On its face, Masterchef Junior is a lot like other reality TV cooking competitions. Cooks are pitted against each other week to week as they face various wildly improbable challenges. Something like cooking for the client from Hell, armed only with canned mushrooms.
Making pasta from scratch within a ridiculous time limit.
That kind of thing.
But Masterchef Junior has an additional gimmick: The contestants are children.
They’re cute. They’re funny. They use language in unorthodox ways, mixing metaphors (my tribe!!) more smoothly than Kitchen Aid whips up batter.
But what sticks out most for me? They’re sweet to the other children, their competitors. This floored me. Sweetness on reality TV? Holy hornbeam!
Masterchef Junior vs. Normal Masterchef
Clear differences emerged as I began to compare the Masterchef Junior contestants to those participating in the normal Masterchef (the default version that features adults).
Upon arriving to the show:
Masterchef (default, adult version): “I’m not here to make friends.”
Masterchef Junior: “I hope I make friends.”
Additionally, the Masterchef Junior contestants spontaneously give each other encouragement. “That looks good.” Or “I’ll bet you win. You deserve it.”
Whereas the adult version? They largely trash talk or goad one another. Words of encouragement are very rare (and typically limited to team challenges and not individual ones). And most exchanges are neutral or negative.
The difference is striking and undeniable.
Of course, it’s well known that reality TV thrives on the magic of a good edit. And it’s quite possible that the producers of the show are concerned with the children “role modeling” good, prosocial behavior for the young viewers watching at home.
But it’s my sneaking suspicion that clever editing isn’t to blame for this difference.
We Have One Thing in Common, Let’s Be Friends
I’m sitting in O’Hare on a layover. Waiting for a flight to Vancouver. As with most long layovers, the waiting area is crowded, since the seats are occupied by multiple waves of travelers all taking different flights.
Despite the congestion, one man is lying across 3 seats with his feet touching a fourth. Another traveler gently redirects the tips of the man’s sneakers back a few inches so that he and his companion can sit down. The lounging man shoots up, scowls at the contact. Indignant, he nonetheless settles down, resigning himself to occupying 3 seats instead of 3.1.
But not everyone is grouchy.
“Those are nice dolls,” a young girl says. She’s maybe 5 feet away from me, talking to another girl who has been playing on the floor for quite some time.
“Thank you,” the girl with the doll replies. She pauses and adds, “I like your sneakers.”
The girl with the sneakers smiles and does a little dance, demonstrating how the lights on the bottom of her shoes work.
Within minutes, they are friends. They play dolls together until their flight is called, their mothers onlooking warily. But the children have their defenses completely down.
I wonder at this. I think about the complexities of adult friendships: The difficulty of forming them. And when formed, the anxieties and expectations that so often follow.
For children, it’s effortless.
While I wait for my own flight to board, I wonder about the empathy we lose in life. The zero sum thinking we pick up instead. Why this happens. How we can get some of it back.
Being Real, Staying Vulnerable
“Real isn’t how you’re made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit