Both common sense and economic trends have been telling us for a while now that the cupcake‘s blown-out-of-proportion, decade-long moment is mercifully coming to a close. Donuts and (ugh) cronuts are ascendent, and anyway, this whole thing has gotten wildly out of hand (see also: a woman I recently saw openly weeping while buying a box at Grand Central’s branch of Magnolia, explaining to a confused employee, “My sister said she’d kill me if I didn’t bring some back for her!”) Meaning that an op-ed dedicated to denigrating the waning trend dessert doesn’t feel strictly necessary. But, this one from The Guardian comes with an unexpected twist: cupcakes are actually bad for feminism.
After laying out all the usual complaints about cupcakes (they’re messy, overrated, too ubiquitous, and deeply linked with the worst kind of hysterical, twee marketing efforts) Matt Seaton writes that “for their implied young female, figure-conscious, on-off dieting customers, they set up this horrible dynamic of enabling indulgence in a forbidden object.” He goes on:
You know what cupcakes really are? – butter-iced snares of self-loathing that sell precisely because they exploit young women’s insecurity about their looks and identity, and offer a completely false and self-defeating solace of temporary gratification, almost certainly followed by remorse and disgust.
They’re just cakes, you say. Ah, but they’re not just cakes: like any cultural artefact, they have implicit values baked in. And the values I see in cupcakes are of a demeaning, self-trivialising sort of hyper-femininity. This is where I start to sound like the worst kind of moralising Puritan killjoy, but it’s just really hard for me to believe that serious, self-respecting adult women would be at all susceptible to this gooey, sickly-sweet embodiment of female wish-fulfillment.
Which may be just a little bit of a leap. It’s sort of hard to prove categorically that cupcake purchasers aren’t ever “serious, self-respecting adults” and universally approach the dessert with the mentality that they’re doing something insane, omg, so bad. Even if they do, it’s a trope that’s spread far enough that furtive cupcake binges were used as a hallmark of Paul Rudd’s terrible character in This Is 40. More to the point, if we’re complaining about the tone of the marketing here, we’d probably have to look at the entire cutesy dessert industry, a churning beast that has rendered it even a little bit plausible for Rice to Riches to hang those terrible “No skinny bitches” signs in their doorway and remain in business.
But also, as much as mania over cupcakes has become an avatar of people (predominantly women) who you try to avoid at all costs, having a male columnist decide that they’re strictly the province of self-defeating idiots doesn’t sit especially well, either. Seems like it’d be nice if we could all just quietly enjoy whatever foods we happen to like to eat, divorced from any weird, unnecessary cycle of hype and backlash?
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.