Who’s Afraid of Cupcake Feminism?

by | February 18, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Bridget Crawford is a professor of law at Pace University and one of the co-administrators of the Feminist Law Professors blog. This was originally posted at Feminist Law Professors, re-posted with permission.

Over at the on-line music publication The Quietus, UK-based writer Meryl Trussler reacts to what she perceives as a “counter-campaign” to make feminism palatable to the mainstream media (at worst) or “cool again” (at best):

This move is not deliberate – probably not even conscious. But the pop-culture image of feminism today – as perpetuated at Ladyfests, in BUST magazine and its Craftaculars, on so-called ‘ladyblogs’ and at freshers’ fairs – is ostensibly the direct opposite of the Hairy Dyke. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call her the cupcake feminist. * *  *

Twee and retro have been seeping into feminism for a couple decades now, gaining potency. It’s all about cute dresses, felten rosettes from Etsy, knitting, kittens, vintage lamps shaped like owls, Lesley Gore. And yes – a lot of cupcakes.

It would be hypocritical to dismiss cupcake feminism outright….[T]o tell women they are letting down the cause is vomitously snide and unproductive – and I like the associated aesthetic as much as anyone. (Except for knitting, which for me could only end in injury.) Admittedly, too, the cupcake feminist is a sophisticated invention. Rouged, lipsticked, cinched at the waist, she performs big-F Femininity as the drag–show that it is. Her 50s-housewife schtick sets off everything about her that is radicalised and new. And, importantly, she emphasises that typically ‘feminine’ pursuits are no less worthy or important than their ‘masculine’ counterparts.

By now, however, western women have largely reclaimed and detraumatised the concepts of marriage and homemaking. Sure, a person can still raise some hell and eyebrows with the housewife trope if, say, her grandmothers were more likely to be domestic labourers than ‘goddesses’, or she sports a poodle skirt in her wheelchair; more subversive yet if (gasp!) a man should take the role. But on a relatively privileged woman, the sugar’n’spice act counters next to no expectations. It comes off more nostalgic than ironic.

The full piece is here. It’s worth reading.

I take Ms. Trussler’s principal point to be that the embrace of traditional “women’s work” and cutesy, girly products is too subtle to be an effective instrumental expression of any feminist impulse; it “comes off more nostalgic than ironic.”  The point about nostalgia is well-taken.  Remember the celebration of Barbie in Manifesta?  In their 2000 book, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgartner wrote:

Barbie didn’t so much influences us as she was a blank screen on which to project what was happening in our heads. * * * Barbie stands as a symbol of the lack of understanding between the leaders of the girls’ movement and the girls themselves: this is hotly contested territory.  The traditional feminist distaste for Barbie has also kept many young women closeted about their dolly-loving past.  They fear that loving Barbie will water down or jeopardize their feminism.

Ms. Trussler does not mention Barbie in her Quietus piece, but I suspect she’d detect “cupcake feminism” in the third-wave embrace of Barbie.  (Come to think of it, depending on the doll and the owner, Barbie herself might have been a cupcake feminist, too.  There’s Dentist Barbie, Astronaut Barbie….)  But at the time Manifesta was published, Richards and Baumgartner were making a bold statement.  There were few other feminists at the time who touted the doll’s feminist credentials. Barbie resonated with women born in the late 1960′s, 1970′s, and early 1980′s — those who were roughly 20 to 40 at the time of Manifesta‘s publication.

But just as Richards and Baumgartner were reacting to the feminists who preceded them, now Trussler is reacting to the third-wave embrace of things “girly,” of which Barbie is one example.  So might a critique of “cupcake feminism” be a critique of third-wave feminism?  I’m not sure.  It is possible to read Trussler as critical of feminism’s failure to “raise hell and eyebrows,” a call to “counter expectations” without calling out individual women for “letting down the cause,” and without casting blame on the immediately preceding generation of women.

One might extend Trussler’s critique of “cupcake feminism” to function as a critique of a feminism too focused on the self and the irony of aesthetics – the proverbial nail polish in the boardroom image — and not focused enough on structural inequality.  From my perspective, that’s where the law might come into the analysis.  In other words, if “cute dresses, felten rosettes from Etsy, knitting” are now “safe” for feminists, they can least co-exist with considerations of how law might address persistent inequality in “post-equality” era.

-Bridget Crawford

(photo by Jarrah)

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  • i’m finding these arguments particularly captivating as someone who has only seen the cupcake feminism described existing online, and never in the flesh. yes, for years when i was an activist i got the “you can’t be a feminist AND wear dresses” comment, but i never paid it any mind. it’s interesting to see how it has evolved with online communities and feminist blogs (PLEASE don’t call them ladyblogs).

    i’ll reiterate what i commented on trussler’s article: as someone who is a third wave feminist, is queer, hairy, has a huge zine collection, AND happens to love baking vegan cupcakes every once in a while i must say i love this article. i think at its heart, it’s another argument for a multiplicity of feminisms. an argument to conscious of one’s privilege.

    my only criticism? one that sadly still comes up a lot when we’re talking about third wave feminism: it focuses a bit too heavily on a primarily white-dominated middle/upper class kind of feminism…

    if we look at both the riot grrls xeroxing trussler wants to see a come back (which i would argue never really fizzled out), or the lipsticked femmes baking cupcakes and thrifting vintage kitsch, the idea that comes to mind in both cases is an overwhelming white one.

    what i think we need to talk about is how to change that. isn’t it more important to make room for all kinds of feminists who do work in all kinds of ways, without pitting one against the other constantly? the ones who organize rallies in the streets, the ones who do radical yarn-bombing, the ones who fight for reproductive rights, the one who fight to dismantle the gender binary?

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks for the comment. I find the discussion really fascinating too and I agree with your criticism. Maybe if we’re spending too much time worrying about someone’s expression of their feminism in terms of their appearance or domestic skills, we’re likely to miss a key class/race analysis.

    There are many kinds of feminists and while I think the discussion needs to continue, if only for the sake of self and social awareness, I hope it only makes room for, as you say, a multiplicity of feminisms, instead of ending up being antagonistic or divisive.

  • I think it is so interesting how this topic has so quickly coined a term which will be used to describe so many feminists of this time. I am doing an art exhibition in San Francisco next month that reflects the role of craft in this movement. I would be interested to hear more discourse of this movement in terms of the arts. http://www.arc-sf.com/sweet–subversive.html