Is the cupcake doomed?

2011-06-03 00:00

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.

Cupcakes — or fairy cakes — are nothing new. They became fashionable during the mid-nineties, 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 that 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.’

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 them.

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 childlike, and entirely unthreatening. As she is.

• Sarah 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.

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