Something I have been thinking about for a while is this whole cutiepie bunting-cupcake-vintage business. In my city there has been a veritable explosion of tiny cafes with interesting decor who sell all sorts of elaborate cakes, vintage shops, vintage-look shops, craft markets and swing dancing club night type events which require extravagant costumes and make-up. Along with these came the cupcake decorating courses taking place in said shops, the cupcake tastings at the markets, and the hairdresser creating vintage-looking hairstyles. And now there’s even a centrally located new branch of the WI for women in their mid-twenties.
This cutesy-revival is probably due in part to the popularity of the well-known London Hummingbird Bakery and Primrose Bakery and the appeal of women like Nigella Lawson and Kirstie Allsopp who with their wholesome charm entice women to focus more on the domestic arts like baking and home decorating .
Now, I like cupcakes and pretty clothes just as much as the next person! It’s very satisfying to bake a perfect cake and decorate it. (Well, I imagine it would be…) But I’m really uncomfortable with how seriously some of my friends take all of this. They seem to be permanently on the hunt for the next vintage treasure, striving to achieve the perfect Joan-from-Mad Men-look. When they are not travelling around the county in order to peruse the latest vintage fair, they are perfecting their make-up application skills or hunting down the best cakes in town. And they’re either in very good careers or doing postgraduate research.
So it all made me wonder about Third Wave Feminism/ Post-Feminism and the whole empowerment issue. To explain briefly, using a very simplistic example: some women don’t like high heels because they cause foot and back problems, cause physical discomfort and, at worst, make it difficult for women to run away in threatening situations. Other women argue that high heels make certain outfits look better, make them feel more sexy, and, after all, if they choose to wear them, they are not oppressed by patriarchal views of feminine beauty, but rather empowered. I don’t agree with this because when you have been conditioned for all of your life to go along with a specific idea of what makes a woman beautiful, it is not really a choice. So some women might not realise, but the reason why they feel more appealing while wearing high heels is because society tells them they are: TV, pornography, competition among friends – it is hard to go against the grain because you’d be the odd one out. It means that women are so busy trying to keep up with the latest fashion crazes that they have no time to sit down and think what would actually feel good for them.
Similarly, I would argue that all of the vintage-hoohah going on at the moment serves to keep women in their place. All of these women in their mid-twenties who are the target demographic for the events and services mentioned above are essentially practising being a 1950s housewife. Because the 50s, with their hourglass figure, perfect makeup and lovely dinner parties, are fashionable. But what about the lives of 1950s housewives was so worth aspiring to? According to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room not a whole lot! The novel follows a central female character in her friendships with different women and mothers who eventually comes to the conclusion that marriage holds far more advantages for men than it does for women. The plot unfolds against a backdrop of neighbourly social events and domestic violence, and paints a scene of absolute misery endured by women behind a front of immaculate dresses and exquisite cooking and husband-pleasing skills. The book ends with the liberation of some of its characters through the advent of feminism.
So why would we glorify an era which was really not very kind to women? Do women now engage in this meaningless hamster wheel of appearances because they subconsciously want to reassure men that even though they are highly educated and determined, they are really just desperate to please them and make a nice home so they are no threat to masculine hegemony? They might be highly educated and enjoy their interesting jobs, but they could drop it all at a moment’s notice in order to raise a family because they have been practising? Isn’t this a step backwards? Women have fought to enable us to live a different life. Surely one of the points Mad Men is trying to make is how ridiculously racist, homophobic and misogynistic the male-dominated world of the 50s and 60s was. So why would you try to become like the women who were degraded by their husbands and marginalised by society?
One could say that perfecting the skills of a 50s housewife in the 21st century is a way of showing sympathy for their plight, perhaps it is playing with perceptions of womanliness. But this would only be the case if people baked cupcakes and enthused over pencil skirts in an ironic way. And they don’t. Choosing to spend your time and effort on clothes shopping and home making, carefully crafting an image, is empowering because you know you could change the world instead by choosing to portray yourself as a different, more rebellious, kind of woman? I don’t think so.
Consumerism means that many women will strive to excel at what is portrayed as aspirational. There must always be a reason to make people buy more stuff and not worry too much about politics. If you’re into the second half of your twenties or beyond, you might want something more classy than a mini skirt and snake-print platforms (or, like mine, your thighs might think that their circumference has to correspond to the number on your birthday card). So in order not to feel inadequate in your femininity, you have to devise a look and spend time compiling props. You have to make sure you understand the reason for the appeal of red velvet cupcakes, otherwise you’re not a proper woman.
But while being a dedicated follower of fashion is entertaining if a bit pointless in the grand scheme of life, the universe and pay gaps, idealising the lifestyle of an era so oppressive towards women is a slap in the face of feminism. And don’t even get me started on burlesque!