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Posts tagged ‘Sex and the City’

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.

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

Ladyfood

Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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