Monday, 16 January 2012

Guestie: Of cupcakes and feminism

Many thanks to Rachel Rayner for this guest post, resulting from a conversation we were having on twitter about just this very topic.

"Thank you all for coming to this very important feminist debate. We have a panel of female politicians, discussing very important women's issues before the upcoming election. And we made CUPCAKES!"

When did this happen? The cupcake, a symbol of the Sex In The City brand of feminism has been fully embraced by the more sincere, unshaven, blog-reading feminist public. What was once a delight, an excuse to eat calories (calories!) guilt free because it's a cupcake and you deserve it has become a mandatory part of any feminist event.

Part of this is simply good hospitality. Breaking bread with friends is truly a wonderful thing, and a cuppa tea and something sweet makes any event flow more smoothly. The problem is that cupcakes are a faff. They're more labour-intensive than asparagus rolls, and more difficult to transport than biscuits. They're not fairy-cakes, those simple, rock hard little things, smeared with icing and splattered with sprinkles: a cupcake is an immense wodge of cake, topped with a swirl of pastel icing. The icing is sickly sweet, the cake is bland and dry. The paper casing flakes off in skin-like clumps as the still apron-clad baker watches closely. Do you like it? It’s a new recipe. I bought the edible glitter specially.

Cupcakes are representative of privilege in ways that barely need explaining. Even the simplest recipes take hours to pull together, and assumes access to ingredients and money to buy them; some level of skill; tolerance to gluten; and an environment rich with mixing bowls, muffin tins and those little paper cases. While this is arguably a pretty low hurdle (thrifty recipes which don’t call for butter or eggs! No-fail cake mixes! Just buy some damn cupcakes and call it a day!), any privilege creates cliques and excludes those outside it.

There's sometimes a fine line between sincerity and irony. We can ironically embrace cupcakes and high heels and foofy skirts and all the rest - it's when heels become mandatory and cupcakes a chore that it's a problem. Spending hours and hours in the kitchen can be a delight, it’s true, but when cupcakes are baked not out of choice, but to meet the expectations of others, we’ve circled around to a place I thought we’d left behind.

It's the pervasiveness of cupcakes that irritates me. Your discourse is still valid without sprinkles. If baking is your thing, by all means, bake. It can be relaxing, meditative, and delicious baked goods are a wonderfully concrete way to express affection. But let’s leave behind cupcakes for cupcakes sake. Put the jug on, and open a packet of biscuits.


Anonymous said...

" Your discourse is still valid without sprinkles." Brilliance. LAW

Aaron said...

I have to weigh in here. Mainly because I was at the event where that opening comment was made and because I baked most of those muffins that night. I also have a tendency to use edible glitter and glitter gel so I think maybe you've been to some of the things I've baked muffins for.

I bake muffins, not cupcakes. Cupcakes are annoying and tedious and muffins yoou can just slap together. I also LOVE baking. It's my stress release, I do it when I'm upset, or dealing with lots of issues and need a non-thinking mindless break. It's my yoga. I can think about sprinkles and not how messed up and shitty my life and the entire world is.

My collection of baking things most definately don't come from a position of privlege either. Being a single parent on the DPB is not fun. It's a struggle to make ends meet. You can't buy new clothes, or go to the movies, but sometimes, as a treat you can buy an $8 container of edible glitter. My very first one was black and I've had it for over a decade. Yep, edible glitter does not deteriorate and you use so little that it lasts for ages. I buy baking stuff every now and then to make up for the fact that I can't afford a car, or new shoes or live in a house that doesn't get mouldy in winter.

Also, I wasn't taught to bake or sew as a child. I taught myself. My mother was of the view that young women didn't need to be taught these things because we were all going to be lawyers and doctors and didn't need to know how. She seriously undevalued her skills which I think is a crying shame.

One last thing. I'm now a man. If theres one thing that I've learnt from feminism it's that just because I'm a man doesn't mean that I need to drink beer and watch rugby. Me baking foofy muffins is a big FU to the gender policing in this world.

If you come to a feminist event that I'm part of there will probably be muffins. I will have spent a fair amount of time baking them. They will most probably sparkle.

Yes my discourse is still valid without sprinkles.

