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How the Cupcake Became a “Female Food”

Parsing the gender dynamics of pastries—and what it means for feminists in the kitchen.


Perhaps it is no coincidence that the small and dainty cupcake became popular in Britain at the same time as mass production of the corset. The presentation of little cakes in their own paper cases give us another idea as to why they were becoming popular: they were fashionable and well turned out. Teatime was well bedded in as a social occasion by this time, and small treats, neatly encased in their own wrapper, were easy and tidy to eat. But cupcakes also catered for a new sort of femininity, one which put ever-increasing emphasis on appearance, dress, and physical beauty–including, from the 1840s, the desire to stay trimly corseted into an hourglass shape.

We should probably not read too much into this theory, however, appealing though it may be. The little queen cake and mince pie moulds from earlier decades indicate that small cakes had long been popular. The point about daintiness remains, however, and is still a factor in the popularity of cupcakes today, as is a link with femininity. What is it about the cupcake and its ilk which is inextricably linked to women? And is this, ultimately, a good thing or not?

The American writer Caitlin Flanagan wrote in her 2006 book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, about the intrinsic love many women have for pretty things. She used it to explain the power of the Martha Stewart empire; her many books and magazines peddle projects and images which are beautiful to the point of being impractical–eye candy rather than items you actually have any need for. At the heart of this, Flanagan says, is the much overlooked fact that women are attached to homemaking and housekeeping even in an era when these things are not fashionable or expected of liberated and career-capable women.

The ongoing mania for cupcakes fits into this idea very neatly. Cupcakes are pretty, and in a way thought of as traditionally female: neat and beautifully made-up. They are also a relatively manageable bake-at-home project which lends itself to the sort of decoration that both impresses and demonstrates motherhood (think of those children’s parties so many of us slave over). Their one-portion size makes them ideal for the body-conscious, a facet of womanhood which has endured through the years. Lastly, shop-bought gourmet cupcakes are a sure signifier of modern good taste and disposable income; another attribute which makes them appealing to women in particular, who still make most of the spending decisions when it comes to household, and particularly kitchen, matters.

However, these same traits can also make disheartening reading for those who hope to divorce female identity from all of these trappings of beauty, slimness, and restraint: the assumption that femininity goes with the color pink and things that are cute and glittery, and that ties women to a consumer culture which elevates baking and providing sweet treats to a high order. Second-wave feminists in the 1960s worked hard to reject housework and domesticity as the lot of women; their modern counterparts may now ask if we are sliding back to a position where domesticity is being fetishized without any thought to what else that implies about women’s status. Has the cupcake played a part in this?

The first way to answer these questions is to say that the biggest difference for women choosing to bake (or buy) cakes today is just that: they choose to do so, just as they choose whether or not to embrace the image of the ‘domestic goddess.’ There may be circles where there is pressure to provide home-made cupcakes for children’s birthdays (high-profile CEO Katya Andreson confesses that she, in a moment of what she now considers to be madness, scraped the frosting off a batch of store-bought cupcakes in order to replace it with something that looked more home-made before sending them to school for her daughter’s birthday), but on the whole, women are no longer expected to spend time in the kitchen producing beautiful baked goods for friends and family if they don’t want to. Baking, knitting, and other home crafts are no longer only associated with older generations; it is younger women who take part in Clandestine Cake Clubs, the newer urban form of the Women’s Institute, the “WI-lite,” and who join sewing bees and knitting clubs. For them, these crafts are part of finding a way to express creativity and female companionship. These are the women who embrace and aspire to the term domestic goddess even while not necessarily taking it very seriously.

But cupcakes’ size, shape, and appearance all promote a view of femininity which similarly dwells on size, shape, and appearance. Critiques of the cupcake industry often dwell on the overblown cutesiness and lack of substance of the little cakes, their frivolity, and shorthand for a type of moneyed female lifestyle. When Hillary Clinton declared that number nine of her top ten campaign promises in her 2007 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was that everyone should get a cupcake on her birthday, she was saying something about her empathetic qualities as a female candidate (although not as a home baker: in 1992 she is reported to have said that she had deliberately eschewed staying at home and baking cookies in order to have a career). By the time of her bid in 2015, she was staying silent on the issue of sweet treats, instead making a much stronger statement about gender equality.

Women do buy cupcakes in proportionately greater numbers than men though; even the supposedly male cupcakes baked by the Manhattan Butch Bakery whose lines have names like the “Driller” and the “B-52,” and which feature ingredients like beer-infused buttercream, crumbled bacon, and crushed pretzels. The very fact that there is such a thing as male cupcakes says a lot about the way that these cakes are marketed more generally (but also, perhaps, that men do like them, too).

But a second fact to consider is that men actually are getting in on the act. If we consider the British baking phenomenon that is The Great British Bake Off, we may note that a very large proportion of finalists and winners have been men, and they have excelled in cake baking and decorating as much as in the more traditional male field of bread-making. While the finals in 2011 and 2013 both featured three female bakers, the one in 2012 was all male. The fact that women completely dominated two out of those three years can also be read as a statement about female equality given that this is a highly competitive show where “male” qualities such as precision and keeping one’s nerve under pressure can do as well as “female” ones like intuition and inherited knowledge. French pâtissier Eric Lanlard (aka Cake Boy) is popularizing all sorts of cake-making for men, while Yotam Ottolenghi’s delis regularly appear on lists of top cupcake eateries in London. Florian Bellanger, meanwhile, has been popularizing pastry-making in the United States after his long stint as a judge on Cupcake Wars.

The simple truth is that women are not hardwired to need or even desire foods that are small, cute, pretty, or sugary; that they often do so is the result of cultural conditioning going back hundreds of years. “Women’s food” consists either of low-calorie and dainty foods like salads, or alternatively, of treats which are seen as emotional crutches—like cupcakes. They are contrasted with hearty, meaty fare sought out by men to fill them up and to assert their manly status of consumers of hunted rather than foraged food. In the last few decades, however, this seems to have crystallized into a gender stereotype which men and women buy into in equal measure. (Is it any coincidence that there are a huge number of children’s books with the word “cupcake” in the title, almost all featuring girl characters and pink covers?)

All this sounds like a big charge against a small cake, but it’s something we need to address. Put simply, do such treats infantilize the women who are their primary market? There is a big group of women who would answer this question with a resounding “no.” For them, cupcakes are symbols of femininity which women should be free to enjoy with unbridled pleasure—ironic as much as delightful.

But what is really undeniable is that the mania for both baking and eating cupcakes, especially the fancy gourmet sort, is very much bound up with affluence. Despite the fact that cupcakes apparently rode the wave to popularity on the economic recession, they are still an expensive treat. Baking a batch of cupcakes at home is not as cheap as buying them from the supermarket. If you are genuinely “trading down” to save money, you look elsewhere for a sweet treat. Almost all of the high-profile bakers of these little treats are white, middle-class women, and almost all of the rest are white, middle-class men. The cupcake is not only a female dainty, it is a white, middle-class one, and that probably ought to give us as much food for thought.

Excerpted from Cake: A Slice of History by Alysa Levene. All rights reserved. Published by Pegasus Books April 2016. Reprinted with permission.