Friday, April 11, 2014

On Cupcake Fascism & Class War

The only cupcakes I've ever eaten were stolen. They were stolen, they were sticky and they were sweet. That's the first thing Tom Whyman gets wrong in What is Cupcake Fascism?; cupcakes are all style and little substance, but over half that substance is buttercream. They are neither dry, nor wholesome, no lacking in goo, but rich, sickly sweet and impossible to consume without getting one's fingers sticky. Unless you can open your mouth really, really wide. This is both metaphor and truth.

Meanwhile, in another piece on class, The Working Classes Don't Want To Be Hard-Working Families, Selina Todd writes,
"Sit my extended family around a table and you'd have white- and blue-collar workers, the sick, the old, people in council housing, and families with two cars and a nice house but large debts to pay for them. This is replicated all over Britain. There is no static "underclass" and neither is there a robust middle class: instead, there are a lot of people who have to work for a living and, because of that fact, choose to identify as working class."
This a world I recognise. It's hard for left-wing commentators to admit this, because it's much harder to get to grips with than a binary world of gin-swilling middle classes versus the pasty-munching working people, but we're pretty much mixed in. The one massive flaw in Grayson Perry's truly excellent 2012 series on social class and aesthetic taste (do watch it if you didn't) is the tremendous leap between the working and supposedly middle class folk he spoke to - a gap which could be represented by years of education, multiples of annual income, several degrees latitude and in fact, most of the UK's population.

And you know the thing that makes this stuff even harder? We're mixed in but not at all blended. Class still exists and it still matters. There is rising wealth inequality. The possibility of home-ownership is more or less hereditary now. We're being governed by toffs who were born into wealth and use their positions as public servants to generate more for themselves and their friends.

That's why Tom Whyman wants to call middle class culture fascist and takes aim at the unmissable target of nostalgic twee. I get class hatred. I was part of the Assisted Places Scheme. Being a precocious child who asked such questions, my mother informed me we were, "Lower-middle-class, fallen on hard times."

The mothers at school intimidated mine, so I observed their vulgarities. In those days, posh women wore Alice bands ("Grown women, wearing Alice bands!" my teenage self would sneer). They had handbags with thick gold-coloured chain instead of a strap. They often wore necklaces, generally pearls, outside their blouse collars or polo-necks - jewellery outside their clothing, for crying out loud! They wore a lot of make-up, some of them had had cosmetic surgery and they drove the first family-friendly 4x4s, the ridicule of which was clear to me, years before anyone called them Chelsea Tractors. These women seemed like characterless china dolls next to my wild-haired Mum, who dressed sensibly and practically and cycled everywhere.

Whyman isn't moving far beyond my teenage self as he sneers at modern middle-class hipster aesthetics. I don't entirely object to the sneering (although I do play ukulele). The tea parties, Liberty prints and shelfies of middle-class culture are routinely privileged as clever and tasteful, while the clubs, leopard prints and magazine racks of working people are not. The Guardian publishes dazzlingly sycophantic pieces like this about a very wealthy young woman using her wealth to get wealthier like that's somehow a worthy and interesting creative exercise.

I really enjoy The Great British Sewing Bee, The Great British Bake Off and BBC Three's Hair, which was barely spoken about but applied exactly the same format to amateur hairdressing (three challenges over two days each episode, the second day dedicated to something fancy). I like this format - I like to see ordinary folk showing off what they can do. I'd like to see a woodwork version next, please.

Despite the identical format, Hair was punctuated with random pop music and presented by Steve Jones, a sort of Welsh Father Dougal who asked what a quiff was, despite having a rather impressive example directly above his frowning forehead. Hair was not the subject of newspaper review, speculation about who deserved to win or any declaration that hair-dressing was the new black. Sewing and baking are fairly classless activities (although wealthier folk often have more time to muck about with more expensive materials, without needing a practical purpose or special occasion), but apparently, hairdressing - at least as skillful, creative and useful as baking or sewing - just can't be packaged as gentle and genteel.

Thus, as I say, I don't entirely object to the sneering. Sewing Bee played Doris Day to introduce an anorak.

