Innocent(ea)se and the Rise of the Cupcake

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”

a leftover from my table at Zinefest Berlin

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.

source: A girl's guide to taking over the world (click image)

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.

Tracey Emin 'I do not expect to be a mother' 2002

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:

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13 thoughts on “Innocent(ea)se and the Rise of the Cupcake

  1. Naomi

    Thanks for this excellent excellent post which I totally agree with and which has helped me in my thoughts on the matter.
    One problem is the ease with which mainstream mainstream capitalist culture co-opts cute feminism in a manner which keeps the cake and drops the feminist tract. No easy answers there, but I do sense a move in the mainstream towards the whole 50’s thing being seen as a ‘hobby’ rather than an expectation for everyday behaviour. Which perhaps is progress of a type.
    This triggered an interesting discussion in our house about 1. whether the resident male should be cleaning the loo, and 2. why, oh why, is everyone obsessed with what I wear to my wedding? It seems that opting out of white is fine, but opting out of a massive mental gown is totally unacceptable to some.

    n.b. the answer to no. 1 – he won’t do it but he will pay half the money for a cleaning lady. *sigh*

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Tell the resident male he has to clean to toilet! He he. My support in that matter. And, I imagine you wearing a tasteful grey fitted dress. Like shiny light grey, not matt grey. Do you think that could work? X

      1. Naomi

        yes, except I haven’t found one! And I’m toying with the idea of bright emerald green, because of the symbolism, but again just don’t want to spend the money!!

  2. Lipstick Terrorist

    P.S. In case anyone is interested, W.A.R. (Women Art Revolution) is a documentary that explores the sexism of the art world and feminist responses to it from the 70s on. It has a lot to say about how we value art and the infantilisation of traditionally female art forms, if I remember correctly. Well worth seeing. http://womenartrevolution.com/

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  6. Great post. I think that any feminist who finds themselves automatically devaluing traditionally ‘feminine’ activities, traditionally ‘feminine’ behaviours or traditionally ‘feminine’ looks might have some internalised misogyny to deal with. In my understanding, the goal of feminism is not that women will act, behave & look a certain way; it’s that they’ll be able to act, behave & look however the hell they want to.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hey Casey, yes I agree. Sadly, internalised misogyny is everywhere as seen in the comments on the Berlin Femme Show review on Siegesaeule. Somehow, someone managed to sit through 3 hours of femme performances about body image, sex work, transidentities and more and conclude that ‘the only people that had something political to say were the men’. I guess all they saw when the grrls were on stage were boobies and ‘fluff’ (direct quote). This dismissal of feminine and female art as ‘fluff’ is woven into the very definition of femininity itself. That it is both frivolous and artificial. DRIVES ME CRAZY!!!

  7. Stephanie

    Often times it is not internalized misogyny that makes many feminist uncomfortable with the hyper fem style, but rather fear of internalized oppression. It is not that the other woman is behaving is a misogynistic way, but rather concern that my actions are motivated by my own internalized oppression that drive me to act in accordance to gender binary. Often times I don’t see a devaluation of my fem habits, but a concern that I am not being flippant.

    Also to say that all fem women are acting in the same manor as you, in a tactful measure against sexism, that is a fallacy. In some cases women are acting in a fem manor without any irony or awareness, they just like to feel pretty and delicate and get to these ends through materialistic means. HERE is the problem that many feminist have. While you know why you are doing something, and have a clear vision, some women do not, and the cult of cupcake cute is not a feminist outlet but a return to the 50’s.

    Intent is a big deal in this day and age, with so many acting in irony to make a point, it is important to know WHY someone is doing something before endorsing it. This is where the dropping the feminism in favor of the cupcake is happening. All these fem women on television popularizing the trend (see Zooey Deschanel) are becoming increasingly more cupcake than substance. Aligning with this trend is worrisome to feminists.

    I think we must understand why our sisters have objections, and we must help them understand, but be willing to listen and not just write them off as misogynists, when truly they may just be concerned of motives.

    Also as far as criticizing a performance, we must always account for taste. If you have a taste for the fem, that does not mean all will. Do not be guilty of the same crimes as the people condemning you.

    You tie the feminine with the female in the above comment. Always be careful Just because the person does not care for the fem performance does not hurt women. Not all women are fem.

    I feel like there is a line being drawn that is again causing more fraction than bridges. Many don’t understand the fem trend, and many fems are defensive and hostile to any criticism. We must keep lines of dialogue open and not dismiss critiques to the fem as internalized misogyny, as others must remember to ask questions. It’s easy to write off differing opinions, but we must hear them and take them in to be sure we are making the most informed decision we can.

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