In April 2014, there was an article by Tom Wyman in the Critical Legal Review and the Guardian called ‘Beware of Cupcake Fascism’. It argued that the cupcake has become a cultural trope (alongside the drinking of tea and gin and the strumming of ukuleles) that tells of the reactionary infantilisation of consumers in western neo-liberal society.

The image of the cupcake is polite, uniform and promises to limit potential excess. It is vintagey and twee, invoking a sense of wholesomeness and nostalgia for a perfect past that never existed. Like the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ craze that has been an assault on our senses (in both meanings of the word) over the past decade, the cupcake tells us that the best response to the current political climate is to accept it and continue in an expression of ideal “stiff upper lip” Britishness. It sells us the possibility of remaining in an eternal child-like state – of distracting ourselves from facing an unjust reality with a cup of tea and something small, sweet and relatively low-fat.

Soon after reading this, I wrote an article for Screaming Violets magazine that started to explore the notion of Cupcake Feminism. Excessively quaint and syrupy ideas have been seeping into feminism for about as long as gourmet cupcake cafes have been on our streets, gaining potency through cute dresses from Oliver Bonas, sewing kits from Cath Kidston, purses shaped like owls and yes – a lot of cupcakes. At so-called feminist events such as Women of the World at the Southbank Centre, you can barely move for expensive handbags (made by women in the third world), headbands (usually with birds on them) and books on organic baking.

All of this serves up a vision of a post-sexist, middle-class world in which women should feel pleased that they are free to enjoy their gendered desires to cook, clean and look cute for men. It invites women to Keep Calm and Carry On within a political system that is still violently sexist, empowering themselves by wearing pretty tea dresses, crocheting inspiring quotes onto hankies and ironically singing along to Beyonce music videos. Most worrying of all, it warns women to be ‘nice’.

Look at the UN’s HeForShe campaign, fronted by Emma Watson, which calls on feminists to stop isolating themselves and focus on getting men involved. Now, I absolutely believe that men should be involved in the women’s movement, but I resent the notion that they are not involved because we haven’t ‘invited’ them nicely enough. They are not involved because – really – there is nothing to get involved with. All of the middle-class women that once would have lead the Suffragist movement are at home practicing ‘being nice’ with their Hummingbird Bakery cook books.

And just to be clear, when I’m talking about being ‘nice’, I mean niceness in that god-forbid-you-upset-someone way, when you’re stifling your opinions just to keep the boat from rocking. The sort of “nice” that means not seizing something that you deserve because you would rather be pleasant than right. It means being grateful every time a man says something akin to ‘women should have equal rights’ (well, duh!). It means smiling while you receive sexual harassment in a bar or on the street. It means pretending you’re ok with all the hours of unwaged labour that you do because you are a woman, and keeping quiet about how angry you are that you will get paid less in your lifetime than your male colleagues. It means settling down to eat a cupcake with that pained expression of pretend contentment on your face, because what you really want is a huge slab of chocolate cake, or a steak.

Throughout the Thesmo R&D, I have continually come back to these ideas. Comedy is – by its nature – in direct opposition with the cupcake. Humour forces us to stand back and laugh at aspects of our lives that we normally take for granted. It presents us with an alternative reality, where we can mock powerful people, subvert popular culture and acknowledge the darker sides of human nature. Because of this, comedy is rich in its potential to smash the cupcake, especially when it is led by women.

In the final women-only comedy workshop of the Thesmo R&D project, which took place at the University of Bradford on Saturday 7 November, the 14 women that attended made the decision NOT to be nice for 2 hours. We all stood up and swore at a wall none-stop for 2 minutes and then wrote a long list of things we felt we could not say in everyday life, because the subjects might make others feel uncomfortable. We talked about our vaginas, our sex lives, our children (or lack of); things that pissed us off… and then used this list as inspiration for short stand-up routines. One participant shared a stingingly funny 4 line piece about her miscarriage, another boldly made a joke about her experiences of marriage counselling. The room felt alive with something bigger than our frustration and pain and anger, bigger than our enjoyment and laughter.

Lacan would term this potentially revolutionary surge of feeling as ‘jouissance’ (, which Helene Cixous describes in her wonderful ‘Ecriture Feminine’ as an: “explosion of feeling… tak(ing) pleasure in being limitless.” Cixous maintains that ‘jouissance’ is the source of a woman’s creative power and that the suppression of jouissance prevents women from finding their own fully empowered voice. I am sure that Cixous would agree that the cultural trope of Cupcake Feminism is partly to blame for suppressing women’s jouissance in today’s world.

So, how to smash the cupcake? Tom Wyman’s article suggests:
“If we see the paradigmatic mechanisms of social oppression operative today in the form of a cupcake, then the clue to the overthrowing of these mechanisms exists also in cake… the spongy and the moist and the excessive and the unhealthy. Against the austerity of the cupcake-form, we need to recapture, in our social reality, a sort of joy: the joy of being open to genuinely alternative possibilities”.

In rehearsals with my 2 actors: Naomi Sheldon and Joey Holden, I spent a lot of time working on the ideas of feminist activist and academic Silvija Federicci, whose ‘wages for housework’ campaign has succeeded in doing just this: provocatively offering up a genuinely alternative vision of gender relations ( Federicci herself acknowledges the theatrical nature of the campaign, explaining that her objective was to ‘wake women up’ to the ways they are oppressed by capitalism and encourage solidarity between women worldwide. Her idea is bold and (for the moment) impossible to achieve. But it is so refreshing to find a grown-up alternative to the safe, ‘nice’ and coldly uniform advice spouted by icons of the 4th wave feminist movement such as Emma Watson.

At the end of the Thesmo R&D project, I am more committed than ever to finding a way to smash the cupcake. The work-in-progress sharing that took place at Theatre in the Mill on 21 November offered a series of sketches that explored theatrically some of the ideas I have written about here. If you are interested in seeing a film of the sharing, please get in touch.

My final rallying cry to all women reading my words is this: get sticky fingers, get jam in your hair, take some risks, tell some jokes, and for god’s sake: stop being so nice.

by Natalie Diddams

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