©2019 RACKS TO RICHES. 

Twerksgiving: Disembodiment, Intent, and Turkey Cake

November 21, 2018

 

offensive

of·​fen·​sive | \ə-ˈfen(t)-siv,  especially for sense 1 ˈä-ˌfen(t)-, ˈȯ-  \

giving painful or unpleasant sensations

causing displeasure or resentment[1]

 

 

Let’s start with a given: art is provocative, art is subjective, and almost any creative project can (and will be) read as offensive to at least someone.  But, as I hope we can agree, that something offends isn’t a reason to dismiss it creatively.  For one, the threshold of offense is a fairly low one.  If being considered offensive was enough to remove anything from the public realm, we would have no art, politics, literature, or conversation. For another, “being offensive” serves an important purpose; offending jolts the mind, suspends certainty, and teases power.  Many an artist has been locked up, exiled, or worse, for offending the wrong autocrat at the wrong time; with political and social consequences that reverberated for centuries.

 

Let’s agree on another thing: that a cake, shaped as a turkey, then adorned with a bright pink G-string and placed on a bed of money is not an inherently offensive creation designed specifically to cause only harm. 

 

So, if it’s not offensive, horrible, and unequivocally wrong, why are we still talking about it?

 

  1. To emphasize the importance of context and intent when analyzing texts and images.

  2. To think about why an image might be offensive to some of us, funny to others, and why both might be (somewhat) right.

  3. And how we might talk about content constructively when we difference in opinion on images created by/for/with/against/because/making fun of strippers.

 

 

Not About Offensive: Why This Is/n’t About Cake

 

 

 

 

Let’s be honest; when I saw this thing, it gave me an icky feeling.

 

But analyzing why something makes us feel a certain way isn’t just yelling “YOU GAVE ME AN ICKY FEELING I DIDN’T LIKE” into the ether. That wouldn’t be helpful, and if it really was that big of a deal to me you’d probably have to wonder what the cake ever did to deserve it.

 

So this is, and isn’t, about a cake.

 

It is about the cake in that we’re about to break down why an object/artistic creation can have a particular set of implications, and why it’s important to explore those implications and think about them critically while we go through our experience of social/online/in-person life.  The cake is our example.

 

It isn’t about the cake in that this analysis, this way of processing through an experience or a text or an argument, can be useful in plenty of other, non-pastry-based contexts.   I don’t want to give you eleven pages of feelings about cake.  I want to offer you a set of tools you can use when you approach a representation of dancing outside of the context of a strip club or a sex work community. 

 

Let’s start with the role of critical analysis in all of this.

 

Analysis is where we draw out nuance, separate emotion from the rational (or irrational) argument that backs any particular feeling, and go back to evaluate whether a piece of art, a chapter of a book, or a conversation we had with a friend could be understood and taken in from a different light.  It also means breaking down a large problem into pieces that we can solve piece by piece, and the using clear and concise logic to understand the why, the what, the how, and the what-next.

 

It’s combing through the context and intent of a piece to think about who it serves and what it serves, and whether what it makes you feel is tied to anything substantive. The word “critical” here just means inquisitive, thoughtful, engaged.  Not critical as in lobbing criticism, critical as in examining our own preconceived notions as much as we can.  That is the point of this article.

 

Analyzing an Image: The Limits of Language

 

“Art is not only a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does. It might be said that its use as a form of action is dependent upon the numbers which it effects. ... Needless to say this sort of measure will lead one to the most absurd conclusions. ... How far a single impulse can extend in its effect is unpredictable. One minute stimulus can be more far-reaching, can affect the course of society more significantly in a single minute than a thousand other stimuli - whose effect is more obvious - might over a hundred years."

Mark Rothko[2]

 

 

Mark Rothko

No. 5/No. 22

1950 (dated on reverse 1949)

 

 

Art is communication. But by (almost always) existing beyond language and evading objective descriptions, art invites interpretation.   And the process of interpreting often feeds into the urge to reduce images down to simple verbal descriptions; ones that almost always serve the interpreter. 

 

So, in interpreting art we are always reducing it to something understandable and communicable; rendering into a text of sorts.  And like with any text, our own assumptions and beliefs affect how we read it. I know that got heady, but let’s bring this down to a simple example:

 

Let’s say you read a book about the experience of a stripper traveling the country.  The book has great elements: she makes a lot of money, has a lot of fun, lives the great American Dream, etc.  But she also has her struggles.  She’s conflicted; she abuses substances, has a manipulative boyfriend, and never goes back to hair school. 

