistic analysis here, I'd need to track down transcripts of all these episodes and tally up the commonplaces I've noticed in order to properly see which were most used and when. that process would probably lead me to see others that my casual watching of the show didn't reveal, too.

but as it is, all I have is my gut sense that this particular phrase about throwing people under buses is the most interesting one to talk about.

why? mainly it comes down to the common usage of this phrase on the show illuminating its meaning with extra nuance, helping us understand how the saying has evolved. I suspect that the high-stakes context of a reality show is arguably a factor in distorting this odd little idiom from a term that evokes the blatant, dishonorable scapegoating of an otherwise generally innocent party into something a lot more ... flexible. 

the phrase "to throw someone under the bus" has a murky origin from what I have been able to find out. it's not that old, it seems-- first documented in the 1980s. Merriam-Webster traces its history back to British politics and similar "under the bus" phrases in use within that discourse. apparently "throwing people under the bus" has been regularly popularized by sports journalists in the meantime, which gives us yet another parallel between reality cooking shows and professional sports, I guess.

here, in any case, is the definition as summed up by everyone's favourite crowdsourced encyclopedia:
"to betray a friend or ally for selfish reasons; typically used to describe a self-defensive disavowal and severance of a previously-friendly relationship when the relationship becomes controversial, unpopular, or inconvenient."
how closely does the common usage of the phrase on Hell's Kitchen adhere to this dictionary definition? I'm not too sure.

the definition above gives us two core elements involved in "throwing someone under the bus":

1. a previously friendly relationship, or at least some kind of allyship.
2. a calculated movement in self-defense, to further one's own interests at the expense of someone else's.

usually the chefs on Hell's Kitchen accuse each other of throwing them under the proverbial bus as a defensive move in itself. does that mean the accused chef is guilty of truly, defensively, regardless of honor, throwing them under the bus? I'd argue not often.

given that most of the chefs on this show aren't there to make friends, that first element isn't so solidly present to begin with. however, the chefs are usually teammates, so that might count as an allyship, and thereby satisfy the first element of the definition. but still... as for the second element? this is trickier, and it often depends on a million things. in each chef's mind, they of course can't possibly be as horribly at fault as their competition, so naturally they insist that anyone calling for their elimination is doing so merely to save themselves. but is it really the case that those accused of throwing others under buses are always just as guilty of mistakes and incompetence and therefore just as likely to be eliminated by Ramsay at the end of the night? nope. of course not.

so what would be a more accurate term? well, the corollary commonplace in Hell's Kitchen discourse is "trimming the fat" or "removing dead weight" from the team. in that case, those being eliminated thoroughly deserve their fate and there isn't any defensive betrayal at all going on.

or at least that's one story we can tell. in reality, those who stay in the contest do benefit from every other aspiring chef's removal. it's convenient for some when others do poorly. and there must be a thousand shades of nuance between seeing someone as "dead weight" and seeing someone as an innocent bus victim. nobody is thoroughly one or the other, I imagine. 

{ image borrowed from the network that hosts the show, Fox }

as a postscript, I'd like to also note that Hell's Kitchen's creator and head chef/dictator, Gordon Ramsay, has catchphrases of his own aplenty. many are typically delivered in a screaming tone to function as humiliating insults. the more congenial of them are things like, "let me tell you" or "let's get that right" appended alternately to statements of praise or criticism. these are less rhetorical commonplaces in a bunch of shared discourse, and more habitual conversation fillers. they mark Ramsay's speech as his just as much as his accent does. I find the non-screaming ones pretty endearing.

there are, according to various entertainment news outlets, two more seasons of Hell's Kitchen planned for eventual distribution. but it may be a while before they come out on regular television, much less before they come out on any convenient online streaming services.

will the commonplace of "getting thrown under the bus" continue with seasons nineteen and twenty? I wouldn't be surprised if so.

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