But, perhaps, if you're going to talk about baking being a chore, you do so referencing when baking has been a chore, not when I've done it out of choice and love and wanting to see the smiles on peoples faces when they bite into a nutella suprise muffin.

cat said...

It becomes a bit nit-picky, but some of the stated assumptions about cupcakes are incorrect.. They don't necessarily take hours to make - 10 minutes prep, 15 minutes baking and another 10-15 minutes for basic icing (people may choose to spend longer, but it's not necessary).

Also, I don't know what cupcakes you've been eating, but for me, making the cake itself light and tasty is important, and a properly made cupcake shouldn't leave clumps on the case..

Maybe this isn't really that important in the point of your post - but as with any discourse where you're using an example to make a point, the example should be solid..

Anonymous said...

Just saying:

Thanks for the explanation for the frequent references to cupcakes on this and other feminist blogs.

I think I get it...

Now, if only I could figure out "spoons".

Aaron said...

I know that over in Shakesville they award 'spoons' and talk about 'spoons' in reference to all the little things that people do that may seem a bit insignificant but actually, altogether make quite a big difference in the pile of s#*t we have to deal with.

Does that help?

Anonymous said...

Just saying:

Cheers Aaron,

And for what it's worth, I'm always delighted by those that take the trouble to take home baking to "dos".

If you have the time, talent, ingredients, and inclination, it can create a warm feeling.

With the exception of my special bread recipe, I'm one of those slackers who are more inclined to buy something on the way.

katy said...

My main objection to cupcakes is that (in my experience) they are not as tasty as other baked goods. Maybe it is physics; bigger cakes seem to be able to develop an intenseness and depth of flavour that I have yet to come across in your average cupcake, while cupcakes themselves seem mostly to be a vehicle for icing. Which of course is fine if that is your thing but I am a fan of cakes which don't need to be iced and where the flavour comes the ingredients in the cake itself. I have only made cupcakes a few times but I do think they take more time and effort than a cake or biscuits that don't need icing (ie, Anzac bikkies).

However, for those who gain pleasure from cupcakes long may you continue to do so!

anthea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anthea said...

Just saying - they could also be references to spoon theory, which is an explanation of limited energy resources (generally) for disabled people - see

anthea said...

As someone who can't ice cupcakes to any reasonable standard for disability reasons, even if I did have time to make them (which I don't) I have a lot of sympathy for some of the points made. But my experience of cupcakes at leftwing/feminist events is that it is precisely because of their complexity that they have become a specific offering by a few people who have skills in making them. People are impressed by their skills and creativity, and from an organisers point of view, when people offer to bring them that's a contribution we don't have to worry about organising.

So the resources that go into making cupcakes actually make people aware that contributing them is not an option for everyone, and they become the product of a specific skillset which is delegated to a few people. By contrast, it's often not acknowledged that combining a potluck with a meeting can also present challenges, because it's seen as something anyone can do. (I don't object to potlucks, by the way, just some of the many, many issues they can bring up... and I'm going to stop RIGHT THERE...)

Cactus Kate said...

This is where the capitalist feminist discourse parts company with yours.

A real feminist in 2012 wouldn't waste time in the kitchen. She would simply go buy the bloody cupcakes. I recommend the above outfit. Per hour spent and related opportunity cost it costs less than minimum wage to simply buy them.

YNFEM said...

But Cactus Kate you are not a real feminist, you have right-wing views therefore that completely removes your right to make any comments about women because you are not a "real" one. You also have $ and could not possibly be allowed to make recommendations to those who claim to live in poverty about ways to save $ as you are both a traitor to your class and gender.

Cactus Kate said...

I must live in poverty as I can't afford a hotel suit large enough to actually have a proper oven to cook the cupcakes.

Hugh said...


Wow, I think this is the first time I've ever seen you admit to not being able to afford something.

Work harder, you fucking bludger.

Scar said...

Firstly, this is a great post - thank you so much for writing this, Julie.
Cupcakes. Wow. I’ve made reference to the cupcake thing on my blog a while back, but I’ve never really addressed it in full. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll take the opportunity to do so now.