 

Her experience is her experience.  The words on the page are the words on the page.  But what a conservative, anti-sex-work Republican male reads, understands, and implies from this narrative will be drastically different from what a socially liberal queer sex worker is going to get out of the same exact text. 

 

This is true about a book; a text with a set of words that have a set meaning (for example, the dictionary definition of “offensive” is rarely up for debate, and you probably took what it meant for granted at the top of this article as soon as you saw it came from Merriam Webster - the dictionary is that authoritative over meaning). 

 

The book has a single narrative.  A single text. And yet, these two different people will reach very different conclusions. 

 

Why is this?  In part, because they’re incapable of reading the text through any experience but their own.  Context and background is everything when it comes to interpretation; without it, we’d all live the same colorless existence with the same boring understandings of all the same things.  So, this whole experience thing isn’t ultimately so bad—but it does make drawing a uniform meaning out of anything pretty hard, if not impossible.[3]

 

So when two people interpret one thing in two ways, what other elements can we rely on to give us context?  For one, the cultural backdrop of the text.[4]  Why it might have been written this way, the history and social world that informed both the text and it’s author, these all provide us with useful clues. 

 

Much like a text, an image without context of its creation, creator, and purpose is sort of like looking through one lens at a massive sports event.

Will you get a lot out of it? Yes.

 Can you invite and encourage more clarity by adding context? Yes.

 

So when I look this cake, I’m seeing the image itself, but also thinking about:

  1. The context and historical backdrop it was created in,

  2. The creator, their possible intent, and who an image like this ultimately benefits, and,

  3. Why two people with at least some similar experiences might see this image in very different lights.

 

The Image & The Context

 

The ass of a woman with legs cut off to the bone, resembling a turkey on a platter.  To drive in the resemblance to a stripper, the ass is in a thong and there’s money tucked into it and as a garnish.  Not hard to see why the disembodiment of women in entertainment and the public sphere that encourages viewing them as literally “meat” “a fresh body” or “a hot piece of ass” is the first thing that comes to mind.   

 

Not my favorite, but not my first time seeing or experiencing this either. Here are some earlier, and quite prominent examples of this premise.  On an Instagram feed, it pops up on a feed about cakes.  It’s literally alone in in its, and billed as a novelty item you can’t get anywhere else. 

 

But even the most cursory reading of depictions of women would place this image within a long and drawn out project of separating women from their bodies in often troubling and highly sexualized ways. Here are a few ads dating back to 1978 that make the same supposedly one-of-a-kind joke.

 

In keeping with the theme of fresh meat, the ad on the right from Hustler Magazine also features a severed, edible woman:

 

 

 Playboy Cover, December 2013 (Left)

Hustler Cover, June 1978 (Right)

 

 

Some sex workers may be offended by the depiction on the cake (and many were). Others might be indifferent, and others might have found it funny or outright clever.  But again, this isn’t about how it made any individual feel.  It’s about connecting this isolated image to the context that informed it.  Because art, literature, and even cake making doesn’t happen in a vacuum; and if the whole point of creating something was for it to be “cheeky[5]” then it should be fair game for us to think about where and when the idea of a cut up woman became fun and unique.

 

It’s nothing more than asking for more than a gut reaction to the image- not just did it make us angry, happy, frustrated, or amused.  To push for a bit of context.  To imagine what backdrop this cut-up woman was created within.

 

Because, by the way, the trope of the disembodied woman is nothing new.  It has a long history replete with glossy magazine covers, Hollywood movies, television appearances of dismembered and maimed female bodies, and of course, the work of abusers and harassers that are groomed to imagine women as empty and lifeless sexual bodies without agency.

 

 

 

A series of 80’s movie covers depicting female body parts, faceless, split up and presented to male voyeurs

Found on headlesswomenofhollywood.com

 

 “The consistent fragmentation of women’s bodies, with particular focus on the boobs, butt and lips, separates the sexualized female body parts from her wholeness. Thus, as fragmented parts, the viewer does not have to morally reconcile the woman who is being objectified with her complete humanness…By decapitating the woman, or fragmenting her body into decontextualized sexual parts, she becomes an unquestionably passive object to the male gaze.”[6]

 

And here we hit another fork in the road- because the more we compare this image to others, the easier it is to get completely caught up in the context and forget the content.  And this is the other side of the coin.  This is when a viewer may shut off from engagement, and immediately dismiss this image as 100% of the same old objectification from the 80’s and declare that it has no value, can’t be redeemed, and ought to be taken quite seriously indeed. 

