Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender?

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Ruth Black)

Several years ago I read an article about “cupcake feminism.” I was intrigued. First, because of all the sweet treats out there, cupcakes are probably my least favorite (honestly, there are so many better baked goods out there, and I for one find the never-ending cupcake obsession to be exhausting).

Second, because I wondered how cupcakes had any relationship to feminism. Could cupcakes really be the symbol of a new movement of feminists?

Women in Food

In the last couple of decades, we have seen small food businesses flourish. Be it sauerkraut or pretzels, the artisan food economy has allowed for aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their food passions. Many of those food businesses are baking related — cupcakes, pies, cake decorating, muffin-of-the-month club — whatever sort of baking you’re into, someone has probably launched a business doing it. When it comes to cupcakes, what was once reserved for the schoolroom birthday party can now be found in the trendiest shops around the world, from London to New York to Paris.

If you take a look at these types of businesses, they are predominantly run by women. And yet when we look at the food industry as a whole, women are often absent from the conversation, particularly when it comes to high-end, gastronomic food circles.

Is this growing field of women-run businesses cause for celebration — independent, self-made women who have just as much potential to open businesses as their male counterparts — or is it a new form of the gender stereotypes and norms that have existed for generations?

Baking — a Feminized Culinary Work?

I asked my friend Lisa Knisely for her opinion. I was introduced to Lisa when she worked at the magazine Render, and I respect her opinion on these topics, as she’s well-versed on the complexities and nuances. Beyond holding a PhD in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, she works as a freelance writer and tackles these topics on a daily basis.

“Baking, particularly of the domestic sweet and pie variety (as opposed to the uber-fancy and technical professional pastry chef kind), is a kind of culinary work we particularly associate with a feminized form of care and nurturing in our culture,” says Knisely. “I think a lot of baking businesses employ a kind of gendered marketing and ideology to advance women bakers and it makes sense that they do because many of us have powerful associations of baked goods with love and care from women. And that kind of love and care through food is powerful, awesome, life-sustaining stuff that should be celebrated.”

“But,” she went on, “I don’t see why men shouldn’t be doing about half of this kind of culinary care labor, too. If men were half of the cupcake makers in our culture, either domestically or professionally, that would change the whole field of gender identity and kitchen politics.”

I would agree with Lisa. As a culture, we love to define people and put them in boxes, and that certainly happens with professions. There are many professions which people assume are inherently male; the language that we use is a good reflection of this. For example, why when we read an article about a chef, do we assume that the chef is male? Female chefs are just chefs after all, just like female filmmakers are just filmmakers and female pilots are just pilots.

Which brings us to a question of why certain professions, in this case baking, are so gendered, and that means asking the right question. “Instead of asking why women are opening these kinds of businesses, let’s ask instead why men are not,” says Knisely. “My guess is that we’ll discover that part of why they’re not is because there is typically less prestige and less money in these ‘feminized’ baking jobs, as there is less status associated with most labor that we think of as ‘women’s work.'”

The Pink Ghetto

This idea of “women’s work” or even “culturally appropriate women’s work” is deep-seated. Someone in the industry recently pointed out to me that at culinary schools, pastry sections have been the predominantly female sections, so much so that they have been referred to as the “pink section” or even the “pink ghetto.”

But as the food world opens, there are more opportunities for women outside of this sector. Today, men and women make up pretty equal parts of culinary schools — at the Culinary Institute of America, women account for 48.6 percent of students — and there are women in all aspects of the food industry.

Cupcake Feminism

But let’s get back to this idea of Cupcake Feminism. In 2008, a journalist for the Guardian wrote an article asking, “Do good feminists bake cupcakes?” The article took a look at whether or not domesticity could in fact be subversive. The women profiled in the article were all women who were embracing aspects of domesticity – baking cupcakes, hosting teas – with a sense of irony and modernity. Yet as feminist author Natasha Walter pointed out in the article, “There are problems associated with domesticity because, in the past, there was the assumption that it was just ‘what women did’. For a long time we have been saying to men, ‘You can do it just as well as we can’, but if we fetishise the frilly apron and the domestic goddess and the cupcakes then it’s much harder to say to men, ‘Come and join us too.'”

This gets back to the idea of gendered roles, and what we assume is the work of men or women. “Without a doubt, there is a certain ‘ethos’ associated with different types of cooking and cuisine and some of this has to do with gender, as well as other aspects of identity. For example, whenever I’ve eaten ‘modernist’ cuisine, I’ve been struck by the chefs’ performance of a certain kind of authority and scientific rationality being performed at the chef’s table for the customer that is displayed as part of the ‘value’ of the (usually costly) food,” says Knisely. “It’s a performance and creation of food that relies on post-Enlightenment patriarchal tropes of expertise, as well as virile creative genius.”

Even Nigella Lawson has declared baking a feminist act. Whether or not a certain food can be a feminist symbol is up for debate, but there is no denying that food in general has a role to play in this discussion. This isn’t about cupcakes. This is about acknowledging and celebrating the knowledge that women have as a whole, and not downgrading it to the lowest cake pedestal. “We as a culture, should not forget the great amount of knowledge about food that primarily women in our culture have created and sustained for a long time,” says Knisely. “Frankly, I see a lot of old recipes and culinary knowledge as undervalued knowledge in our culture that we can reclaim as part of a larger agenda of saying that what women do and know is important and valuable to our culture at large and should be treated as such.”

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of men do food preparation or cleanup in the home compared with 68 percent of women. Around the world women are largely responsible for the food that goes on the table everyday.

And yet, this type of cooking doesn’t have cultural value. What is considered as having a higher value in the food world is the more artistic side of cooking, your Michelin-starred chefs and the like. There is no denying the creativity and talent that goes into this field, but ask yourself: What do most of us consume on an everyday basis? We could probably benefit from putting a little more value on that “simple” food, and the people who make it, than we currently do.

Ultimately, it isn’t about the abilities of men or women, it’s about our own perceptions of what they should or shouldn’t be good at. It’s about how we look at food and the people who make it. “Take the idea of the globe-trotting bon vivant, neocolonialist chef as another kind of gendered, and raced, chef ethos. We most often see white men performing this role of the free-wheeling ‘world is my oyster’ chef. It’s not that women don’t travel and eat and explore, too. It’s that this ethos or chef performance coming from a woman isn’t as legible or marketable to many people and therefore it is harder for women to actually inhabit that particular performance of culinary experience and excellence,” says Knisely. “It is easier for women to sell or perform the idea that they’re going to make you approachable or down-home or fun or nurturing food, because we often associate those qualities with women’s cooking, and women, in general.”

Changing the industry then isn’t just about ensuring equal opportunities for everyone; it’s about analyzing, and potentially changing, our own perceptions and expectations. This isn’t about whether or not cupcakes are feminist; it’s about creating a society where we are all treated as equals and eliminating oppression, and believe it or not, food just might be one of the avenues for doing exactly that.