I have big problems with the cupcakes thing.
Last year I was invited to join a bakesale fundraiser thing with a feminist group, for which we were encouraged to make (you guessed it) cupcakes! This was a brilliant idea, except for the fact that I can’t fucking bake.
You see, as a trans woman, I missed out on this thing that Aaron claims to have taught himself. Not only did I miss out on it, the whole baking thing simply was not an option, since I was expected to play outside, chop wood, do the dirty, grotty chores (like mucking out the horse paddock).
In fact, if I had told my parents that I’d rather be baking I would have got the back of my father’s hand across some tender part of my body.
Unlike Aaron, I don’t see how me going out – now as a woman – and shovelling horse shit would be a big ‘FU’ to gender policing. How the hell would re-playing my culturally and socially enforced gender programming be a ‘FU’?
I guess there’s quite a privilege disparity here.

Anyway, I can’t fucking bake. It seems really strange and off that a feminist group was expecting their (predominantly female) members to know how to bake.
To be honest, it made me feel like less of a woman, because I didn’t know how to perform this staple activity that they all seemed to know how to do.
And that made me feel like shit.
It still makes me feel like shit whenever I see the cupcake thing come up, in the places that Julie mentioned. I still feel like a bit of a failure as a woman. It makes me feel like I should go out and learn how to bake, so I can be a ‘realer’ woman.
But then I tell myself “No, fuck you, Gender Roles within feminist circles! I should NOT have to learn to bake to feel like a ‘real’ woman! Fuck this nonsense! If I go and learn how to bake cupcakes, it will be because I want to not because of shitty peer pressure fomented by other people’s gendered socialisation!

You know what would have been cool?
If I had been able to contribute the skills that I do have in order to help out. It’s a shame that ovens don’t need solid fuel these days, cuz I sure can chop the shit out of a stack of wood! But there just didn’t seem to be any consideration for the people who did not have any way of contributing; and buying cupcakes from a supermarket then on-selling seems to defeat the purpose of the fundraiser as it probably wouldn’t turn a profit.
The only consideration for us seemed to be “Well you can buy the cupcakes instead” which is fine and dandy if you’re not paying off a $30,000 vagina ($40,000 figuring in the interest on the loan).

So lots of ‘cool story bro’ there, but I really needed to talk about cupcakes.
I feel like I should know how to bake them to be a ‘real’ feminist and I feel like an inferior feminist for not knowing how to bake ‘em.

Anonymous said...

I think 'the cupcakes thing' is part of femme backlash that seems to be hitting a lot of feminist groups - especially feminist mags like Bust (which I know a lot of people find problematic anyway).
Of course nothing is wrong with being femme, and I've seen more than enough 'femme is not anti-feminist!' images. But it seems like a lot of 'femme' skills are being expected of feminists. Baking is only a small part of it - crafts of all kinds, especially knitting, making your own jewelry - that kind of stuff is covered in all kinds of articles. But some of us just don't want to.
But I like eating cupcakes. So if you want to make them, cool. That's real good of you. But I think there are areas beyond our presumed female 'love of all crafts' that we can bond over.

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand what's so wrong with people making food to share with their friends/ potential new friends. I always bring food when I go around to visit people, and I love it when they do the same to me. It's not expected, but it is nice.


Scuba Nurse said...

Message Body

This is probably a massive sign of my overwhelming privilege as someone who has never been forced to bake for other people. I have been assuming that the people who baked for feminist events were doing it
A)because they wanted to and
B) because they can afford to.

In my head I was living in this delusional paradise where people who like to cook make friends with people who like to eat (I'm looking at you Julie:) ) and they all live happily ever after.

Turns out that my friends who bake things that I eat are actually undermining my femininity, while I simultaneously undermine their feminism.
This whole passive-aggressive cupcake war was going on with out me even knowing.
My mother can't cook, I can't be bothered cooking (i confess that once a year I get really excitable and whip up a pumpkin pie), and I am subconsciously finding friends who cook to fill the massive void in my heart that cannot be filled without sprinkles.

Or I could just y'know, just like to eat cupcakes!!

There are so many real, tangible, painful awful things that cause barriers to stop women from bonding and becoming a more powerful force for good as a united front.
Must cupcakes REALLY be another point of difference?

