Digital cakes play a pivotal role in the American South, where systemic oppression continues to push women into unsafe and compromised situations. In the spring of 2019, after a slew of states passed “Fetal Heartbeat” bills banning abortions after six-weeks, women took to social media to protest the new laws. Austin, Texas–based Becca Rea-Tucker, who goes by the handle @thesweetfeminist on Instagram (where she has 245k followers), expressed her thoughts in layers of cake, buttercream, and sprinkles. One cake reads “abortion isn’t a bad word” piped in purple cursive frosting. Another says “ABORTION IS HEALTHCARE” in pink bordered by a circle of matching pink piped buttercream peaks and multicolored nonpareils. As the bans continued and new laws passed in Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Alabama, so did the online protests. Reflecting the growing seriousness of the restrictive legislation, Rea-Tucker’s cakes became less decorated and more to the point. One post shows a plainly frosted white cake with purple frosting letters: “you don’t have to justify your abortion to anyone.” Another cake, with a frantic swirl of pink and blue frosting, reads, “RAGE IS A RATIONAL REACTION.” That rage, however, was not limited to the people who opposed the abortion bans. Rea-Tucker, who has a cookbook coming out in the fall, received criticism, and even death threats, about using her feed and cakes as a political platform. Her response to the pushback was yet another cake decorated with multicolored sprinkles and buttercream cursive which read, “it’s not ‘just a cake.’”4
Over in Athens, Georgia, self-styled “hobby baker” Trinity Andrew (@trinityskitchen) uses her baked goods to speak about social justice issues from police violence to affordable housing and Indigenous land rights. On July 4, 2021, Andrew posted a cake featuring a delicate star-piped border with a scenic pastel mountain view applied in a newer frosting style Instagram bakers call buttercream painting. The method uses small offset spatulas, also known as palette knives, borrowed from oil painter’s toolkits). Above the pale purple mountains majesty is the simple phrase “LAND BACK” in black frosting. In Richmond, Virginia, Arley Arrington, who goes by @arley.cakes on Instagram, includes both the words “baker” and “rebel” in her bio. Arrington uses her baking to speak on a number of issues, but the majority of her cakes focus on the systemic racism experienced by Black Americans. Her most recent post is a sheet cake styled in the design of Kristen Green’s recently published The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail. The book, and Arrington’s cake, centers on Mary Lumpkin, a formerly enslaved woman who was raped by her enslaver. She later transformed a jail that held enslaved Black people into an HBCU. Arrington painted Lumpkin’s silhouette with black-tinted frosting to match the book cover. Arrington’s cake book cover conveys the power of buttercream.
While digital realms present new and exciting opportunities for women to gain agency, financial independence, and empowerment, they also present numerous obstacles that ultimately contribute to women’s systemic and systematic disenfranchisement. The digital world offers flexible employment for mothers who must navigate difficult childcare schedules. More recently, professional women bakers and pastry chefs laid off and furloughed during the global pandemic turned to social media to showcase and monetize their skills through bake sales and pop-up cake sales. Building a business on a rapidly changing and fickle digital platform takes significant time, effort, and virtual expertise. Knowing that these obstacles exist, why would women want to digitize their domestic expertise? What is there to gain? And what is the impact of using this expertise in “radical” resistant ways? Thinking about how Instagram is both part and influencer of American life, feminist literary scholar Jane Marcus suggests that women’s culture adheres to an aesthetic that does not wish to compete, is anti-hierarchical, anti-theoretical, not aggressively exclusionary. A real woman’s poetics is a poetics of commitment, not a poetics of abandonment. Above all, it does not separate art from work and daily life.5
The “women’s culture” Marcus describes centers on products that are used or consumed and occupy space temporarily due to their perishable nature. To be clear, this interpretation does not devalue women’s contributions; rather, it underlines the importance of celebrating the domestic and the everyday, the “food that is eaten,” the “cloth that is worn,” and the “houses that are dirtied.” Romines uses Marcus’s claim that “culture consists in passing on the technique of its making” to explain how culture “consists in recipes.” But what if that recipe does not follow traditional cookbook methods, but instructs the user in techniques for resisting oppression?6