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Posts tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

It’s only cake

The television series which I most I want to watch at the moment is Girls. Written by and starring Lena Dunham, it follows the exploits of four young women in New York. Unlike Sex and the City, to which it is usually compared, its success is based partly on how truthful its depiction of the characters’ experience of living in New York is: that it is expensive, and not particularly glamorous. It portrays sex and relationships wincingly realistically.

I’m interested in Girls not only because it looks fantastically entertaining: it seems to me to be part of a new kind of feminism which has emerged over the past few years.

In a pair of articles for N+1, Molly Fischer has taken a look at the rise of the ‘ladyblog’ since the founding of sites like Jezebel and The Hairpin in 2007 and 2008. For many young women, these blogs – and others – have taken the place of women’s magazines. Considerably more intelligent and far better written, ladyblogs take aim at the ways in which women’s magazines create and play on women’s insecurities, as well as the values underpinning them.

But Fischer points out that ladyblogs also peddle femininities which are not always tolerant of dissent, and are often unwilling to engage in debate. She writes about the response to an earlier, more critical post:

When intimacy is your model of success, it becomes easy to assume that everyone is either a friend or a traitor. I had tried to approach the ladyblogs as an observer rather than a participant, but my writing about them in an apparently impersonal public voice, as a woman—which became a woman holding myself apart from their community of women—registered as unacceptable aggression. So, was I a spinster feminist, or just out to impress boys? This was the exact corner of the internet that seemed like it ought to know better.

I was particularly taken by her observation that the blogs’ and their readers’ tendency to refer to themselves as ‘ladies’, rather than ‘women’, signals a kind of discomfort with adult femininity. I think that this is worth exploring. In a review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Katie Roiphe criticises the book – a novel about a group of variously arty people in Toronto – on the grounds that Heti’s behaviour and thinking are not really befitting a thirty-five year-old woman:

One of the salient facts of Heti’s milieu…is the very young quality of the book’s philosophical speculations, the palpable feel of college students sitting on a roof marvelling at the universe and their own bon mots, though Heti herself is 35. …

The perpetual, piquant childishness, the fetishizing and prolonging of an early 20s conversation about the Meaning of Life is central to both the book’s appeal and its annoyingness. Heti’s character is working in a hair salon and thinking a lot about art and how to be ‘the ideal human’ while also hanging out with people so fascinating…that she is recording their every word for posterity.

How Should a Person Be?, Girls, even Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress, as well as the increasing number of overtly feminist blogs and publications for women, from Frankie and The Gentlewoman to The Vagenda and The Flick, are a manifestation of the new feminism of the 2010s. EJ Graff explains this particularly well:

Young women are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

These young women are irreverent and unashamed of talking openly about sex. They’re less focused on eliminating consumerism or beauty culture than was the Second Wave. They’re quicker to reach out across the social fault lines of race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and other -isms. They love appropriating pop culture and wielding humour with sly commentaries like the blog Feminist Ryan Gosling or the video Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. Their multimedia creations make Barbara Kruger’s 1980s sloganeering art (‘Your body is a battleground’) look hopelessly earnest, or earnestly hopeless.

I agree with Fischer’s argument that the use of ‘lady’ and ‘girl’ can signal a strange unwillingness to grow up – explicable, possibly, because it occurs within a wider cultural context which put enormous value on youth and youthfulness – but many of these blogs and other publications write for, and about, ‘girls’ and ‘ladies’ for other reasons. This is a deliberate reclaiming of terms which have been used to diminish, and to put down women.

As Graff makes the point, this most recent feminist wave has managed to negotiate itself out of the depoliticised impasse of third wave feminism, to a position where it expresses a genuine anger at the systematic marginalisation of women. Crucially, it is a feminism which is willing also to act and to protest – and it’s difficult to underestimate the significance of the internet in allowing these women to mobilise. Fischer refers to the emergence of an ‘online womanhood’, and I think that this is an important observation.

But as third-wave feminism was dismissed as ‘lipstick feminism’, this new wave has been dubbed ‘cupcake feminism’. On the one hand, celebrations of Women’s Day and other woman-centred events have been accused of taking the edge off campaigns for issues ranging from equal pay to increasing access to contraception and birth control, by transforming them into fun, cupcake-serving gatherings for ladies.

