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Posts tagged ‘The Gentlewoman’

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.

A world in your coffee cup

My friend Elizabeth and I have breakfast together every Friday morning. For the past month or so, we’ve managed to eat at a different cafe each week – our only criteria being that they’re in central Cape Town and open early. This week we went to The Power and the Glory, a restaurant and club now irredeemably associated with the city’s burgeoning population of hipsters. But it serves an excellent breakfast. (More evidence that hipsters can serve breakfast well.) And it is – inadvertently – immensely entertaining. As I sat at a window, waiting for Elizabeth to arrive, a hipster customer arrived to buy a take-away coffee.

The scene was almost a parody of hipster-ness: hipster customer was wearing a high-waisted print skirt, brogues, and an elaborate tattoo; hipster waitress behind the serving counter was in a red vintage frock with a tousled pixie hairdo. Both were very pale, and very skinny. (I think we need a term to describe the extreme thinness of hipsters.) Hipster customer removed her hipster shades and asked for a cappuccino.

An awkward silence fell.

Hipster cafes don’t sell cappuccinos. They sell flat whites. Asking for a flat white is as much an indicator of hipster membership as a subscription to The Gentlewoman.

This left hipster waitress in a difficult position. Should she forgo her hipster principles for a moment, ignore the faux pas and order her customer a flat white? Or should she correct her? Was the hipster customer an influential hipster, and not worth insulting? Or was this the time to establish which of the pair was the real hipster?

The barrista, a beefy non-hipster who’d been watching this with some amusement, stepped in. ‘I think you mean a flat white,’ he said.

‘I do!’ said hipster customer.

And all was resolved.

Even if this hilarious moment of hipster awkwardness was so much of its time and place – it was at once typically Capetonian and typical of a particular sub-culture – the fact that it happened over a coffee, gives it almost a timeless quality.

Coffee is unusual in that it has managed to remain fashionable since its arrival in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Flat whites are only the most recent manifestation of cool coffee. They seem to have originated in Auckland in the late 80s, and differ from cappuccinos or lattes – the more familiar, Italianate forms of hot coffee-and-milk – in that the milk is heated until it’s thick and warm, rather than only frothy.

Flat whites arrived in London four or five years ago, with the opening of a series of small coffee shops in the cooler parts of east and central London by Kiwi expats. Chains like Costa and Starbucks have since added flat whites to their menus, but – as hipsters know – a flat white is defined as much as the cafe and person who makes it, as it is by its ratio of coffee to milk.

And that is the issue. Coffee is coffee, but we’ve come to associate particular meanings with the ways in which we prepare it: between someone who buys their coffee from Origin or Truth in Cape Town and another who only drinks instant, chicory-flavoured Ricoffy with UHT milk. (Which is, incidentally, my idea of culinary hell.) Both are forms of coffee, but they are socially and culturally miles apart. Studying shifting patterns in coffee fashion is fascinating in itself, but they become more interesting when we think of them within the complex networks of trade and finance which allow us to buy coffee at restaurants and in supermarkets.

The coffee craze in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to a boom in the coffee trade. Coffee had been available since early 1600s, having been imported to Europe from Turkey via Venice. Mixed with milk and sugar, it became popular with the new European middle classes. It was associated with exotic sophistication – and also became a marker of intellectual adventurousness. It’s difficult to underestimate the extent to which drinking coffee and the culture and politics of the Enlightenment were entangled, as Anne EC McCants writes:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; new table etiquette and table wares; new arrangements of domestic and public space; the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

One of the best depictions of the appeal of the new, middle-class coffee culture is JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata (1732-1735), in which a ‘disobedient’ and ‘obstinate’ young woman’s addiction to coffee so annoys her father that he threatens not to allow her to marry, unless she gives up coffee. In the end she agrees, but – without her father knowing – resolves to include her clause in her marriage contract which stipulates that she must have a steady supply of coffee.

The first coffee house opened in Britain in 1650, and within a decade there were around 3,000 of them in London. These were places where men could meet to talk in relative freedom. In 1675, Charles II tried to close them in fear that coffee house patrons were plotting to overthrow him. (Given his father’s sticky end, a paranoia about the middle classes was always inevitable.) Monarchical and official suspicion of coffee houses never really ended, though. These were places where the free exchange of information allowed for the dissemination of the Enlightenment ideas that transformed the eighteenth-century world.

But trade was also changing this world. When the Dutch managed to get hold of coffee plants from Arab traders in 1690, they established plantations in Java, where they already cultivated a range of spices. The French began to grow coffee in the West Indies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and over the course of the next hundred years or so, coffee was planted in West Africa and parts of Latin America.

The plantation system – in many ways the origins of modern capitalism – was dependent on slave labour. Europe’s taste for coffee was satisfied by slavery. But even after the abolition of slavery in the early and middle of the nineteenth century, European demand for coffee shaped the economies of countries very far away.

