No more cupcakes! A call to action on International Women’s Day

Image: We Are Union Women

Is a half-hour sugarfest of self-congratulation any way to mark International Women’s Day? Familiar to many women — especially if they have ever worked in an office of any kind — is the IWD breakfast/brunch/morning tea/”light lunch”/afternoon tea phenomenon. The day is apparently not serious enough to warrant eating after 4 p.m. Indeed, we have yet to be invited to an IWD dinner, an IWD whiskey tasting, or an IWD midnight snack.

What is clear in the standard attempts of workplaces to “celebrate” IWD is that women = frivolity. Rather than using the occasion to address the pay gap, sexual harassment, domestic violence leave provisions, misogyny, or pervasive “boys club” practices of exclusion and discrimination, women are offered a pile of cupcakes (best served with a side of condescension from their resident “male champion of change”).

The penchant of employers to trivialise IWD has not gone unnoticed. This year in Australia, Union Women ran a very catchy campaign for their Women’s Rights at Work festival, taking aim at IWD cupcake culture with taglines like: “A morning-tea for IWD? Think bigger” and “Cupcakes will not smash the patriarchy.”

But why cupcakes? Why not a giant flan, or some nice chocolate biscuits? Or, really, any other sweet baked good that doesn’t scream infantilized hyper-femininity? Oh, wait. There it is.

That the cupcake menace has infiltrated IWD is no accident. In saying this, we don’t mean it involves some intentional, international conspiracy of bro-bakers but that — like all food — cupcakes carry cultural symbolism. And, in this case, there is important signalling around appropriate femininity, especially as it operates under neoliberal capitalism.

Being well-practiced feminist killjoys, we are accustomed to accusations of “reading too much into things” and the eye-rolling that frequently follows critiques of the symbolism of the cupcake. But as Matt Seaton so eloquently puts it in The Guardian:

“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-trivializing sort of hyper-femininity.”

To be clear, you can enjoy baking cupcakes, or eating them (full disclosure: the authors have been known to eat a cupcake or four), and still consider the tyranny of the IWD cupcake critically.

Intimately tied up with the fetishization of domesticity and the aesthetic of white, middle-class American, post-war housewifery, the cupcake has been reframed by some as an attempt to reclaim a femininity associated with petite prettiness and subservience. Cupcakes become an edible symbol of the hedonistic (but not too hedonistic, remember, because they are tiny) “domestic goddess,” supposedly a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of feminine-mystique-chic. But irony or no irony, cupcakes remain an aestheticized, feminized, children’s treat — wrapped in pleated paper and adorned with pastel frosting, with just a sprinkle of guilt.

Dodai Stewert explains:

“Cupcakes are small, and small is cute, and women are supposed to be cute. Non-threatening. Not taking up too much space. Cupcakes say I splurge! But only a little. Just the adorable and acceptable amount.

Rather than bringing women back to a time of sweet nostalgia, many are left with a lingering aftertaste that they are only entitled to tiny, bite-sized treats lest their jeans start to tighten.

Cupcakes are also a convenient way to promote individualist consumer sentiments that are the antithesis of collective action. They are a treat to be indulged in alone. While a nice big bundt can be shared in sisterhood, the solitary cupcake is the epitome of contemporary “me culture” and an empty liberal feminism where women’s decontextualized individual choices are emphasized over everything else.

“Cupcake feminism” has gained traction precisely because it is a way to minimize and ignore the more serious structural issues that a social movement for the liberation of all women sets out to address. Indeed, “mainstream society only finds cupcake feminism more palatable because it can lick off the icing and toss the rest.” It is, therefore, no surprise that wheeling out cupcakes on IWD appeals to businesses. It fits perfectly with corporate attempts to adopt a sort of feminism-lite.

But these pretty parcels selling individualism, feminized consumption, and style over substance could not be further from the origins of IWD.

The early IWD events around the turn of the 20th century, with foundations in women’s socialist and labour movements, often used strike action to call for equal pay and an end to discrimination against working women — demands that are still echoed today. It could not be more appropriate to continue to use the 8th of March as an international day of action against women’s inequality and men’s violence, especially against the ways these manifest in and around work and employment.

So this IWD, let’s ditch the light and fluffy and go for something more substantial. The miniature morsels of archaic femininity can be left to go as stale as the ideology they reinforce.

Dr. Natalie Jovanovski is a postdoctoral research fellow from Melbourne, Australia. Her research interests include food culture, women’s rights and feminist theory and activism.

Dr. Meagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism. Follow her @DrMeaganTyler.

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