On the other, though, as ladyblogs have reclaimed the words lady and girl, so, arguably, have they reclaimed the cupcake. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that the popularity of cupcakes isn’t connected, at least to some extent, to a weird infantilisation of women’s food and eating habits. But one of the most interesting features of this new feminist wave is its attitude towards food and eating.

Jane Hu has written about the place of food in Girls:

if we’re looking for what’s truly universal in Dunham’s depiction of young, white, upper-middle-class life in New York City, then maybe the cupcake isn’t such a bad place to start. Eating is, after all, about as universal as it gets. … hunger, in all its manifestations, drives Girls.

The tentative title of Hannah’s memoir-in-progress is, after all, Midnight Snack. A title is supposed to be suggestive and representative of a body of work, but really all Hannah’s (unfinished) Midnight Snack indicates is that she still has not learned how or when to eat like an adult.

One of the clips from Girls makes this link between food, eating, and ladies, and girls, explicit:

This can be read in several different ways. I think that’s it’s worth noting how long the camera lingers on their ice cream-eating. How many series about women depict them eating – and enjoying it, without feeling guilty?

It’s striking how many ladyblogs feature food and recipes. The Flick has a section on food and drink, and Frankie includes at least one recipe per issue, and has several on its blog. Neither views food – as so many women’s magazines do – as something which needs to be limited and controlled. It is to be made and eaten with pleasure.

In a sense, this is a depoliticisation of food: these publications write about food because their readers are interested in it, and may enjoy cooking. It does not diminish them as feminists. They can have their cupcakes and eat them.

At the end of Margaret Atwood’s fantastically brilliant first novel The Edible Woman (1970), her protagonist Margaret McAlpin bakes a cake. Over the course of the book, Margaret – who has a degree, but works for a market-research company in Toronto, and who has a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the direction in which her life is going – becomes engaged to the eligible Peter. As she realises, slowly, that this engagement and marriage will subsume her identity in his – that she will be consumed by it (and by him) – she begins to lose her appetite: first for meat, and then, slowly, for fish, vegetables, bread, and noodles. By the end of the novel, she can’t eat anything. After a crisis, she breaks off her engagement.

She invites him to tea, to explain her decision, and serves him her cake, which she has made in the shape of a woman:

She went into the kitchen and returned, bearing the platter in front of her, carefully and with reverence, as though she was carrying something sacred in a procession, an icon or the crown on a cushion in a play. She knelt, setting the platter on the coffee-table in front of Peter.

‘You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you,’ she said. ‘You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork,’ she added somewhat prosaically.

Peter stared from the cake to her face and back again. She wasn’t smiling.

His eyes widened in alarm. Apparently he didn’t find her silly.

When he had gone – and he went quite rapidly, they didn’t have much of a conversation after all, he seemed embarrassed and eager to leave and even refused a cup of tea – she stood looking down at the figure. So Peter hadn’t devoured it after all. As a symbol it had definitely failed. It looked up at her with its silvery eyes, enigmatic, mocking, succulent.

Suddenly she was hungry. Extremely hungry. The cake after all was only a cake. She picked up the platter, carried it to the kitchen table and located a fork. ‘I’ll start with the feet,’ she decided.

Later, her flatmate, Ainsley, reappears:

‘Marian, what have you got there?’ She walked over to see. ‘It’s a woman – a woman made of cake!’ She gave Marian a strange look.

Marian chewed and swallowed. ‘Have some,’ she said, ‘it’s really good. I made it this afternoon.’

Ainsley’s mouth opened and closed, fishlike, as though she was trying to gulp down the full implication of what she saw. ‘Marian!’ she exclaimed at last, with horror. ‘You’re rejecting your femininity!’

Marian looked back at her platter. The woman lay there, still smiling glassily, her legs gone. ‘Nonsense,’ she said. ‘It’s only a cake.’ She plunged her fork into the carcass, neatly severing the body from the head.

Yes. It’s only cake.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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