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Disability, Food and Reality: A Blind Cook Wins Masterchef US / 22 October 2012

photo of blind US masterchef winner Christine Ha

Photo: Greg Gayne FOX © 2012, Fox Broadcasting Co.

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This summer, disability was everywhere. The most surprising super-crip pop-up was that of Christine Ha in the American version of Masterchef. Ha has an auto-immune condition that caused her to become blind at the age of 19. Now 33, Ha came, cooked and won Masterchef US.

First presented to us, Ha is all heroic super-crip, trying hard to overcome her disability by entering the contest. Whenever Ha’s in focus, the music becomes dramatic, the judges’ faces show both admiration and doubt. In one of the first challenges, Ha struggles but it turns out the difficulties she felt were all in her head – her only problem, as judge Gordon Ramsey explains to her, is her lack of self-confidence.

Nothing new here: The disabled person disables herself because of self-doubt, and once she realises, with the help of a non-disabled fairy godmother, that she just has to overcome that, everything’s fine – she can go from strength to strength, and Ramsey experiences a boost in his book sales.

Ramsey’s virtue is contrasted by Ryan, one of Ha’s competitors: After he wins a challenge, he picks a live crab for Ha to cook, which promptly pinches her. Ryan’s exploitation of Ha’s impairment remains a singular incident throughout the show, and is the only time where one contestant does not marvel, sometimes in a slightly patronising way, at Ha’s skills.

While some candidates and the judges furiously condemn Ryan’s tactic, Ha merely shrugs it off and tries to do her best. Her dish comes out wonderfully, and at this moment Ha’s experience is relatable for every disabled viewer. Disabled people have to deal with barriers and ignorance every day, and are used to adapt and to make their surroundings work for them. Masterchef US assigns this selfish, non-understanding attitude towards disabled people’s needs to one single, ‘mean’, individual, and fails to acknowledge this as a broader issue, and this is where the show is as far removed from reality as it could be.

The moments where Ha explains her techniques are immensely interesting, as they show an approach to food and cooking that is new on TV. I suspect that this caused Ha to win – her cookbook (the winner gets a publishing deal) offers unfamiliar ways of handling food, focusing on touch, smell and taste. 

Throughout the episodes, Ha is painfully aware of her ‘inspirational’ story. She seems undecided on whether to embrace or despise it. One moment she sobs “I just want to inspire people to overcome struggles”, and a few episodes later she has an outburst of anger, protesting against being just seen as an inspiration, and wanting people to respect her skills.

That Ha engages with the way she is portrayed is crucial. Masterchef US may use familiar tropes about disability on TV, but also gives a voice to a disabled woman. In some scenes, Masterchef US doesn’t just assume that its audience is exclusively non-disabled, but makes Ha truly relatable to disabled viewers.

Keywords: disability representation