The filmmakers behind Julia, the in-depth exploration of iconic television cooking show host Julia Child, said her profound impact on the culture was felt far beyond introducing lovingly prepared French cuisine to a mass American audience.
Co-director Julie Cohen said during a panel for the Sony Pictures Classics movie at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary that, thanks to her prominence, engaging persona and inherent sense of authority, Child was an early feminist icon even outside the kitchen – though the chef didn’t fully embrace the distinction.
“That’s big part of what attracted us to this story, because Julia certainly didn’t call herself a feminist – the term being used in the day was a ‘woman’s libber,’” said Cohen. “We have a great clip where a TV host in the ’70s is asking, like, ‘What do you think of this whole women’s liberation thing?’ And Julia kind of backs away from that, ‘Oh, no – I’m a working woman, but then I really like to prepare a meal for my husband at home and be a good wife.’”
“Part of the problem was that feminism had such a bad rap,” added Cohen, “and showing a strong woman like Julia and how she could really push for advanced feminist ideals in many ways, up to and including supporting Planned Parenthood without identifying it as feminist – there’s something kind of subversive and delightful about that.”
Child also changed the image of how women were portrayed on television, said co-director Betsy West. “It’s really hard to underestimate what a shock it was to audiences when Julia Child showed up on Channel 2 in Boston and started, in her flamboyant and enthusiastic and sometimes loud way, telling people how to cook,” said West. “I think audiences were starved for someone like Julia, that the landscape for women on television was pretty prescribed, that they would be kind of on the sidelines, and often the pretty petite, demure woman.
“It just wasn’t typical to have somebody with Julia’s authority, confidence and advanced age on television telling people what to do,” said West. “And that was a huge change.”
Cohen added that Child’s zest for life showed in her approach to cooking, influencing generations of appealing TV chefs to this day. “The way that she was free to make a mistake if she made a mistake, the way that she dug into a meal after preparing it on television, which now has become kind of that’s what that’s what TV cooks do: they eat their food at the end,” said Cohen. “But she was making that up as she went along, and it just really worked.”
Check out the panel video above.