The domestication of coffee consumption in the nineteenth century – when women began to drink coffee, and more of it was served at home – caused demand to spike. Improvements in transport meant that coffee could be shipped over longer distances far quicker and in greater quantities than ever before. During the 1820s and 1830s, coffee cultivation became a way of linking the economies of newly-independent nations in Latin America, to global trade. Coffee production in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador increased exponentially, and governments introduced measures to facilitate the industry: new transport infrastructure, tax breaks for landowners, low or no export duties, and legislation to lower the cost of labour.

Plentiful land and cheap labour were secured by progressively disenfranchising Indian populations, whose right to own property and to work where they pleased was eroded by pro-plantation legislation. Uprisings against governments and landowners were stamped out – usually with the help of the military. The argument for increased coffee production just seemed so compelling. By the end of the nineteenth century, ninety per cent of the world’s coffee came from South America.

Brazil was the largest single Latin American supplier of coffee, and from 1906 onwards was the controller of the international coffee trade. The Brazilian government bought up beans, stockpiled them, and then released them into the market, thereby regulating the coffee price. European and North American countries encouraged African countries to begin cultivating coffee on a grander scale too.

African producers tended to grow Robusta coffee varieties, which are generally hardier, but less tasty, than the Arabica coffee produced in Latin America. This meant that when demand for instant coffee grew in the 1950s, coffee production in postcolonial African states, whose governments subsidised coffee farmers and facilitated the free movement of labour, flourished. The entry of African coffee growers into the world market meant that the price began to plummet – and the Kennedy administration in the US realised that this was an ideal opportunity for some Cold War quiet diplomacy.

The 1962 International Coffee Agreement was meant to stabilise Latin American economies and to immunise them against potential Soviet-backed revolutions by introducing production quotas for every major coffee producing nation. Even if the ICA did include African producers, it favoured the US and Brazil, effectively giving them veto rights on any policy decisions.

The collapse of the Agreement in the late eighties – partly as a result of the increased production of non-signatories, like Vietnam – caused a major decline in the price of coffee. For consumers and cafe owners, this was distinctly good thing: good coffee was cheaper than ever before. Coffee shops in the US, in particular, fuelled a demand for good, ‘real’, coffee.

But for Rwanda, the collapse of the international coffee price and the end of regulation had disastrous implications. In 1986 and 1987, Rwanda’s annual coffee sales more than halved. The government was bankrupted and increasingly dependent aid from international institutions including the World Bank, which demanded the privatisation of state enterprises, cuts in government spending, and trade liberalisation. (Hmmm – sound familiar?) The government could no longer fund social services and schools and hospitals closed. This exacerbated existing political tensions, and created a large unemployed population, many of whom became volunteers for the paramilitary groups which carried out the genocide in 1994.

It’s supremely ironic that Rwanda has turned – again – to coffee to pull itself out of the disaster of the nineties. This time, though, coffee is being produced in ways which are meant to be more sustainable – both ecologically and economically. There, though, problems with this. Isaac A. Kamola writes:

However, widely lauded ‘fair-trade’ coffee is not without its own contradictions. First, fair-trade coffee is an equally volatile market, with much of the additional price paid to growers dependent upon goodwill consumption. Such consumption patterns are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, changes in cultural and ethical patterns, education campaigns, and individual commitment. Furthermore, fair-trade coffee also faces an oversupply problem, with more fair-trade coffee being produced than there are consumers of it.

In Mexico, for instance, the current instability in the global food prices – caused partly by food speculation – is placing incredible pressure on small farmers who cultivate coffee: the fluctuating coffee price has shrunk their incomes at a time when maize has never been so expensive. And even prosperity brings problems. Kenyan coffee is of particularly good quality, and the increase in the coffee price has benefitted local farmers. It has also brought an increase in crime, as gangs steal coffee berries and smuggle them out of the country.

Demand abroad fuels coffee production in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. No other commodity demonstrates the connectedness of global patterns of consumption and production than coffee. As Kamola makes the point, we need to make this system fairer, but the fair-trade model still ensures that African farmers are dependent on demand abroad:

This does not mean that fair trade should be discouraged. It should be underscored, however, that reforms in First World consumption patterns are not alone sufficient to ensure the protection of people from the violent whims of neoliberal markets.

As much as coffee is associated with sophistication in the West – as much as it helped to facilitate the Enlightenment – it has also been the cause of incredible deprivation and suffering elsewhere. Invented in New Zealand, popularised in the UK, and made from Rwandan beans certified by the Fairtrade Foundation based in London, a flat white in Cape Town tells a global story.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Anne E.C. McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: the diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the eighteenth century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, no. 1 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Dale Pendell, ‘Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee,’ Whole Earth, (June 2002), pp.7-9.

Craig S. Revels, ‘Coffee in Nicaragua: Introduction and Expansion in the Nineteenth Century,’ Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, vol. 26 (2000), pp. 17-28.

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Merid W. Aregay, ‘The Early History of Ethiopia’s Coffee Trade and the Rise of Shawa,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 29, no. 1, Special Issue in Honour of Roland Oliver (1988), pp. 19-25.

Roy Love, ‘Coffee Crunch,’ Review of African Political Economy, vol. 26, no. 82, North Africa in Africa (Dec.,1999), pp. 503-508.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

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