 

Some of this may be true; but often this monolithic response just ends up splitting the conversation in two.  One side sees the image through this historical lens.  The other refuses to acknowledge the historical backdrop at all. No compromise, no conversation.  But in analyzing the image we can’t forget that it’s just that.  It’s not standing in for one or the other of those opinions and beliefs.

 

At the end of the day it is just a joke; it’s just a cake. It’s not going to divide countries or get up on its hind legs and go harm a stranger on its own. And this is sometimes what gets lost in these conversations- that the cake isn’t the issue.  It’s the creator, the implications, and what their work brings up in ourselves and in others.

 

 

The Creator

 

So, the cake is the cake.  But it didn’t bake itself.

Let’s talk about Nadia Cakes.

 

Here is a company that isn’t tied to sex work in any way, in a predominantly white and affluent suburb, creating a product for customers that are being spoon-fed (pun intended) a depiction of strippers as a chunk of stuffed meat on a plate to slice and split.  Why does the creator matter?  Because the source of an image/text is what gives us clues about the purpose and intent of a work.

 

Again, an example to ground this point: we might be alright with a fellow sex worker referring to us as a “slut” or a “whore” but these words take on a whole different meaning when a stranger yells them out of a car or snarls them to us at a nightclub.   

 

This may sound like a stretch, but let’s use a less stark example:

 

“You’re stripping at Magic City?!”

 

Said by: your close friend, another entertainer at your club, your boyfriend, or a cop that pulled you over.

 

A simple phrase. Four people. Four different potential meanings.

If such a simple phrase is capable of changing this much depending on who’s uttering it, it seems logical that the creator of an image would have just as much bearing on how that image is interpreted/read.

 

Which makes you wonder what a cake shop in Maple Grove, MN has to do with reclaiming language/imagery used to denigrate and dehumanize women since time immemorial. [7]

 

By the way, the creator of the shop at least tried to object to this.  This bears mentioning, because even if it was a joke or a goof or a laugh, even before making it she had doubts.

 

“Lead designer Lucas Rorvick cooked up the cheeky concept, despite apprehensions from his boss, Nadia Cakes owner Abby Jimenez. "He thought it would be funny," Jimenez says. "I was hesitant because it's a little edgy and I initially told him no, that he couldn't make it. He made it anyway!"[8]

 

She told her male lead designer not to make it, and then he did anyway.

 

Does anyone still think this is just about a cake? By the way, this isn’t just about the creator.  This is also about the audience of her product.

 

Because the audience, by and large, of a cake shop in the suburbs, is not going to be sex workers, socioeconomically disadvantaged women, or LGBTQ individuals that by and large have to deal with the very real and very violent repercussions of this type of cut-up imagery in a day-to-day basis.  The people purchasing and supporting this creation are far more likely to be cisgender, white, and (judging from the kind of events that this cake might be appropriate at in a socially conservative Midwestern suburb) male.

 

So, sure, some of us might feel like we’re “in” on the joke by purchasing or digitally agreeing with this company.  But the humor isn’t meant for us.  It doesn’t take into account our experience and our difficulties struggling with the very uncomfortable feeling of being treated as property or as a set of individual body parts that are up for sale (“your ass is the only reason I want you to dance for me;” come put that ass on me;” “show me what you’re working with; etc.) It doesn’t come from a place of solidarity or of reclaiming with purpose. 

 

It’s not about being offended/not offended.  It’s about whether this bit is laughing with us or laughing at us.  Yes, an entertainer might buy that cake because for her and her friends it’s a hilarious bit.  But the creator didn’t mean for it to be funny in that way or for that audience.  And this would seem to matter, especially when your dollars are backing the joke. 

 

A great counterexample of this might be a stripper that creates content for entertainers and uses these very same tropes. Let’s change nothing but the creator, keep the image the same, and review this scenario.

 

Let’s say, the same cake but made or commissioned by a stripper for her birthday party. 

 

Could a stripper think this is funny? Absolutely.  Plenty of us found it funny, as is.

 

The fact is, we face disembodiment head-on daily when we show up to work.  Making fun of, engaging with, and recontextualizing the objectification of our bodies is something we have to do well, and do often.

 

Making light and reducing the impact of the constant stream of these comments helps us ease frustration, alleviate trauma, and create bonds with other service providers that encounter the same interactions day in and day out.

 

In contrast, what does a bakery owner in Maple Grove have to do with strippers? What interactions might the creator have had to imagine severed/maimed/meat-and-thong bodies served on a plate?  What about the existence of dancers and sex workers would inherently invite this exercise of imagination for her? 

 

More than that, what positive value, shared humor, or moment of connection was she promoting here?

