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Paula Deen's first national syndicated cooking and lifestyle show, Positively Paula, premieres today in (very) select markets—a measly 24 states. Given this, a good swath of its intended audience will probably be unable to access it. "It's just a little weird to have to go through so much trouble just to find your shows," one of the top Facebook comments on the post announcing her show reads, bemoaning her absence from her former domain, the Food Network. "Too bad it can't be like it used to be."
With Positively Paula, Deen has engineered a product expressly for those who miss her, seemingly uninterested in making amends with a greater American populace. The season is composed of twenty-six half-hour episodes featuring her cooking out of her home kitchen in Savannah, Georgia, with occasional celebrity guests like Tom Berenger. She's created a show for the fans who haven't disavowed her, but, considering the remarkable difficulty of even watching the show, Deen seems to be preaching to a choir who cannot even hear her.
At first glance, Positively Paula may seem like the latest stop in Deen's apparent redemption campaign. This is certainly how outlets covering Positively Paula have spun it. Imposing this kind of arc onto Deen's career strikes me as simplistic, though—Positively Paula's aims are especially unclear. In the three years after Deen admitted to using racial slurs in the workplace, it seems that Deen's bid for redemption has been riddled with false starts. Just last year, her social media manager posted a photo to her Twitter featuring an old photo of her and her son cosplaying as Desi Arnaz—in brownface. That's quite a hiccup for a woman known in many corners for her perceived racial insensitivity.
Given this context, is Positively Paula a 'comeback'? Look a little closer:
Man. If Deen's found herself in the spotlight again, it's a rather dim one. The three-minute sizzle reel for the show is plastered with ungainly Century Gothic font and some gentle ribbing between her and her son. She talks about her first facial. There is an extreme close-up of her with cucumbers resting atop her corneas. The frames are filled with her putting dollops of cream upon piles of Chessmen cookies and frying chicken, telling us of the nostalgic potency of that very act. "Some things that'll almost make you weep...because the memories that flood back, and all good memories," she says.
By evidence of these three minutes, there is nothing new about Deen here. It is a retread of what we've seen before—just with slapdash production—aggressively insisting that Deen is a relatable woman with a good heart. (For the record, I'd love to be proven wrong on this front. When I asked the show's public relations representative for screeners, he told me they didn't have any, and he seemed reticent to give more information.) This very quality—Deen's affability—is, after all, largely responsible for her ascendance to popular favor in the early aughts. Deen gained fans through the magnetism of her backstory: She was a daughter who lost her parents before she turned 23, a woman who was once married to an alcoholic, a single mother to two sons, an entrepreneur who began a business with meager resources.
Time has clearly abstracted the uglier details of how deeply she hurt people. The fact that Deen got caught using racial slurs in the workplace became folded into her narrative of stalwart survivalism, convincing her acolytes that she can withstand just about any trying situation. Just look at the unanimous support she garners on social media. Reading these responses, I'm reminded of what Taffy-Brodesser Akner observed two years ago on Matter, that "Paula’s comeback isn’t about forgiveness — it’s about standing her ground."
The press materials accompanying Positively Paula revise accordingly, acting as if Deen's career began in 2014. Her biography, for example, opens with the reminder that she has sold more than 11 million copies of her 14 cookbooks before pivoting swiftly to everything she's done since 2013. She conducted a live tour, "Paula Deen Live!", and launched the subscribers-only digital network Paula Deen Network. It mentions her "first free mobile game," Paula Deen's Recipe Quest, and her podcast, What's Cooking with Paula Deen. There's even a radio show, Get Cooking with Paula Deen. It brags about her "Facebook (4,582,864 likes), Twitter (1.44 million followers) and Pinterest (281,800 followers)," proof that people still love her, as if to say, look at everything she's accomplished—have you heard?
It's just impossible to look at all of these press elements in concert—and the minimal effort put into them—and have a takeaway that Paula Deen wants to make amends with the greater American public, or even be seen by them. Which is why positioning Positively Paula as a mainstream comeback is a baffling conclusion to me—its website, replete with links that are dead and images that don't load, speaks to the fact that we've learned not to give this woman the loud, hypervisible platform she once occupied. And Deen herself has kept kind of mum about this apparent "comeback." On her official site, she has posted an interview about the show—with her son, not an actual press outlet.
Perhaps the most confounding line of the press package is the one that casually refers to Deen as the "Queen of Southern Cuisine." Who believes she is the "Queen of Southern Cuisine"? Or, better yet, was she ever?
From 2016's purview, seeing this sobriquet attached to Deen recalls this letter Food52 friend Michael Twitty wrote to Deen on the "erasure of the black presence from the American culinary memory," and Deen's complicity in it. He issued a rejoinder to the very point that Deen's camp passes off as fact. "Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks," Twitty reminded Deen. "Some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation."
Yet the truths contained in his argument—that Deen wielded a kind of power and influence over the way America imagines Southern cuisine, a responsibility she perhaps wasn't equipped to deal with—don't seem to have stuck with Deen, who refuses to forfeit this title. Twitty's letter went viral, and in it, he gave Deen an opportunity to engage with him. She never responded.
Positively Paula will be airing in (very, very) select markets starting today, October 15th.