Baking and sewing were long considered good wifely attributes. At a professional, high end level, of course, they were ‘man’ jobs – chefs and tailors, rather than bakers and seamstresses. Well, that was then. Gender equality and the drive towards teaching more skills to more people mean that many men are now much handier with a spatula and a thimble than a) used to be the case and b) many women. This is a GREAT thing. (One of my longest-standing crushes was for a guy who dedicated a large amount of his spare time to amateur bakery). My brother’s quite a good cook, these days. He’s never shown an interest in sewing and he’s a dyspraxic leftie, so my mum would have had a hard time teaching him anyway, but if he’d wanted to learn, she’d have had a go. One of my male friends was terribly excited when I mentioned I might bring my sewing machine to uni. Equality = on this reading, not that far away.
HOWEVER. What with the rise in sharing sites like Pinterest and Instagram, and the growing urge among posters to professionalise their food, their style and all that jazz, the increase in food blogging (I’m a culprit) and the nostalgia of postwar Britain for DIY homemaking, I’ve noticed that something weird is beginning to happen.
A section of the media has jumped on ‘Austerity Britain’ and the revived interest in self-sufficiency. This section is using tough economic conditions, a mental turnaround to better days, monarchical fanaticism/interest, etc, etc, call it what you will, to burrow into the hearts and minds of the nation like the cordyceps fungus spores lodge in stink ants (see here for simile explanation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDtMXrAjZkY ). Examples of this include but are by no means limited to: running articles about people who have set up small businesses in lost arts of basket weaving et al; making television programmes which revolve solely around food (I love the Great British Bake Off and I can’t help it); advocating a make-your-own/grow-your-own lifestyle; picking up on fashion trends that specifically hark back to ‘English Heritage’ and/or 50s styles. You get the picture. The clouds of nostalgia have rolled over this sacred plot and the sun (of York, perhaps?) does not look like it’s going to be coming out any time soon. I mean, we had Victorians reading Shakespeare in the goddamn Olympic Opening Ceremony.
There’s something that’s kind of cute about this and there’s also something unspeakably twee. Why do people suddenly want to make, or even just to eat, cupcakes? Why are crocheting your own tablemats and knitting your own bunting for your Prince George-themed street party things that are happening? Why have we slunk back with our tails between our legs towards all the glossy bits of mid 20th century culture? What is going on here? These are big sociological questions and I’m not qualified to answer them, not least because I would be speaking on behalf of a lot of people about whom I don’t actually know a thing. But. This is the situation.
There has of course been a response to this. The war against twee won its first battle when hipsters became mainstream objects of derision (sorry, hipsters). The cupcake is next. I don’t think The Hummingbird Bakery is going to go out of business any time soon, but changing foodie fads are becoming more knowing, more niche and more unattainable. Meringues (according to The Times, the next food fad) aren’t twee. They’re posh. The rising tide of the DIY gourmets has been redirected, forming a large oxbow lake which allows all the ‘righteous’ bourgeoisie to float along unencumbered. Articles have criticised this year’s two (female) Apprentice finalists for their intended business plans. A bakery?! This is a betrayal of all the feminists have fought for! AND it’s twee! Etc.
On the one hand, tweeness and archaism abound, frequently without nuance, often (though not exclusively) celebrating some ideal of femininity and heteronormativity. On the other, the self-righteous nay-sayers who see no redeeming features at all in expressing a desire for home-made home comforts aren’t 100% guiltless, either.
The twee brigade and the anti-twee alliance have followers of all genders, sexualities, sexes and colours. Each army revels in its diversity. Rightly and fairly, and all to the good. Yet – and maybe this is just in my experience, and I’d love to be proved wrong – it seems that the people coming in for the most stick, on both sides, are invariably women, at the hands/voices/keyboards of women.
Aha! The anti-feminists cry. Further proof of the intrinsically back-stabby, bitchy nature of ALL WOMEN and thus further, further proof that we can treat them like this too.
Well, er, no.
Modern feminism – what’s beginning to be called the fourth wave – is, as far as I understand it, about respecting the (informed) choices of others, debating openly, disagreeing politely and coming to cordial conclusions. So it’s time we looked objectively at people who really enjoy being in the kitchen, and try and avoid the twin pitfalls of a) praising them for knowing their place or b) telling them off for surrendering to the patriarchy. Maybe some of them haven’t stopped to think about patriarchal oppression. Maybe they have, and they just like baking. Given that two of the last three GBBO winners have been gay men, I think it would be a bit unfair to say that all people in the kitchen fit a 50s-approved mould. Why don’t we extend the courtesy of believing this to be the case to more of the people it affects?
Similarly, we really ought not to harangue those who dare to challenge team twee and the damage that may be done by the mass commercialisation of items designed to remind women how ‘girly’ they are. There are two sides to every argument and it’s good to be reminded that you do not need to eat a cupcake with a butterfly on it in order to enjoy a cupcake. Accusing them of being kill joys, feminazis and all the other delightful insults the internet has to offer does no-one any good. It’s not you, it’s twee! They may be crying. We’re trying to help! Again, it would be excellent if we could assume that those who say this are trying to help – to help all women, and therefore, also, all men, too, because men don’t actually benefit from the subjugation of women (no, really).
It would be nice if there were less animosity on both sides. The choice of another does not invalidate your own choice, so you don’t have to get all defensive or attackety about it. Srsly. You should be able to have your cake and eat it, too. Or not, as the case may be. I like making Chelsea buns, but I can’t knit to save my life. My brother can make brownies but he can’t thread a needle. Somehow, I know who would come under more fire for opening a bakery, and I don’t think that’s right. Do you?
 I hope there’s at least one lesbian knitting society who pooled their resources to get a coach to St Paul’s for the Royal Wedding, but somehow, I doubt there are more.