The Exotification of Food in James Corden's "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts"
By Shirley Cahyadi
I watch James Corden because I feel he projects an air of warmth and openness that is genuine. In my opinion, as a talk-show host Jimmy Fallon often feels forced or fake; however,Corden carries himself in a way that makes me feels like he’s a friend I’ve known for years. I hold James Corden in high regard, but there’s something about his “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” segment that I just cannot get past. The segment itself is not approached from a place of outright racism, but rather from a place of ignorance — and honestly I’m not sure which one is worse. And just as you would feel disappointed with a friend when they exhibit ignorance, I feel disappointment in James Corden. That being said, I strongly believe it’s possible, perhaps paradoxically, to appreciate someone’s work, and to also be critical at the same time.
I really enjoy watching talk shows, and perhaps it stems out of my desire to observe and pick apart the minds of the people I admire, and since talking to them in person isn’t always possible, I turn to interviews. Interviews make our idols accessible, and we watch with the hope that the interviewer will ask the questions we never even knew we wanted answers to, so we can learn even more.
James Corden began his role as the host of The Late Late Show in 2014, previously hosted by Craig Ferguson. With his show came a score of new segments such as Sidewalk Musical, Riff-Off and Flinch. His segments Carpool Karaoke and Drop the Mic were so successful that they’ve even evolved into their own separate shows.
During “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts,” the rules state that Corden and the guest(s) must take turns asking each other a series of personal questions. If they don’t answer, they are required to eat a disgusting food of their opponents choice. After laying out the rules, Corden typically proceeds by presenting each of the “disgusting foods” available for that segment. The selection may include bull’s penis, shots of hot sauce, and sardine smoothies among many others. “Shock value” is the capability that any given text, piece of imagery, or form of communication is able to induce acute feelings of fear, disgust, and repulsion. As Corden rotates the lazy susan of “disgusting foods,” the process of showcasing each dish available draws reactions of awe and repulsion and this act is clearly done in search of playing off of the shock value of the “grotesque” dishes.
Shock value for entertainment’s sake is not a new phenomenon. However, the entertainment derived from “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” relies exclusively on shock value and not a desire to be progressive. Instead, to label these foods as disgusting, and to react to them with mimed gag reflex, implies that there is something about the dishes that makes them inedible. The shock value of this segment is derived out of perpetuating Western values about what “food” is.
Among the array of “disgusting foods” that have been featured are chicken feet, duck fetus, thousand year old egg, bird’s saliva, and cod sperm.The segment decidedly takes foods considered prized delicacies in Asian cultures and slanders them for the purpose of cheap laughs. It makes a mockery of them even though there are billions of people that consume these foods at mealtimes.
In the episode with Jimmy Kimmel, the foods on display are jellyfish, chicken feet, bull penis, thousand year old egg, pig blood curd, balut, fish smoothie, and ghost pepper hot sauce. Out of those dishes, only ghost pepper hot sauce and fish smoothie are dishes that do not have direct associations with Asian cuisine.
Not all the foods featured on the segment are distinctly cultural. When looking specifically at the example of the Jimmy Kimmel episode, it’s clear that a shot of ghost pepper hot sauce and fish smoothie has been created by the show for the purpose of inducing repulsion and though maybe it’s a good thing that not all of the foods included are cultural, there is a problematic nature to placing a dish concocted for the sole purpose of inducing repulsion next to cultural delicacy. A fish smoothie as it is served on the show is prepared in a way that is not how a dish is typically eaten. There may be someone out there who may enjoy a fish smoothie, but given that it is not a distinct dish from a specific cuisine, it’s understood that the sardine smoothie was included by the show for the pure purpose of creating a dish that most would find repulsive.
It is important to look at how Asian cultures eat these dishes. “Birds saliva,” is known as “birds nest,” a dish with immunity boosting properties. Instead of “fish sperm,” it’s known as shirako — a dish that can be poached and served with a ponzu sauce. Cow tongue is sliced and grilled to tenderness. And instead of “duck fetus,” its known as balut in Filipino cuisine.
With the decision to showcase these cultural foods as disgusting, it is clear that the show is catering to an audience whose tastes are shaped by narrow minded, Western-centric values. These foods have rich histories embedded within them and aren’t being eaten in the way that allows them to be appreciated. Placing a dish created to induce disgust on the same plate as a food prized in a certain culture degrades the latter. A thousand year old egg is a delicacy that is eaten commonly in Asian countries, particularly in China. In his episode with Kris Jenner, Corden explains that a thousand year old egg is “a delicacy in many parts of the word” which directly addresses his acknowledgement of the cultural value of that food, yet the inclusion of it in this segment is clearly for novelty.
Furthermore, I’ve noticed that the contestants on the show are rarely ever people of color, and I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen an Asian person participate in that segment — perhaps showrunners know that it just wouldn’t be shocking to them and thus lacking in entertainment value.
More than anything, this makes me question who decides the parameters for what is considered “disgusting” food. Why is cow’s tongue decidedly disgusting, yet foie gras has not once graced the “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts’” lazy susan? What are the markers that distinguish one food from being a delicacy, and another from being barbaric?
The slandering cultural foods in this particular case is an exercise of power. There’s a difference between saying that a certain food is unappealing for you, versus calling it disgusting and spitting it out on TV for the purpose of entertainment. One is a personal choice about preferences and tastes, the other perpetuates imbalances of power and cultural chauvinism.
We aren’t going to like all types of foods, especially if they are of an acquired taste. However, the show commands an international audience as it’s aired in countries such as India, Southeast Asia, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Finland, yet it fails to effectively take non-western perspectives into account. Even if this segment was not born out of racist motives, the lack of initiative to branch out of the bubble of ignorance is just not good enough. A show that demands an audience as large as Corden’s needs to take more responsibility in demonstrating a greater sense of cultural respect.