From Issue 1: What is Jarry?
Text by Manuel Betancourt
Photos and Styling by Sean Dooley
“We’re baking the cake to show him that we love him.”
“Otherwise he won’t know we love him?”
It is 1949 and Laura Brown is considering suicide. She cannot fathom another day in her picture-book life. She’s been reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and that novel’s despairing tone (“It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning”) has pushed her to look at her life anew. Nevertheless, she decides to bake a cake with her son to celebrate her husband’s birthday. The cake, as Michael Cunningham writes in The Hours, is a failure: “She has failed. She wishes she didn’t mind. Something, she thinks, is wrong with her.” Just as the innocuous party haunts Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf’s novel, the failure of Laura’s homemade cake emerges as a diagnosis of her dissatisfaction with the life she has found herself inhabiting.
I’ve read Cunningham’s novel many times and I’m always drawn to this scene, specifically to Laura’s son Richie and his pleasure in baking. When asked whether he wants to help, he nods with “guileless, unguarded enthusiasm.” In the film adaptation we get a lot of close-ups of Julianne Moore’s flitting eyes and fidgety hands that signal Laura’s predicament, but perhaps more importantly, we get a sustained focus on the baking itself. Stephen Daldry’s camera guides us as Laura sets out the flour, the bowl, the sifter, and then offers us a close-up of Richie where we see the look of blissful enjoyment as he sifts the flour. “Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you think it looks like snow?” her mother asks him. He is much too enthralled to answer her. Both mother and son hope to bake a cake as “glossy and resplendent as any photograph in any magazine,” a familiar feeling for any of us who have ever attempted such an endeavor.
Cake is the showiest of all baked goods. Pie is home and cookies are comfort but cake is, as Marie Antoinette would remind us, opulence itself. Laura worries her cake is too amateurish (“It’s a fine cake,” she begrudgingly admits). She hoped it would look more “lush and beautiful, more wonderful.” Cakes—for birthdays, for anniversaries, for weddings—exist, sometimes almost exclusively, for show. It’s not surprising then, that in the early twentieth century effeminate men were referred to as “cake eaters.” The American term, a close kin of the "dandy" across the pond, was probably best described in a poem published in The Mutual Magazine in July 1921, which claims that these cake eaters, these “dolled up he-vamps,” are “trying hard to attain feminine ways.” “Girls of today think these cake eaters grand,” the poem ends, “But they should do as their Mothers did” and “marry a man.” The poem has a decidedly anti-feminist bent, but it’s hard not to see “cake eater” as shorthand for those indulging in that “love that dare not speak its name.” It’s fitting, then, that curious, eager, sensitive Richie grows up to be a gay poet, one whose lone afternoon baking a cake with mother ends up both crippling and defining him.
In a year when rainbow cakes go viral and same-sex wedding-cake toppers stand in for heated political conversations, I always return to Richie. In him I see the seemingly contradictory age-old discourses that riddle the contemporary LGBT movement. As a momma’s boy who’s prone to tears, who finds himself forever loving and hating the mother that abandoned him, Richie is a textbook case of the sissy. His joy in taking part in his mother’s domestic world reeks of stereotypes. To embrace domesticity as a gay man is to dredge up decades’ worth of punch lines and schoolyard threats while, at the same time, force us to radically rethink a culture that still sees the home kitchen as a feminine space. Cake, in the context of gay marriage—devoid of irony, a sincere symbol of progress—ends up feeling like both a conservative throwback and a hopeful utopia.
Cake, in the context of gay marriage—devoid of irony, a sincere symbol of progress—ends up feeling like both a conservative throwback and a hopeful utopia.
There’s transgression and parochialism in baking a cake, and Richie understands this. When asked to pour some flour, he thinks of the cup he’s carrying as “the recently unearthed head of Rilke’s Apollo.” By evoking Rilke’s poetic tribute to the “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—a torso “suffused with brilliance from inside,” the “curved breast” of which dazzles while a smile runs “through the placid hips and thighs/to that dark center where procreation flared”—Cunningham’s prose cannot help but imbue this domestic scene with a hint of the sensual. Even as a child, Richie has homoerotic thoughts while engaging in an “effeminate” activity. To bake a cake is a call to gift Apollo with his long-lost head; the better for Richie to kiss it? Rilke’s poem lingers on the Greek god’s torso and works as a reminder that soulful, sensitive boys lust after the “placid hips and thighs” of young men, and are drawn to “that dark center where procreation flared.” In this sense Apollo’s torso demands your attention, but one wonders why Rilke, so focused on his breasts, hips, and thighs, gives no mention to what’s…behind. Perhaps it is because masculinity cannot encourage such lascivious looks, especially not those directed at their rears. And yet, that is precisely what gay men find themselves craving. Merely in passing we’re told of Richard’s “indefatigable worship” of his ex-boyfriend’s ass.
Here is where we’re brought right back to the issue of cake. With the near-ubiquity of the slang usage of “cakes” as shorthand to talk about buttocks (Rihanna perhaps puts it best when she sings that it’s not even her birthday, “but he wanna lick the icing off”) to talk about cakes is necessarily to invoke a sexual proclivity that homosexuality has long had a hold on. With Richie’s penchant for cakes, it was only a matter of time before he’d want to bite a piece for his own. And there lies my affection for that baking scene: it prefigures Richie’s gayness both in his domesticity and effeminacy while suggesting the throes of sexual desire that later define him as a gay man.
Cake eater. Almost a century later, we may have just arrived at a point in time where that swinging 1920s moniker has twisted itself so far out into metaphor that it has come back all the way back around to embrace its very literal definition. My mouth waters at the thought; all I want now is a slice. ///