Who are you calling "dinner hooker"?

The headline "Rachael Ray, my dinner hooker" caused quite a stir. When it comes to ironic riffs, where do we draw the line?

Published October 19, 2006 12:00AM (EDT)

Last weekend, Salon featured a story about chipper celebrity cooking-show host Rachael Ray and her polarizing effect on the Food Network-watching masses; the piece was titled "Rachael Ray, my dinner hooker." In the piece, ace Table Talk host and Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams lampooned her own conflicted relationship with Ray's trademark quick-and-dirty dishes:

"Ray does not exist to wine you and dine you. She is here to wham-bam thank-you-ma'am you, an abundantly useful strategy. I may find her personality considerably off-putting. I may feel guilty for turning to her again and again at that certain hour of the evening when I need gratification. Rachael Ray is my dinner hooker -- fast, reliable, a sure bet. Her critics can bemoan the meteoric rise of the warp-speed dinner; they can turn up their noses at her 'sammies' and burgers. But not every meal can be a truffle-infused work of art. Most nights, you're just grateful for a little culinary reach-around."

Not that Ray's professional success relies on her sexuality. Williams also wrote, "Unlike some of her other Food Network compatriots, Ray brings no seductive charge, no 'food porn' element to her work ... [she] is all brisk and bouncy. Even when she posed for FHM a few years ago in a series of skimpy outfits, her wholesome smile, her cheerful lack of subtext when nibbling a strawberry, remained firmly intact."

We'll admit: We were a little startled to see the words "dinner hooker" screaming from a Salon headline. Salon and Broadsheet readers debated the aptness and appropriateness of the metaphor -- some took issue with the comparison (examples here, here, here, here, here and here) and others thought the critics should lighten up (examples here, here and here). It's a ripe issue: The "my dinner hooker" line juxtaposes Ray, a hugely successful businesswoman and brand in her own right, with an industry organized around the commoditization and subjugation of women. And while comparisons to the oldest profession are common in journalism and literature -- what politician hasn't been likened to a "two-dollar whore"? -- those comparisons aren't generally intended to be flattering, either to the politicians in question or to sex workers generally. Still, Williams' witty writing played on a particular kind of human transaction. Should such comparisons automatically be off limits?

We asked Williams for her take on the "dinner hooker" debate. Doesn't likening a professional woman to a prostitute, even in a tongue-in-cheek way, demean her actual work? Or have we come far enough that using the sex-work analogy to describe a woman's non-sex-related work is no longer loaded? She generously agreed to help us hash it out, and wrote in an e-mail:

"I wrote the story from my own rather conflicted perspective, on my own love/hate relationship with her Ray-ness. I thought, I turn to her when I have a need for quick, reliable gratification, despite the fact I don't necessarily like her. I feel slightly guilty about that. And then I realized, oh my God, I'm a john. Like sex, cooking isn't always about love. Sometimes it is, and when it is, it's great. And sometimes it's just about satisfying a hunger and getting your happy ending, gastronomically speaking.

"So, in short, I'm not saying Rachael Ray is a hooker. I'm just saying she's my hooker.

"Does that make my words or ideas misogynistic? Would the question be a no-brainer if a man had written the story? 'Hooker' may a derogatory term, but does that mean the metaphor shouldn't be articulated? I don't want to shy away from my own darker thoughts, I don't want to self-censor. I don't want to be concerned about offending someone or making myself look like a better person than I really am. Matters of food and sex and gender are complicated, they're also often pretty absurd; that's why I'm drawn to them. And I would much, much rather be able to express my less-than-perfect feelings and be challenged on them than play it safe.

"Incidentally, while the metaphor is all mine, the title of the story came from the editors here. I think they knew that was the lightning rod."

Williams' questions are good ones, and it's worth debating how best to acknowledge the chauvinism and injustices of human history without perpetuating them. And while none of us wants to be the politically correct language police, feminists often disagree over what we can successfully reclaim and play on, whether it's the color pink, words like "bitch" and "slut" or the tricky power dynamics of stripping and sex. So: Where does the "dinner hooker" controversy fall in this conversation? What do Broadsheet readers think?

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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