Aaron said...


Have you offered sharing your skills? Because frankly as someone who has a house with a fireplace and is normally only good at fru-fru stuff I'd be totally stoked if I found out that someone in my Feminist group could teach me how to chop wood properly this winter.

No-one should be made less of for any reason because they lack skills/abilities that others have.

We all have different skills to offer and they are all equally valuable.

Frankly I'd love to see some cool skill-share workshops going on because I'm pretty certain that every feminist I know has something that I can learn.

Also Scar, I don't quite get what you mean about privillege disparity, if you could clarify that would be great.

Maia said...

While I share some discomfort with the ubiquitous nature of the cupcake within feminism, I disagree strongly with the way this post frames the question.

The cupcake isn't representative of priviledge any more than most food (they're not truffle oil or a hand made french wedding cakes with hundreds of profiteroles that they make or masterchef - as examples of having money or time available for food).

For some people they work. Some people like making them, have the resources to do so, and they're something they contribute. For others, for reasons Anthea and Scar have articulated, but also for cost and time reasons - they're difficult or impossible. We're different - and we live our lives differently.

I am really uncomfortable with framing a discussion about cupcakes that suggests that the ability to bake them maps simply onto priviledge. Cactus Kate can't bake them because she doesn't have an oven - but she generally has access to more resources than most of hte people on this thread. I think it's really important to avoid discussions where women (and men) feel like they have to justify their lives and the way they spend their resources that work best for them. I read what cat said and thought "Half an hour isn't a lot of time? Are you kidding me" - but I know a lot of people organise their lives different from the way I do, and that wouldn't be a big deal over the evening for people who regularly spend evenings at home.


So that's what I objected to about the original post. But I do share some of her disquiet for the ubiquitousness of cupcakes within feminism (is it just in NZ? it feels like a NZ thing - but it may just be me).

I am very uncomfortable with creating any sort of feminism (or other political movement) where any cultural artefact is in a position of dominance and treated as the norm. No cultural artefact (and I'm using this very widely) not knitting, not Joss Whedon, not Commuinity,no Ryan Gosling, not even whittakers dark almond chocolate are necessary to feminism (note I selected all those because they're things I love).

Some friends and I are planning a Game of Thrones season II premiere party already - I'm well aware of the way that shared love of cultural artefacts creates bonding and a feeling that you are a group. And I don't think there's anything wrong with setting up feminist spaces for those with shared tastes in cultural artefacts. But those are exclusionary spaces - when you become a fan you create an 'other'

Cupcakes are at a level where they're the generic or default, and people talk about 'cupcakes' rather than refreshments or even baking, when it comes to feminist events. I want a feminism that is as welcoming to those who can't make cupcakes, don't liek cupcakes, and can't eat cupcakes, as to those who make and enjoy cupcakes. And I think at the moment cupcakes have become generic enough that there is an implied correlation between the two. I would argue that supporting the right of women (and other pregnant people) to choose what to do with their bodies is a necessary part of feminism cupcakes should be optional.

And just to be clear, I don't think that it's the responsibility of cupcake bakers and enjoyers. But those who organise spaces and events (and I'd include us Hand Mirror bloggers in that). Aaron shouldn't feel like he should stop making cupcakes (or muffins that people think are cupcakes), but at the same time I don't think Scar should be made to feel that the only contribution that is welcome at a particular event is cupcakes or even baking.

abc said...

I have wanted to go along to lots of feminist events at my university but have felt discouraged as the events were things such as "stitch n bitch", they did say that if you can't knit to bring along other craft projects that you were working on. Problem is, I don't do any craft projects because I genuinely do not enjoy doing them or find them in any way fun. This has nothing to do with how I was brought up or my rebelling against gender stereotypes, I just do not gain any satisfaction from baking or sewing/knitting/craft projects and that is purely part of my individual personality. I also do not like the taste of cupcakes/baking etc, I prefer to eat other types of food because that is what I like. It saddens me that people are made to feel excluded from other feminists because of their natural inclinations.

Scar said...

