What is a cake? A cake serves no functional purpose — it is a purely aesthetic creation. It is “food” in the technical sense (many cakes are made out of actual food ingredients) but instead of nourishing the body, it nourishes the imagination. It is sweet and ephemeral and delicate, and typically heralds a special occasion.
Cakes and Gender
In Western culture, cakes are gendered creations, diabolically intertwined with popular feminine stereotypes. In a sense, cakes are women, rendered edible in effigy. They evoke the everyday comforts of hearth and the home, but they are also tokens of luxury; their sweetness, delicacy, and evanescence (as mentioned above) are all qualities traditionally associated with female beauty. Cosmetically, a cake’s decorations echo those of a “glamorous” woman — bright colors, fanciful embellishments, flowers and other motifs from nature, and sculptural or textural elements are common.
Into what are we investing all this effort and expense? An object that is momentarily appreciated as a beautiful object, and then promptly divided, devoured and discarded. It’s a ritual that a woman is encouraged to re-enact upon her own flesh, manufacturing an intoxicating appearance in hopes of providing others with moments of pleasure and diversion, and (presumably) drawing her own satisfaction from performing the role successfully.
Cakes in Film
Cinema has reinforced the gendered view of cakes. In the movies, cakes are typically made by women, presented by them, presented to them. Women pop out of them as part of striptease acts, and get married within sight of them. However, cakes are rarely eaten and enjoyed in movies the way they are in real life. Instead they are nearly always demolished — perhaps in anticipation of the audience’s repressed desire to participate vicariously in wanton acts of decadence and destruction (probably hearkening back to the Death and the Maiden motif which originated in Renaissance art). There is a correlation between a cake’s extravagance and the likelihood that it will be destroyed. See also: Carrying a Cake.
Alternately: the cake remains intact, but serves as a harbinger of chaos and human suffering — the exact opposite of its intended effect. In such cases, the cake is presented at precisely the moment when the film’s characters are, for whatever reason, unable to rise to the occasion; suddenly the cake’s apparent splendor is unable to mask the essential futility, superficiality, frivolity, or artifice of such a gesture. (In other words, the cake is a lie.) The misfiring of this celebratory expression serves as an ironic coup de grace in many tragic scenes. There is an inverse correlation between a cake’s extravagance and the likelihood that will be appreciated or even tasted by anyone (though occasionally a cake’s woefully inadequate appearance is the main source of that irony — see also, Cake Wrecks).
There are countless variations on these two uses of cake, and sometimes several occur at once. But in most cases, it’s unmistakable: either the cake itself is doomed, or else it confers doom onto others. To a person whom had never encountered a cake in real life, it would seem that they possess a strange talismanic power over humankind, one that we should perhaps consider wielding a little more carefully.
Created and curated by Tom Blunt. You may contact Tom here.