The rise of domesticity in feminist culture: are crotcheting and cunt cupcakes really that innocent?
Earlier this week, The Quietus published an article that criticised the rise of so-called “cupcake feminism”. It suggested that all these cute young women with their scarlet lipstick and intricate cupcakes had become the acceptable face of feminism, an image which leaves the feminist stereotype of the “angry, hairy dyke” well out of the picture. The writer, Meryl Trussler, argues that this acceptable image of contemporary feminism unintentionally affirms the facile dismissal of feminists who are not young, white and traditionally feminine.
To some extent I agree with this article. At a lesbian cake picnic in Hyde Park, London, a good friend of mine criticised cupcake chic. They said that they now felt obliged to cook delicious cakes for social occasions at the same time as being a mother and somehow having a life. Domestic work, they said, was not glamorous. Having seen first hand the unimaginable amount of work my friend has to do as a single parent to two children, I agree that, no matter how much Nancy Sinatra you play and fake pearls you wear, cleaning the toilet or hoovering the apartment is never going to be that sexy, or fun. Perhaps the fact that I am now expected to bring delicious creations to potlucks after working all day, writing, and my many other commitments, is limiting rather than ironic. Is the rise of crotcheting and cunt cupcakes really that innocent? Or does it play into the hands of sexist stereotypes?
“When I stand there, in a fluffy cardigan, holding a cupcake in one hand and feminist tract in the other, I am exploding stereotypes of femininity”
There is something to be said for, “no I can’t smash the patriarchy with feminist cupcakes right now, I need to go to work so I can feed my children and send them to school.” Even if, like me, you don’t have kids, it’s OK to not have time to bake. I mean, us ladies often have better things to do with our time, like working towards our respective careers or going to demonstrations. Maybe my Mum got it right after all. She always hated cooking and the obligation she felt to feed the whole family. Coming back from a long day’s work, she would often feed us frozen food or reheat leftovers. And do I blame her? No. To expect her to work 9-5, while bringing up two children, and running a household, was a bit much. I mean, without frozen food, would she really have had the time to pursue her own high-flying career? In fact, pre-packaged food became popular in the 1950s. It was marketed as the housewife’s time saver (has anyone seen Betty’s cooking in Mad Men?), so this nostalgic obsession with home cooking is actually an imaginative recreation.
“no matter how much Nancy Sinatra you play, cleaning the toilet is never going to be that fun”
I imagine that, as readers of this blog, you probably know what social phenomenon I am talking about here. You are probably young-ish, feminist and familiar with queer and alternative cultures. However, if you’re not, welcome! I hope you enjoy your stay here. For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, let me give you a few examples. It has now become commonplace for feminist and queer events to use cakes as a kind of sales technique and extra cutesy factor. Tabling at Zinefest Berlin, I cunningly used sugary vulvas (otherwise known as vagina cupcakes) to draw the attention of passerby to the zine I was promoting. I wasn’t the only person there who was using icing to lure people into purchasing art. Visiting London in December, I went to the Ducky Christmas Fair. Ducky is a weekly queer night in South London and the craft fair had a whole atrium devoted to homemade niceties. The fair was a veritable mecca for crafty feminists who like to embroider ice-cream brooches and craft swallow necklaces in-between demonstrations. This bonanza made clear to me the extent to which the cute has become a part of queer and feminist culture.
Make no mistake, this is exactly my cup of tea. I love dressing up, being pretty and presenting a stereotype of femininity while sweetly shoving my cunt cupcakes in people’s faces and mouthing off about sexism. Actually, this is my point, which I think Trussler kinda missed. When I stand there in a pink fluffy jumper and lipstick, holding a cupcake in one hand and feminist tract in the other, I am exploding stereotypes of femininity. My softly spoken feminist arguments give the lie to my apparent reproduction of 1950s femininity. It proves the whole show to be exactly that, a masquerade.
Although Trussler does acknowledge the fuck-you drag queening of this moment, her overall argument dismisses it as somehow ‘not enough.’ Not obvious enough, not feminist enough. She says that, by avoiding the feminist stereotype of the big hairy dyke, this image is kind of a cop out. That it’s an easier alternative to really getting stuck into the stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. It is here that I find a big feminist black hole in Trussler’s argument. Never mind that she appropriates high femme, a queer trope, to describe a group of (presumably straight?) feminists who are rejecting the image of the big, hairy dyke. (Hello? As a butch loving femme I LOVE big hairy dykes!) Trussler also seems to forget just how much guts it takes to walk down the streets as a feminine woman. As I said in my interview with Transgender Radio, presenting in a feminine way makes you a target for sexual harassment and assault. Femininity is read by many fucked-up folks as an invitation to sexual advances and hate. Haven’t you heard of the Slutwalks Trussler? Isn’t this exactly their message?
To stand up and demand to be counted while wearing a gingham dress and cardy is a pretty darn brave thing to do. It shows that, femininity, too, can be strong and loud and brave. Darn it, femininity is powerful! In a world in which so much hate is directed towards this gender, and sexism against women is justified through the idea of femininity as weak, passive and artificial, to rant in the form of a crotchet patch is pretty radical. We have to be careful not to reject older art forms, such as sewing, knitting, and, yes, baking (an art form too!), just because they are traditionally female. The art world has always devalued personal, ‘domestic’ crafts (female) in favour of large, ‘universal’ abstract art (male). This is one thing I love about British artist Tracey Emin. Her massive quilts, which catalogue the sexist slurs she has had directed at her, as well as her thoughts, love affairs and travels, challenge the idea that domestic art forms are irrelevant. She shows that her personal experiences apply to every woman and that crafts can carry political messages. Heck, you could even say that the idea “the personal is political” is a foundation of contemporary queer culture! In the arts, Confessional poetsfrom the 50s & 60s like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are now celebrated as mistresses of their art form.
I am not sure I agree with this search for an “acceptable face of feminism”. Feminism can’t be reduced to a catchphrase. It is too multifaceted, too large, for it to be represented by one image, one social group. Even the most awesome feminist is not going to understand or be able to represent the experiences of everyone. As a white, young feminist without children, there is a tonne I don’t know about the feminist needs of women of colour, older women and parents. I don’t think this means I am a bad feminist, but rather that it is my social responsibility to acknowledge my blind spots. What does this mean? It means that each individual feminist needs to do what they can, what is right for them, to create change. And this politics needs to be enacted with awareness of one’s own short sightedness; that is, with humility and compassion. Besides, as a movement that challenges the social structure of, like, the whole world, feminism will always be distinctly unpalatable to the status quo.
I find Tressler’s piece useful as it addresses concerns that have been boinging around the back of my mind for some while now, and I think it’s a good conversation to have. But some things in her article just set my teeth on edge. What do you guys think? As feminist, queers or women, do you feel the pressure to be domesticated? Do you think this cutesy craftsy feminism is too young and too white? And what do you think people would say if you turned up to a potluck, shock horror, with a shop-bought dessert?!
Oh yeah, and here’s your feminist cute of the day. Well, not really feminist, more just cute: