Is 'cupcake feminism' all empty calories?

In the wake of the Jubilee and its proliferation of patriotic kitsch, Laura Brightwell examines the rise of retro chic in Britain and whether cupcake feminism has more substance than its real-life namesake

Laura Brightwell, 10 August 2012

In a recent post at The Quietus, Meryl Trussler questioned the revival by young feminists of traditional domestic crafts such as baking and knitting. She suggested that although "cupcake feminism" provides much fodder for the feminist messages of vagina cupcakes and subversive cross-stitching, it also buys into a romanticised ideal of middle-class, white femininity. This poses some pointed questions. Is cupcake feminism a tongue-in-cheek celebration of female crafts or an elitist pastime? How radical can a trend that glamorises white, middle-class femininity be?

Cakes.jpgThe Jubilee celebrations earlier this year saw a proliferation of Rule Britannia sentiment such as I had never seen in my lifetime. Admittedly, I missed Will's wedding last year so maybe it wasn't that surprising to the rest of you, but I did find the mass of union flags around the place a bit weird. In the explosion of shopping that was the bank holiday, the nation seemed obsessed with tea-towel trash. The recent trend for retromania was reflected in the sales of Jubilee kitsch such as mugs, jelly moulds and, of course, the ever-popular cupcake. This splurge of shopping balanced real patriotic sentiment with an excuse to indulge in too much victoria sponge. It also confirmed that kitsch is undoubtedly very cool.

But retromania has definite conservative overtones. For many retailers, the Jubilee seemed an excuse to boost falling sales via an expression of forced patriotic sentiment. While mainstream news outlets celebrated the effect all this shopping has on our economy, some writers on the internet are critical of this apparent nationalism and suggest it masks contemporary questions about Britain's identity and future.

Does the comeback of coronation chicken hide an attempt to push chicken tikka masala off the national menu?

Of course, retro chic is not such a new phenomenon. Homemade products have been making their way back into the mainstream since the 2000s and crafts such as knitting, baking and upcycling are way in. The commercialisation of craft has become viable business for local entrepreneurs. Witness the rise of homemade cakes at farmers markets, knitted tea cosies at craft fairs - craft fairs themselves. I think you all know what I'm talking about.

But does '50s coronation nostalgia have a place in the Britain of today? The aesthetic being revived is distinctly white and middle-class. Celebrating some vague notion of all-white British tradition is problematic in a racist country still terrorised by fantasies about Muslim bombers and immigrants "taking all the jobs". Is it OK to pretend Britishness or Englishness is all about cream tea and tiny white sandwiches in a multi-ethnic country where the fascism of the BNP feels like a real threat? Or does the comeback of coronation chicken hide an attempt to push chicken tikka masala off the national menu?

Housewife.jpgOn the other hand, as a nation in the middle of an economic recession, it does make sense that we are harking back to a former time of thrift. Post-World War II, housewives really did have to make do. While high-street Jubilee retromania seems to be all Selfridges, Emma Bridgewater and Cath Kidston, there is a real use of homemade products in the craft fairs and homes of young and middle-class Britain. At a time when even privileged members of the middle-classes like myself feel like our futures are no longer guaranteed by the accident of our birth and access to education, crafting your own bunting is a cheap alternative to buying it on Oxford Street. Perhaps homemade products are practical now we have less cash to spare and, being unemployed, more time to spend.

Still, all these cute little cupcakes and knitted tea cosies don't seem to reflect real economic need. The undoubtable cool of making your own soap does smack of poverty tourism. I mean, if youngsters like me really were knitting to economise, surely we would be making warm jumpers, not pompoms whose only use is decorative. And even when these crafts are useful, it is worth asking who is doing the baking and why.

If cupcake feminists really were broke, we wouldn't be scouting organic ingredients to make the perfect Victoria Sponge, we would be buying economy biscuits from Tescos

It almost goes without saying that the answer is: women. While Phil Spencer is Kirstie Allsopp's sidekick, you won't see him getting down and dirty with the cushion covers. This glamorisation of domestic work is potentially troublesome at a time when British women have the most economic freedom we have ever had. That we are, once again, expected to labour over our baking (spotted dicks all round, please!) and to love it, is a bit problematic. Even my career-woman mother wasn't expected to cook two-course meals from scratch every day. When baking is the cool thing for every yummy mummy to do, to what extent is it a choice? Is the renaissance of domestic crafts harmless, or does it mask a more sinister desire to get women back into the kitchen?

In his critique of 'innocentese' in advertising and music, Dorian Lynskey argues that the rise of whimsy belies a desire to escape the "down the shitcan" reality of a world gripped by terrorism and economic crises. Crafting fashion professes a similar faux naïveté. The apparently innocent glamorisation of what used to be grueling domestic labour conveniently forgets that women been busy doing stuff other than baking cakes. There have been whole waves of feminism to get us to this point. Which makes the whole, "yay, let's spend our free time crafting rosettes and other unnecessary decorations" thing a bit suspect. Wouldn't our time be better spent demonstrating against the wage gap? It seems that, even in the 1950s, less home cooking was done. I mean, has anyone seen Betty Draper's cooking in Mad Men? It's more like a chemistry lesson than a charming picture of wholesome cuisine. Don't let's forget, this was the decade that saw the creation of frozen foods and the TV dinner.

God Save the Queen.jpgLet's face it, this isn't really about saving money. Crafting chic is a fashion. Baking cakes is surprisingly expensive. If we really were broke, we wouldn't be scouting organic ingredients to make the perfect Victoria Sponge, we would be buying economy biscuits from Tescos. From what I have seen of London's craft fairs and DIY feminist events, the trend to craft seems to be predominantly white and middle-class. When I dress in a cute rockabilly dress and sew myself a new bikini, I do wonder if I'm being a bit of a recessionista. With the financial guarantees that come from my middle-class background, how much is my love of crafting born of necessity and how much is it just a fun way to pass the time before I get that perfect job in media?

However, despite the potentially sinister meanings behind crafting chic, there are plenty of subversive, feminist takes on retromania. The twee trend that wants to turn us all into Kirstie-Allsopp-alikes has an ironic reflection in the crafting of Britain's feminist subcultures. The riot grrrl subculture of the 1990s that gave us zines and bands like Bikini Kill is the precursor of today's vagina cupcakes, subversive cross-stitch and cunting (incredibly rude bunting). The radical feminists I see at alternative craft fairs are doing a lot more than unthinkingly trying to reproduce the past. Tongue-in-cheek baked goods such as gingerbread 'men' in the shape of penises or pink meringue breasts have a sex-positive shock factor.

To me, the radical message of a 'home-sweet-home' style cross-stitch that reads, instead, "Fuck Your Fascist Beauty Standards" is akin to the feminist message of art by Tracey Emin. The art world has always dismissed domestic crafts (female) in favour of 'universal', abstract art (male). Emin's 2011 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London was a testament to her feminist refusal of this distinction. Her massive, embroidered quilts took over a space traditionally reserved for male art. They plastered the walls with personal messages, about her fears, hopes and love affairs. This huge refusal to contain her emotions, to insist that the feminine and the personal have a place in the art world, turns sexist assumptions about the place of domestic, female art forms on their head.

Craft room.jpgThe proliferation of cupcakes and crafts at feminist, DIY events is now so common that it's even been given a name: cupcake feminism. Much like Emin, cupcake feminism wreaks havoc on stereotypical images of femininity. This is, perhaps, where Meryl Trussler's critique goes a bit awry. When Trussler suggests that cupcake feminism is all about "Etsy, knitting, kittens [and] Lesley Gore", she is ignoring the intentionality behind the image. After all, if we feminists reject all things that are traditionally feminine, calling them the tools of the patriarchy, then we are just being sexist. There is nothing inherently artificial, weak or silly about femininity. Sexism lies in cultural attitudes towards feminine appearances, behaviours and skills, not in femininity itself. Don't let's forget that it was Lesley Gore who first recorded 'You don't own me', a feminist anthem if ever there were one.

Unlike the relatively conservative nostalgia of Jubilee kitsch and mainstream crafting fashion, cupcake feminism doesn't want us women to get back in the kitchen. Cupcake feminism is more like Betty Draper, cigarette between teeth, shooting at her neighbour's pigeons. It has earnest feminist intentions at its core, and it confronts sexist attitudes towards femininity. That said, it is still worth noting that you don't see many working-class feminists or feminists of colour at your local craft fair. Or many feminists over 40. Like many types of activism, this feminism seems to be only available to middle-class younger people - in this case mostly women. Given the current cuts to public services and high rates of unemployment, I think it will take a bit more than some bake sales to really put the icing on our contemporary feminist cake.

First image of a number of iced cupcakes, one of which has the gender symbol for women on it, uploaded by Flickr user cathredfern. Second image of a wartime poster of a woman doing the washing up, with the message "Keep on saving coal, gas, electricity, paraffin" obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Third image of union jack cushions with "God Save the Queen" written across the centre uploaded by Flickr user Leo Reynolds. Final image of a room full of craft materials uploaded by Flickr user chrissy.farnan.

Comments From You

JessicaFMB // Posted 10 August 2012 at 16:46

This whole 'cupcake feminism' thing is something I've been battling with for a while. I first became interested in crafts a good few years ago when it was still very much associated with the punk, DIY scenes. As well as the basic joy of making something by hand, I was attracted to it for political reasons too - at the time it seemed like a rebellion against consumer culture and the whole 'buy more stuff' mindset (this was pre-recession 'greed is good' times, after all), plus I felt it was more environmentally friendly and sustainable than buying everything brand new.

Now the whole trend has gone very much mainstream and is, arguably, just as consumerist as everything it was originally going against. The whole conservative 50's housewife undertones seem to have crept in along with this commercialisation, and it's not something I'm comfortable with.

However, I'm not going to stop sewing or stitching any time soon, for the simple fact that I enjoy it. Crafts offer an easy, accessible way for people to explore their creativity and express themselves. So many of us are made to feel like we're crap at art - and other creative endeavors - at school, and I think part of the appeal of crafts for adults is that you can enjoy being creative without having Picasso-levels of skill. Holding something in your hands that you've made yourself from scratch is just such a good feeling, and exploring your creative urges is good for your mental wellbeing.

And when it comes to buying other people's handmade goods, well, I'd rather give my money to an art undergraduate, or an independent designer-maker starting up their own small business, than Sir Philip Green.

Helen Louise // Posted 10 August 2012 at 18:41

how much is my love of crafting born of necessity and how much is it just a fun way to pass the time before I get that perfect job in media?

Or possibly it's just fun? There's very little political motivation to my own crafting - I just really enjoy creating things and also sharing them with others. I'm very inspired by what my grandmother does, which does seem to suggest that the crafting movement is not just limited to the young.

I don't see why a fun hobby has to have a radical feminist message... Even the toughest activist can have an outlet that's not specifically political - of course it can, if said activist wants it to (I saw an ace feminist dress done with potato prints) but we're all allowed leisure time.

There have been whole waves of feminism to get us to this point. Which makes the whole, "yay, let's spend our free time crafting rosettes and other unnecessary decorations" thing a bit suspect. Wouldn't our time be better spent demonstrating against the wage gap?

I don't like arguments like this. There have been whole waves of feminism getting us choice. We shouldn't spend all our free time slaving for feminism anymore than we should spend it slaving in domestic servitude. Liberation shouldn't be a new servitude, it should be liberation. I do feministy things because I want to and because I feel they're important to help both me and all the other women, and indeed men, to come, but I do crafty things because I enjoy them. Decorations may be unnecessary, but they're not pointless if they make me and other people happy.

LorrieHearts // Posted 11 August 2012 at 11:32

From a personal perspective, I think enjoying the aesthetics or the activity of crafting and baking is fine - they're past-times just like anything else and they in themselves don't do any damage.

What becomes problematic for me is when women act like enjoying these activities is a way of 'reclaiming' and revolutionising the domestic chores of 1950s women. Firstly, as mentioned above, kitschy make-do-and-mend wasn't the adorable, primarily middle-class activity it is now - it was sheer necessity. Secondly, these activities do represent a very white interpretation of what the 1950s were like - I don't want, or presume, to speak for women of colour but I've never once seen an idealised picture of the 'golden era' like the one above featuring a woman who isn't white.

I think what I'm trying to say, rather inarticulately, is that it's fine to enjoy these things - cupcakes, crafting and the like, but don't pretend to be a revolutionary simply for doing them. There's ways of adding a revolutionary twist (such as the vagina cupcakes or the 'cunting') but you can't erase the past - I think to do so, you'd perhaps be risking re-writing the actual experiences of working class women and women of colour in favour of a male-created fantasy of the actual roots of these activities.

Lucy // Posted 13 August 2012 at 11:29

I'm not sure about crafting and home baking being a trend, but I felt the need to comment on this article. I am a feminist and have always considered myself to be a feminist - and I enjoy baking and cooking for myself. To me, there's no contradiction there, because I cook and bake simply because I enjoy doing it, not because I am forced to do so. The reason why I like cooking and baking is not that it is cheaper - it simply gives me the advantage of carefully choosing the (quality of the) ingredients I use.
You touched upon it briefly in the article yourself when you mentioned it is more expensive to buy organic ingredients than to buy Tesco value biscuits. To me, this is the whole point: I can choose to use high quality ingredients in my home baking, but who knows what sort of stuff they grind together to make a tesco value biscuit.
I think this is one of the main points why home baking/cooking might be enjoying a renaissance. And - by the way - two of my brothers are passionate home cooks/bakers, so it seems to go for both sexes.
As for crafting - I like that, too because it allows me to create something truly unique to decorate my home with - thus it is a form of self expression and a celebration of individualism. Also, crafting is not equivalent to making stuff with copious amounts of glitter and ruffles - at least not necessarily.
A good reason for making/altering my own clothes is a) creating something that's not a topshop-esque uniform, b) re-cycling used fabrics is a more sustainable, potentially sweatshop-free way of dressing. And I think I'm not the only one who thinks along those lines.
So to sum up, cooking, baking, crafting and sewing has more to do with healthy diets and sustainability than the recession. So sorry, but I don't see a feminist issue with these things.

JessLeeds // Posted 13 August 2012 at 13:15

I run a book swap, called the Travelling Suitcase Library. The single aim of this is to get more people reading, and talking about books in the social sphere. That is it. However, I have had meetings with people who have not taken bookings for me purely on the basis that I'm not a vintage craftista with a 1940s hairdo, and I don't turn up with a suitcase covered in vintage stickers, and I don't have bunting (although I have caved in and made some book bunting since...). I am frankly fed up of having to be twee whilst trying to make a difference in the world. This is a fashion, and like all fashions others those who do not wish to participate within it.
Though cupcakes are reet nice, tbh.

Bryony Bates // Posted 14 August 2012 at 18:34

My big problem with all this cupcake stuff is that it's often actually used by women as a sort of subconscious apology for feminism. Often quite go-getting professional women will hide their ambition behind all this twee crap. It's a way of drawing a demure veil over one's achievements, saying 'Oh no, don't worry, what's most important to me is cushion covers, I don't even know what a glass ceiling is.' I think it can be (maybe not always, but in my personal experience) dangerously retrograde.

Rosalind // Posted 14 August 2012 at 21:55

I do agree that Cupcake Feminism is about showing that traditionally "female" crafts have just as much artistic merit as fine arts. It is possible to be creative with food - just look at cookery shows such as Masterchef.

Also, as another commenter has already pointed out, when baking at home you control exactly how much has gone into your cake, whereas you don't know what Tesco/Sainsburys have put in there.

Claire_M // Posted 15 August 2012 at 14:10

You lost me with the 'fantasies' of terrorist bombers: my flatmate was one of those killed on 7 July 2005. Guess I'll leave you to your cupcakes.

Pipster // Posted 15 August 2012 at 15:42

"Like many types of activism, this feminism seems to be only available to middle-class younger people" I count myself within this group. I love the idea of 'cup cake feminism' and I love doing crafts. At this time I don't see my personal enjoyment of baking and making things as part of a movement but rather a hobby, which happens to be particularly fashionable. I think this is the case for many people. However, the uses to confront sexest attitudes should be applauded.

Whether it is exclusive to this group (which I feel is extremely debatable) is irrelevant. That voice is still a valid one. One which is often shrugged off and not taken seriously. As a newly admitting feminist 'cupcake feminism' challenged sexist ideas and also challenged my pre-conceptions on feminism; making feminism as a thing much more approachable. If I were to want to make a point, I am likely to do it in a creative way, using something relevant to me, such as crafts and cakes (which are very relevant in my life). I know more people from my background (yes,white middle class) can be reached in such a way, and believe it to be a very accessible to other backgrounds and social groups. I mean, how many people dislike cake?

Dee // Posted 15 August 2012 at 15:44

First, 'glamorising white, middle class femininity' - is having a hobby as a 'white middle class' woman, and blogging/ talking about what you do actually 'glamorising it'. It does appear that 'white middle class women' are now one of the groups that have to actually apologise for their own existence as they're not a minority group, and one usually classed as having all the perks. Is that something we should refuse to perpetuate as feminists? All women are women, and all women should have the opportunities to express themselves as they so wish.

Also, I don't think the crafting trend excludes working class women at all. I'm working class, and many of my working class friends are crafters and use Etsy. They craft as it is a hobby. They craft as it's a cheaper alternative to more expensive hobbies, as a lot of the stuff they use is recycled. Just to note, the same friends have allotments, and use these for growing food, which they then use as ingredients for jams, chutneys, cakes for Xmas presents, etc, etc. We're not all buying the expensive things in Waitrose, and most of us can't afford to shop on Oxford St. I'm currently living on £10 for food a week between my partner and I, and we're certainly not buying Tesco value biscuits. We're working out the cheapest way to eat healthily - we bake our own bread as it last longer, we're growing our own chillies in our London flat and making them into chilli oil, we're buying £1 bowls of ginger and making ginger beer to keep up the nutrients. I'm also using old clothes to make things for myself - for fun and practicality, and buying crafter materials as it's teaching me new practical skills, like ragrugging - sacking from the poundshop for example. There's nothing glamorous about it, but yes, I still take pictures of the things I make and post them online, to show others what they can make, as well as sharing my creations with my friends. And while there is little money coming in, I'll try to sell as much of my stuff as I can to bring in a little extra cash. Whether rich people are jumping on the bandwagon is irrelevant - if they have the cash, and want to do some baking, what's the problem? It's healthier than shop bought stuff, tastes better, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you're not buying into mass produced rubbish churned out by supermarkets.

Lipstick Terrorist // Posted 17 August 2012 at 11:32

I wrote the above article and I wanted to thank you all for your constructive and thoughtful comments. While I agree with many of you that crafting is fun (I especially like JessMFB pointing out that it's great for mental health - so agree!), and maybe it shouldn't have a political meaning, it definitely does. I think it's worth examining what values we give crafting, and some of the problems of these values.

I remember a friend of mine, who is a parent complaining that they felt pressure to bake a yummy cake in order to go to a Lesbian Cake Picnic in Hyde Park. As a single parent to two children, they don't have the time or money to spend making amazing cakes. I think baking, cooking and crafting are great activities, but when they become compulsory in order to fit into queer or feminist or other scenes, then it is problematic.

P.S. I love cooking and baking myself, and recently managed to fuse my whole apartment while making tit tassles with a dodgy glue gun.

Shrieking Violet // Posted 22 August 2012 at 18:37

I am a white middle class feminist. I also look and dress in a very feminine way (it just happens that I like shopping and love buying clothes, and often people describe them as "feminine"). If I was beating myself up for that, I'd be a very miserable woman.
I also like baking cakes because - shock! horror! - my boyfriend likes cakes. He is a very nice man and this is the way I show him that I love him and want to do something nice for him.

For me this all is not contradictory at all. Not everything I do is for feminist reasons. I also don't think that, in this particular case, baking is only "OK" if it is in a shape of vagina or is "subversive", or to save money, that you somehow have to justify that. If you enjoy it, and like treating other people, and it is fun for you, then it is fine. But if you feel you need to, in order to be approved by whoever, or to fit in and other sort of societal shit, then it becomes a feminist issue, just like with anything else (wearing make-up, going to burlesque classes etc).

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About the author

Laura Brightwell

Laura Brightwell is a professional troublemaker who regularly blogs at Diary of a Lipstick Terrorist. You can sometimes find her taking her clothes off at burlesque shows around Berlin.

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