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How The Great British Baking Show helps me cope with Trump depression

A series from across the pond in which people compete to make beautiful beacons of sweet deliciousness has proven unusually comforting to me lately.

How The Great British Baking Show helps me cope with Trump depression
(From left) Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Noel Fielding, and Sandi Toksvig [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

A month ago, I fell into a deep Trump-induced depression. The anxiety had been slowly bubbling up inside me since I watched the election results roll in two years ago, but it reached a tipping point when the United Nations released a report in October saying that all our previous climate change predictions were way off.

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A team of 91 scientists from 40 countries believe that we’re headed to a full-on crisis by as early as 2040. For context, my toddler will just be completing college then. Rather than focusing on her career, she will be facing a world full of food shortages, entire countries that are underwater, and the mass death of coral reefs. Trump’s reaction was typical. He ignored the report and cast doubt about its credibility.

In the face of so many other crises–mass shootings, hate crimes, kids in cages–I did the most logical thing I could think of: I crawled back to bed and binge-watched The Great British Baking Show.

I’m lucky. I’m in a position to find solace in a Netflix show, but migrant mothers and children in tent cities certainly cannot. For those of us who are privileged enough to be able to practice some form of self-care, entertainment has been a valuable coping mechanism. In fact, some activists refer to self-care as an act of resistance, giving us the recovery we need to pick ourselves back up and get back to the work of protecting the vulnerable, campaigning for social justice, and voting this administration out of office.

As I sat there, under my duvet, watching The Great British Baking Show on my iPhone, something magical happened. After four hours of watching this slow-moving reality competition–where contestants ice gingerbread houses, make bad food-related puns, and analyze the precision of layers in Victoria sponge cake–I began to feel slightly better about the world.

It wasn’t just because I had fallen into a cheery, pastel-colored universe where the only goal is to create beautiful, tasty confections. Many shows can provide the same kind of low-stakes escapism.

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]
The Great British Baking Show, which is available on Netflix and kicks off a new season for the U.S. market on November 9, lifted my spirits because it points to a better reality than the one in which we are currently living. The show reflects many of the very best qualities to which we aspire as a civilization. These include showing kindness to all (even those with whom you are competing), creating such a diverse community that nobody even bothers talking about it, and celebrating actual skill and expertise.

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As I watched episodes unfold, I found myself thinking back to that other reality TV show, The Apprentice, that played a crucial role in shaping Donald Trump’s public image. (There is also a British version of The Apprentice, with Alan Sugar.) In many ways, Trump’s entire persona as president is based on his carefully engineered character on that show. In so many ways, The Apprentice is the anthesis of The Great British Baking Show.

The Apprentice is built upon the idea of winning at any cost, whether by stabbing other contestants in the back or bending the rules, all for the sake of the ultimate goal: getting rich. Compare this to The Great British Baking Show. The winner does not walk away with a cash prize or even a book contract at the end of the 10-part season. He or she is rewarded with a cake stand (that’s not even particularly attractive) and a hearty handshake from the judges for a job well done. Contestants are motivated by their love of baking and their desire to do their best work.

On The Apprentice, Trump’s character was supposed to be an expert at achieving success in business in a cutthroat way. The entire series celebrated the dog-eat-dog culture of the U.S. workplace. And now, Trump has translated these qualities to his presidency. He constantly talks in aggressive, self-aggrandizing terms about “winning.” Except now, the narrative is that he’s not “winning” for himself, but for the entire country. (This is a lie, of course. Trump is concerned with helping no one but himself.)

[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]
The Great British Baking Show celebrates an entirely different philosophy. The show values good sportsmanship and the fair and generous treatment of one’s rivals. Contestants seem to all share a fundamental belief that the most skilled and creative baker deserves to win. This is why almost every single episode features one baker running over to a neighbor’s station to help them. In one episode from season 8, a woman drops her cookie tray as she puts it in the oven, spilling dough all over the floor. The baker behind her rushes over to help clean up the mess. In the world of the show, coming to the aid of someone else is never considered breaking the rules, nor does it curry you favor with the judges. It’s just what decent humans do for one another.

I found myself tearing up every single time these small acts of kindness happened in the show, since simple gestures of compassion in American society are now drowned out by so much unkindness and inhumanity, much of it emanating from the president himself. Trump is known for insulting and belittling his rivals. Like a petulant child, he proudly coins names like Crooked Hillary and Lyin’ Ted. This is the man who insulted a fallen Muslim-American soldier, belittled John McCain for being a POW, and mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally after she risked everything to testify about being sexually assaulted in high school. It is all so cruel.

In the context of white nationalism rising in the U.S. and a president who seems set on taking away the rights of the LGBTQ community, the diversity woven into The Great British Baking Show thrills me. Every single season, there are contestants of all ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Some are originally from countries like Ghana or Russia and incorporate flavors from their native countries into the delicacies they bake. One woman talks about the favorite dishes she cooks for her wife. A young Sikh man makes an adorable gingerbread house with a little cookie cut-out of his father wearing a turban. In keeping with the show’s understated style, nobody bothers highlighting any of this. It’s simply part of the show’s reality. This is a world where you are accepted for who you are and can focus on doing what you love.

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I understand that the show is not for everyone. It’s slow-paced and it delves into the minutiae of flour-to-fruit ratios. But it’s crucial to find some source of comfort in these dark times. And hopefully, whatever entertainment you decide on will remind you of the goodness that is still left in the world. May it last for you until the Trump presidency is over, when we can crawl out from under our covers and return to the light.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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