But this sneering is always aimed at feminine aesthetics. It is the mob baying for Marie Antoinette; demands to strangle the thirty-five year old in bobby-socks and fairy-wings with her own designer bunting. Another crack in Whyman's argument is that, of course, feminine fashions (which is what cupcakes are) are very often infantile. At once point it was impossible to buy an adult woman's jersey nightdress without a big teddy on the front and a slogan about snuggle-time or feeling sleepy-woo. In the 1970s, a lot of women seemed to dress like Little Bo Peep.

And then Whyman gets it completely wrong about the 2011 London Riots. Yes, they were kicked off by the police killing of Mark Duggan, along with austerity measures that place the overwhelming burden on the poor and the young - it wasn't a random occurrence. But the riots were a nightmare for many ordinary people in London, especially poor, vulnerable, disabled and older people. Attempting to clear up and make things better was not about passive-aggressively asserting middle class values, but trying to put things right, tidying up one's own backyard after the storm, taking care of one's neighbours. People who want peace on the streets are not automatic supporters of the regime.

Meanwhile, what those rioters did? The young poor (and a fair number who weren't so poor and weren't so young) were exploiting a situation of over-stretched resources to their material advantage. Rather like, you know, our senior politicians. Except, of course, the kids got punished.

A busty 18th century lady with a ship on her head,
admiring a rather large cupcake.
Marie Antoinette once had her hair done up with a silly great ship in it (a look, incidentally recreated on BBC Three's Hair). She never did tell anyone to eat cake, but she lost her head for looking like a ridiculous hedonist at a time of national hardship and frustration. She never had an significant power. Nautical hairstyles were not the reasons for poverty and oppression in pre-revolutionary France.

There are political attitudes in our country, many class-based, which are causing us big problems; the belief that a person's value is measured by their wealth, and that wealth-creation is the highest possible virtue. The very middle-class belief that charity, rather than welfare, is a sensible way of providing for people in financial difficulty (it feels so good to help out). The belief that poor people are lazy, feckless and dangerous. Whatever belief you'd like to attribute to the fact that youngsters received custodial sentences for petty theft during the 2011 Riots, while Maria Miller stole £5800 and didn't even get the sack.

The cupcakes I had, even with the elicit thrill of having stolen them, weren't that special. My Granny, baker and cake-decorator extraordinaire was scandalised when my cousin had cupcakes instead of wedding cake ("They're mostly just buttercream!"). So we're agreed, I feel, that people should eat more substantial and flavoursome baked goods.

But twee is background; stage dressing. It is an aesthetic, not divorced from our social and political problems, certainly not immune from critique, but not to targeted in place of the widening wealth gap, increasing poverty, deteriorating working conditions and political disenchantment.

Plus it's hard to believe someone who uses the phrase Cupcake Fascism can really mean it when they conclude, "you are just not thinking about the matter dialetically enough."

Also, how can you possibly illustrate an article with the phrase Cupcake Fascism with anything but a cupcake with a swastika on it?  I found some on a site promoting the swastika as a positive symbol we should reclaim from Nazism. But someone could have at least drawn one.

Oh and if you're interested/ bored enough to get down this far, you might like Is 'cupcake feminism' all empty calories? from 2012, which discusses some of these topics from a different angle.


Lisa said...

My taste in food is apparently the only thing about me that's a bit middle class. In every other way, I'm pure working class (well, as a benefit scrounger I'm more "underclas" than "working class", but my breeding is pure worker).

It's fascinating how the things we eat are such signifiers of class. We all need to eat, and we all poop it out. From silly Buzzfeed-esque quizzes (yes, there's guacamole in my fridge, and I know how to pronounce "quinoa"), through to cupcake articles, to just conversations about houmous; the broad consensus is that I have a very middle class diet.

Some of it's impairment related (it takes less time standing in the kitchen to dip some pitta into some houmous than it does to make Yorkshire puddings from scratch), impairment + medical (the first lactose-free ready meal I found contained quinoa. First time I'd eaten it), ethics (no, I don't want to eat dead animals), cost (it's cheaper to eat vegetables that you grew), and taste (I don't like greasy crap. It always feels like it's going to slide straight back up).