Have I offered sharing my skills? OMG wow, I never thought of that!
But seriously; I did think of that (and I found you asking to be pretty patronising, Aaron).
There’s a women’s support group thing (to remain unnamed, to preserve my stealth within it) that I do work for. I wrote a post about it on my blog last year.
However, while I am happy to share my skills, I don’t think trans people should have to if it makes them feel icky to perform tasks from their incorrectly gendered past.
If you don’t understand what I mean about the privilege disparity, then I strongly suggest that you go educate yourself, because I really don’t have the spoons to educate other trans people!

Mark E said...

I was hoping this whole threat was a well written parody but alas it is not. I'm with Scuba, eat cake and be happy

Sandra said...

Thank you Scuba. I share your thoughts. Not that I think the post needs to be derided as frivolous (and you didn't do that at all Scuba in my reading) but to me the post and particularly the comments have gone down a kind of universalising direction - that no gathering is valid unless it contains or offers nothing of any distinction which might particularly interest anyone, because that might put someone else off or, to use a stronger word, alienate them.

Here in the backblocks, away from the hot centres of the New Zealand feminist universe (I'm not entirely sure whether that is Wellington or not, but it definitely isn't Greymouth), packets of biscuits, bottles of wine, home made delectables and just managing to turn up without getting as far as bringing food/drink manage to live together. It ain't nirvana, but it works because people choose not to sweat the small elements of etiquette too much and just enjoy each other's company.

anarkaytie said...

Oh Lolz.

I've never been a fan of cupcakes. I quit wearing heels when I was pregnant at 25 years old. I don't like foofy skirts much, altho' have worn the odd one in the cause of costuming for an event/play.

I don't feel that being invited to an event that offers 'cupcakes' is a drawcard - I'm one of those gluten-allergic people, and I also hate the sticky sweet icing.

Although back in the day, when it was 'texas-pan muffins', I did take bran muffins with choc-buttons inside to neighbourhood get-togethers, to the astonishment of one of the locals.
Apparently I wasn't supposed to make them edible, we were supposed to be denying ourselves pleasure and calorific treats. (This was the early 90's, post '87-crash, when people were just beginning to have mortgages foreclosed on them; an air of desperation swept through Upper Hutt's home-owning suburbs...)

I was busily loaning out my copy of Jenny Phillips' 'Mothers Matter too', an early treatise on the effects of suburban neurosis, so didn't really fit with their mindset, anyway. I gave the copy to the woman who'd been so grateful for my choc-centred bran muffins when we fled the area.

The point I'd like to make is that what constitutes privilege is a slippery slope; I thought we were underprivileged in that neighbourhood because we were renting, but we didn't see the equity in our home vanish the way our neighbours had done, and I felt no qualms about buying chocolate buttons to put in the muffins, as my neighbours might have done. Roll forwards twenty years, and many of you have said the same things - we can't afford a house, so why not bake extravagantly?

My answer to that is that the baking is a red-herring - we go to feminist events to hear women (and others) discuss topics that are of importance to us, not to eat the damned snacks, altho' I have to admit that sometimes I did quite look forwards to a cuppa tea and a carrot stick after one of the pre-election gatherings that were held with such frequency in October & November last year.

Some people like baking.
I do it when I have a reason to, rather than as an enjoyment in itself, so I guess I straddle the mid-line there.
I was once a lousy baker, and I improved over many years of annual celebrations of birthdays that required cakes.
I am now very successful at reconfiguring a cake that is lop-sided into a creative expression of birthday cheer.

I'm sure that many people would just not bake rather than own that accomplishment, but my years as a divorced post-grad on the DPB left me without the option of 'pay someone else to bake it', so I had to improve. Many of my friend were in similar positions, so we all grinned and ate whatever cake it was.

Even my snooty sister, who worked in the IT industry in Wellington, came to appreciate my home-made gluten-free chocolate cakes, offered in love to her sons when they visited to claim birthday presents - a cake they could have second helpings of, just like the other kids in the room.
We're a family plagued by allergies and food intolerances, as well as other congenital immune failures, so we tend to be indulgent with the little ones when we can be.

