Is the cupcake doomed?
During the past fortnight 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 culinary doom. In this month’s Delicious, chef Valentine Warner dubs
them ‘fancy spongy hell-spawn’, and May’s Observer
Food Monthly lists cupcakes as one of the five worst food trends of the
past decade – alongside genetically modified food.
Sex and the City
Cupcakes – or
fairy cakes – are nothing new. They became fashionable during the mid-90s when
Carrie from the then wildly popular series Sex
and the City was shown scoffing cupcakes at Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery in
1998. When Nigella Lawson described them as the ultimate ‘dinner party
solution’ in How to be a domestic goddess
in 2000 their ascendancy was confirmed.
Why the backlash
against cupcakes? Of course, it’s not cupcakes themselves which are the issue,
but, rather, the range of assumptions and meanings which we attach to them.
Warner writes: ‘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.’
Are they sexist?
Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re
girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. Some feminists
argue – rightly – that labelling baking, sewing, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits
as silly, frivolous, or demeaning, is sexist.
But this doesn’t change the fact that cupcakes
are marketed to women on the grounds that these tiny 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
Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t
anything new, but what concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s
food with a particular kind of femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so
successfully to educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often so expensive
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, but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s
small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening. As she is.
To see our outrageous cupcake gallery click here.
Emily Duff is an academic and writer interested in histories of age, the body,
food, and consumerism. She also eats a lot of cake. For the full-length version
of this post, see http://tangerineandcinnamon.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/ladyfood/