The Goldfish said...

I'm equally fascinated, and for me, I really do have a mix of signifiers - some quite extreme. For example, I did go to public school (huge privilege), but I have just 3 GCSEs to my name, I've never had a proper job and I've always been on benefits.

Over the course of my lifetime, my family really had moved up the ladder. My Dad got a degree in his forties and since he turned 50, he's earned a very good wage. That's really changed the way my folks think and place themselves - they have developed curious snobberies about some things, even though their weekend treat is a trip round Wilkinsons.

Food and class is a fascinating subject because people tend to judge it from where they sit and what they eat. So middle class folk will tell you that working class people live on fast food or simply high-fat fare. And working class folk will identify "posh food" as anything they don't eat.

I've often heard that only middle class people are vegetarians, but in my experience, that's nonsense. For one thing, meat is relatively expensive. But for another, people have all kinds of ethical and religious positions across socio-economic status.

keth said...

Agree about the format of the GBBO and GBSB. Woodwork would be good, although I'd like to see a range of crafts being explored. maybe knitting/crochet, since we've had sewing. However, good news: next week is same thing, but allotments (quite how they're going to do the challenge thing, I don't know), and Monty Don is doing a crafty thing where people are introduced to a new craft over a weekend on More4 on Monday, at 9pm I think. that's not a challenge in the format of GBBO and GBSB but I think it would be interesting to watch, nonetheless (and Monty is so gentle. I mean.. you can't kick Monty. Its like kicking a cute cat. just.. NO!). :D

Matthew Smith said...

Something I really despise is the equation of junk food with working-class food. When I was growing up, we ate quite a varied diet and my mother's idea of something "quick and easy" was a casserole that she could leave cooking all day or put on the timer -- the only "convenience" aspect was the powder she bought from the supermarket. On Saturday we had burgers and, later, pizza from a box, but again that was cooked indoors. At that time we had one major income although my mother worked part-time. I didn't like everything my mother cooked, but it was certainly not junk (and later on I'd have preferred to eat my mother's less appetising dishes with my family than some of the "exciting" food the school cook cooked around a table with a bunch of my enemies). I only ate fast food in a restaurant once or twice as a child (at Wimpy) and had KFC for the first time when in sixth form -- I still like fried chicken and chips now and then, but can't stand McDonalds (it stinks, apart from anything else). When I need cheap, ready food, my first choice is biryani, and I've learned where I can get it cheap (there is a lot of expensive, mediocre biryani about).

Any time I hear someone call someone else a snob, I immediately detect a bully who wants to drag everyone down and enforce a conformity of mediocrity. It was a favourite taunt at most of the schools I went to, aimed at boys (usually) who spoke well and didn't tag along with every trend. In the adult world, it's the taunt of those who produce or consume mass-produced junk, whether it's food, entertainment or reading matter or anything else, and don't like anyone getting "above themselves" (i.e. above them).

The Goldfish said...

Keth - only trouble with knitting is, it takes so long! However, so does gardening, so I'm sure something is possible. I hadn't heard about the Monty Don programme so will definitely check that out, thank you!

Matthew - Agreed about food. I distinctly remember my disillusionment at my first ever trip to MacDonalds with my grandparents - I'd been completely sold the idea that I, as a child, should find this experience fantastic. But no. Not nice. Plus, it is relatively still expensive compared to basic home-cooking.

I largely agree with you about the word "snob". Everyone at my high school was inevitably labelled "snob" by other kids, interests that others find baffling or inaccessible are labelled snobby and only recently I saw the argument that the reasons feminists object to catcalling and sexual harassment in the street is that they're all precious middle class ladies and they're alarmed that working class people would find them attractive!

However, I've also met a tremendous amount of snobbery in my life. People who dismiss things, people, places as "chavvy" or "scummy" when the mean there's an association with people less well off than them. Folks who complain about a shortage of funds but baulk at the possibility of a cheaper supermarket because it'd mean rubbing shoulders with the lower orders.

Yet I suppose I would describe this as snobbery, rather just dismissing folks as "snobs" - very often, much like any prejudice, it is extremely selective.