Paula Deen is where sass meets crass, where the homespun and folksy curdle into something with a sour aftertaste.
Her manner may be as sugary as her cooking, her smile as big as the hams she hawked for Smithfield. But she doesn’t pause when she should. Doesn’t question herself when she must.
There’s a dearth of reflection, a deficit of introspection, and that’s not just a generational thing and not just a regional thing, as some of her fans and other observers have begun to assert, unprepared to surrender their image of Paula the Southern Eccentric to the reality of Paula the Deep-Fried Boor.
It’s a judgment thing. A sensitivity thing. It’s what happens when your shtick proves as golden as hers and your world is larded with handlers who only say “yes” and fans who only say “more.” You don’t think anybody could possibly see anything untoward in you. So you stop looking for, adjusting to, and correcting the untoward impulses that are in every one of us.
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A fresh illustration of this traveled through cyberspace Monday, a video that shows Deen at The New York Times in October, being interviewed onstage by my colleague Kim Severson. The subject of race comes up.
“I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced,” Deen says, “because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.”
That statement alone is awkward — she’s referring to servants, presumably — but she doesn’t stop there. Motioning to the inky backdrop behind her and Severson, she notes that her driver, bodyguard and assistant, Hollis Johnson, is as “black as that board.”
“Come out here, Hollis,” she adds. “We can’t see you standing against that dark board.”
That’s a lot of apparent focus on skin color, in a vein so breezy it really does make you wonder, especially given what that creepy deposition brought to light last week. She admitted having used “the n-word,” more than once. She admitted finding beauty in a “plantation-style wedding” with an all-black wait staff. From her butter to her banter, she’s a Confederate caricature, and a reminder of a past that’s still too present.
Just how far have we trekked on our long road toward a more colorblind, equitable society? Just how hurtfully do we still stumble? Such questions are prominent this week, with the Supreme Court sidestepping an affirmative-action decision and testimony in the Trayvon Martin case set to begin. We’re once again taking stock.
And it’s this backdrop that’s relevant to Deen’s firing by the Food Network and Smithfield Foods. In a world of pervasive insult and elusive consensus, she provided a discrete opportunity for a line to be drawn. She served up a teachable moment on a platter.
There’s almost always a larger context like that when someone falls as spectacularly as Deen has fallen, and there’s almost always a prelude: a first strike.
Hers was in early 2012. That’s when she lost the benefit of the doubt, not racially but in terms of her character, by revealing she had been diagnosed three years earlier with Type 2 diabetes, which is abetted by the calorie bombs on which her empire thrived.
This disclosure was timed not to benefit her fans, who were continuing to follow her fatty counsel, but to benefit her: One of her sons had a new healthful-cooking show that needed promoting, and she herself was stepping out as a spokeswoman — a paid spokeswoman — for a diabetes drug.
What’s more, the triumphant cynicism of this situation seemed lost on her. She beamed as always. Was saucy as ever. You knew then that she had levitated to some altitude where she felt above reproach; that her investment in the bacon-wrapped burlesque of Paula Inc., trumped a healthy conscience; and that self-examination was a condiment gone from her larder. And it’s through the lens of that knowledge that many Americans responded to her deposition and questioned what was in her heart.
Others have urged clemency, noting that she’s 66 years old and has lived her life far south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Please. All of her adult years postdate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she’s a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares. If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness.
Beyond which, people can change, growing past wrongful ways in the name of what’s right. We pass new laws. We adopt new language. That’s the recipe for progress: putting justice ahead of habit, principle over precedent.
It’s not one that’s been mastered by Deen, whose worst ingredient isn’t corn syrup or Crisco but willful obtuseness.
© 2013, New York Times News Service
Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times.