An Autonomous Woman Is Inherently Destructive

The portrayal of a Black woman enjoying “me time” in “The Bear” is political, and beautifully indulgent

In “Sundae,” the third episode of the recently-released second season of Hulu’s The Bear, chef Sydney Adamu, played by Ayo Edebiri, spends a day-long culinary journey around Chicago as a palate “reset” for the menu she and her business partner, chef Carmine Berzatto, are developing for their restaurant-to-be. The original plan was for Syd and Carmy to do this together, but he bails at the last minute, and she’s left with the day to herself. 

“Can I get the breakfast sandwich with longaniza, and also can I get a hash brown? I’ll also have the mushroom adobo, and, umm, one of these mango tarts. And, umm [thoughtful squint] a matcha latte.” The unselfconscious “ands” and “alsos” of Syd’s order at her first stop of the day are a pleasure in and of themselves. We watch her digging into pasta, ribs, noodles, slices of pizza, and finishing off the day with a glorious banana split. Throughout this, she’s also talking with old friends and connections in the city’s culinary world, getting advice and feeling a growing doubt about Carmine’s reliability as a partner, as well as the massive gamble of opening a restaurant. But the food she eats is clearly the star of the sequence. The whole thing takes about ten minutes of the entire episode. 

I couldn’t tell if the staggering volume of what she consumed was a product of television fictionalizing, or a superpower.

In Salon, Kelly Pau writes incisively about the sequence’s “radical” and “empowering” content—that is, the novelty of depicting a woman eating a lot, with gusto, purposefully, and alone, and in the name of her own ambition. And indeed, after finishing the episode, the shots of Sydney sliding a dumpling into her mouth, glistening fish roe, and a golden slab of hash brown being placed into an open breakfast sandwich stayed with me. I couldn’t tell if the staggering volume of what she consumed was a product of television fictionalizing, or a superpower common to chefs and food critics. Either way, I didn’t care—I only knew the very real joy and longing that Sydney’s peregrinations across Chicago’s food landscape instilled in me. 

The more I’ve thought about Sydney eating, the more I’ve come to consider how rare it is to see the depiction of a woman just thinking in television or film—let alone a woman of color, a Black woman. And when I say thinking, I’m not talking about a moody montage of the single gal contemplating the future of her relationship (there will be tea, there will be rain), nor of the heroine shuffling through photos of her mother, who is either dying or has just died of cancer (Mom looks so young here!) nor of the depressive artist furiously slashing away at the canvas or guitar (Cue indecorous gulp of red wine, drag on cigarette.). I’m talking about meandering, intellectual reflection—the kind that doesn’t actually look very exciting. The undramatic moments that undergird a lot of creative work—the stuff that isn’t very entertaining. And perhaps because I’m a poet, this kind of representation of creativity is especially dear to me. In her Nobel Laureate speech, Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observes: 

“It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. […] But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?”

Yes, there’s the sensuous drama of the visuals of the food Sydney eats. But the sequence doesn’t seek to push the epiphanic “bite of food=immediate inspiration” moment that we get in, say, a film like Ratatouille. Syd’s face, as she eats, is stoic. She doesn’t swoon. She writes and sketches in her notebook in a methodical way. No impassioned scribbling. The sequence is interspersed with overhead shots of a slowly-building plate which, we come to understand, is a new dish that’s evolving in her mind throughout the day. Even better, there’s no “reward” for her thinking; that night, she tries a version of the dish in her mind, and it’s terrible. And that failure only makes this representation of creativity that much more authentic. A lot of what art-making requires is uncinematic introspection and no payoff.  

Sydney’s day reminds me of a recent solo trip I took to my former home of New York—my first time in the city since before Covid. Although I spent many memorable meals with friends and family—sharing a chicken parm the size of life raft with my cousin Patti in Little Italy, the delicate comfort of avgolemono soup with Miles and Laura in Astoria, rich forkfuls of Keema Kaleji with Nate and Amy in Park Slope, soft serve cones and a bottle of rosé with Clark in Central Park—I treasured the solo eating I did as well. Insalata e acciughe and a glass of verdicchio at an outside table at Via Carota, after a nostalgic morning walk around the West Village (I kid you not, the greens tasted happy as I bit down on them). My impromptu Saturday night jaunt for strawberry gelato in SoHo—a summer breeze up one’s skirt is a crucial ingredient. Hunching over the spicy lamb noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods and grunting like a woman possessed. The 1:30am Crunchwrap Supreme at a bustling convivial Taco Bell, one of the only places open for food in the Financial District at that hour. And a great part of what makes me treasure the memory of those moments: eating alone and walking alone means I’m thinking alone. 

I was seeing so many people I loved on this trip, people who’ve shaped my mind and heart, people whose company brings me deep joy. But as I made my arrangements for these long-delayed reunions, I knew I would need to just walk around the city for blocks and blocks, to ride the subway, to indulge in the supreme pleasure of being solitary among over 8 million people. To simply watch and listen in a place where I had no habits. But I told no one about needing this solitude. I portioned chunks of time out to others on this rare, expensive trip, but always held back some for myself. I was circumspect about when, exactly, I was seeing whom, and for how long. It’s for my art, I could have explained; my poems, but that wouldn’t have been the entire truth. It’s just for me. My brain; my—am I really going to type this?—spiritual refreshment. This, I think, is why all those shots of Syd just being a woman thinking alone in public are precious to me. And still, needing this time to myself made me feel ashamed.  

In the later chapters of Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer contrasts the transgressions of female artists with the violent acts of the Roman Polanskis and Woody Allens she’s examining, and concludes that, for a woman, the biggest sin is one of abandonment. She focuses particularly on artist-mothers (Joni Mitchell, Anne Sexton), and includes her own catalogue of maternal failure. She recognizes that for the female artist:

“You abandon something, some giving part of yourself. When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. […] The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.”

There’s no ‘reward’ for her thinking; that night, she tries a version of the dish in her mind, and it’s terrible.

I’m not a parent, but the times that I’ve had to set boundaries, say no, not return texts or phone calls immediately, not check in, not drop by, not commit these acts of care and repair in my personal and professional relationships always puts a little twist in my gut. Care, the soft, insinuating voice says (Do I need to clarify that it’s a woman’s voice?). Care more, and more still. What are you good for, if not for this care? Dederer’s ideas extend far beyond art-making; for a woman, the instances in which we refuse the call to care can feel like “savageries.” Even if we’re not mothers, mothering is still expected of us. And let’s not ignore the connotations of the word “savagery,” in terms of all the ways it suggests an abandonment of (white) civilization and society. A woman unemotionally thinking alone must mean she is neglecting someone or something elsewhere. Let me put it more baldly: an autonomous woman is an inherently destructive woman. 

The sight of a woman like Sydney calmly, ruminatively taking in the world shouldn’t be so rare on screen. I shouldn’t feel so shocked at seeing reflections of my own hard-won solitary moments. They are as worthy of narrative—and this is where I mention that “Sundae” is written and directed entirely by women—as anything else. These ten minutes of a television show celebrate the life of a woman’s mind. I feel seen, and yet I’m also frustrated by the novelty they represent. 

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