Feminists can be mothers, aunties, dykes, transwomen (and transmen), and identify politically in a broad spectrum of ways. We don't have to agree on everything, indeed it is the discussion around viewpoints from the borders of feminist theory that makes it so interesting right now.
Getting dogmatic about what style of cake is acceptable for the orgainising collective to bring to a meeting just grinds everyone into a box not of their own choosing.
Bring cupcakes if you like baking them. I'll be the one standing next to the carrot sticks and the hummus!

Aaron said...


I realised that in my post I came across as a bit of a wanker just after I posted it. Sorry for that :-/

I mentioned cutting wood because that's what you mentioned. I know that in the groups I'm involved in we do have a fair amount of people who can be rather quiet and I'm sure that they probably have heaps of skills that others would want to learn. My post should have been phrased as a 'lets teach each other stuff (if others want to learn it)so that we increase the skills of the entire group.

I'm sure that you have bucketloads of skills that have nothing to do with your mis-gendered past.

Would love to read the post but the link doesn't take me anywhere.

Anonymous said...

just saying:

Off topic a wee bit - but I'd like to recommend to others the link about "spoons" further up the page (see Christine Miserandino).

I found it enormously relevant to my life, and a big help in articulating an important aspect of my life. I forwarded it to friends.

I'd come upon it in a number of web discussions, and I wasn't able to guess the meaning from the context in the discussion. I even tried in vain to look it up in various urban dictionaries.

If I'm just the last person to this particular party - "as you were".

Scar said...

Aaron, here's the link to the post:

Brett Dale said...

They're just cupcakes, big people, small people, tall people, short people, white people, black people, left wing people, right wing people, Cameron Slater, Boganette, Unionists, anti unionists, Eminem fans, garth Brooks fans, straight men, gay men, straight woman, gay woman, people from the US of A, people from Iraq, can bake them for themselves or other people, there is no over bearing message with cupcakes, they are cupcakes, yummy for my tummy, yummy for your tummy.

That is my own personal view on cupcakes.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to meet a cupcake I like.

Most I've seen look good but not one has lived up to its appearance when eaten.

In my - admittedly limited experience - they're at best good art but bad food; at worst they're the Barbie dolls of cooking.

But making food to share in general is something I enjoy doing, and it doesn't have to be expensive, difficult and/or time consuming.

Anonymous said...

Life is too short to waste on bad cupcakes. I am very saddened to hear of the people who have been doing so. Find the good cupcakes, seek them out. They should be like sunshine in your mouth


Anonymous said...

@ Scar. I realize you might not have time/money but if you do want to learn baking is really quite easy. You just get a cook book (Alison Holst is good or Edmonds or you can just download off the internet) and then follow the steps. With a few core ingredients (baking powder, baking soda, flour, milk, eggs, butter, cocoa, vanilla essence) you can make a lot of stuff. My boyfriend has always been a bit scared of baking but recently he's tried a few things and most have turned out well. I don't think you should feel like you have to bake to be a woman or a feminist. But it might be worth trying it just as a new hobby you might enjoy. I like baking because I find it relaxing. It is a good skill to have if you're planning to parent kids some day because home made treats are generally healthier (or, at least, you can control how much sugar/fat/colouring etc goes into them).

Hugh said...

Last anonymous:

You see, this whole "If you don't like cupcakes why do 't you just trrrrrrry them" attitude is kind of the problem we're talking about.

Scar said...

@Anonymous on baking:

We have half a dozen cook books, including the ubiquitous Edmond's Cookbook. We also have a plethora of baking stuff, since my fiancé enjoys baking every now and then.
Obviously if I was interested, I would join in on his baking extravaganzas, but I have no urge to bake, nor do I think I will find it rewarding or even particularly interesting.
I know where my interest lie and my culinary interests reside in making exotic dishes - as I do not have a sweet tooth (another reason why I'm not interested in baking).
I also have plenty of hobbies; I'm an accomplished artist, a writer and I'm an avid gamer geek, just to name a few of my more time consuming activities.
I'm also a 'helicopter chef' and I get mild anxiety when cooking things. Baking would spike my anxiety and I'd have to sit in front of the oven, staring at my baking, to make sure it's doing what it should be doing. Obviously this would be time consuming and ridiculous, so I'll save my time and energy for something else, if that's okay :-)