She wasn’t, and the male designer that overrode her objections wasn’t either.  And this is what gets lost when we engage this whole thing as- be offended, be unbothered. That however you felt about the image, the community and individuals that it was based off were never really a part of the discussion.  They were the butt of the joke, and to dismiss that is to dismiss the totality of this picture for the sake of another “don’t be so sensitive!” “there’s bigger things in the world!” directed at those who did feel offense.

 

Again, the author and their responses matter here.  They were confronted on social media by entertainers who asked the same questions (albeit with more feeling and less verbiage) and repeatedly made fun of, or made light of, those that were hurt or frustrated by the joke.  When questioned and pressed by sex workers, the company’s response was to block people who didn’t agree and then to delete the original post. 

 

That doesn’t mean the post was “right” or “wrong.”  But it does mean that the creator felt they couldn’t defend their position once they were pressed on it.  More troublingly, it meant they believed it wasn’t worth their time to engage and communicate with the sex workers they were so glad to spend dozens of hours depicting on cakes.  They were happy to sell, create, and market a racy image of strippers.  But they couldn’t be bothered to treat the sex workers who were expressing their opinions and feelings with enough respect to openly engage them.  

 

That’s the difference between a joke you make with a group of people, and a joke you make at their expense. 

 

Conclusion: Imagining Otherwise

 

Opinion 1: This is extremely offensive, engenders the abuse and harm of sex workers, shouldn’t be posted up, and should be censored and punished.

Opinion 2: This is literally just a cake! If this is what you’re worried about, you’re stupid/confused/privileged/an overly sensitive buttercup.

 

So, what’s the answer? Offensive or Unbothered? Neither are inherently right. The choice here is between:

 

Either critical analysis and an honest attempt to engage with an image in its totality. 

 Or a gut reaction that expresses a held belief without examining why, how, or what that belief is made up of. 

        

Because what struck me the most about this conversation wasn’t the difference in opinion, but the stark similarities in how people were engaging on both sides. It’s either: you’re wrong for being offended! Or: you’re wrong for NOT being offended!

 

End of the day, however you feel, felt, or are going to feel about this image, or any other image, text, or conversation, likely will not be changed by this article.  Your opinions are your own.  Your interpretation will be your own, and no amount of pushback is going to change your mind.

 

The offended v. unbothered debate will rage on, but when we get stuck on it at the exclusion of anything else, we never get to move on to the substance.  We never stop to analyze or try to understand what’s in front of us or why it is making us feel the way it does.   

 

Instead, we point fingers.  We push back, aggressively, emotionally, and often without regard for how the other person might see the situation.  How they might be interpreting and reading into what is happening.  What their experience might have to teach us, to confront us, or to supplement our own knowledge with. 

 

Of course some people will not find this offensive:  they might have a more flippant sense of humor, a “tough skin,” a high tolerance for jokes, a deep love of small businesses that has them rooting for that bakery, no experience in sex work, a lot of experience in sex work that puts the minute impact of a cake on their immediate lived experience in perspective, and a million other traits, ideas, and preconceptions that keep this small.

 

Others may find this highly offensive: they might be overwhelmed by the overt imagery, have had negative experiences at work when they were spoken of as objects, or as one of their body parts (nice tits!), they might just be having a rough day and seeing this happened to aggravate them deeply, they might have personally experienced the effects of physical violence that stemmed from their abuser’s belief that their body was property and carry this around with them, they might never have been in sex work and assume that it’s inherently violent towards entertainers and customers alike, or have a lot of lived experience in sex work that reinforces their belief that teaching customers that disembodiment is acceptable will encourage those same customers to treat them with disrespect at work, and a million other traits, ideas, and preconceptions that make this troubling and much bigger than a debate over cake.  

 

 The point of this conversation has never been, and should never be, that there is one universally correct way to feel about this.  What I hope you’ll take with you is that that however you may feel, there’s more than one way to express it, and more than one tool to use to double check your prejudices and study the opinions of others with respect and understanding.

 

       That looking beyond an image, beyond a simple moment, and putting the effort in to try to understand how, why, and for whom something was created is much more important than scribbling down a bombastic reaction and then digging in your talons.    That the choice isn’t to be endlessly offended or to endlessly accept any opinion that shows up on the internet. 

 

Instead it’s between reacting quickly and viscerally, and taking the time to critically analyze what it is you’re seeing/experiencing, why you might be interpreting it the way you are, and how we can all make better decisions in our communication and engagement styles when we engage in public forums. 

 

 It’s about encouraging you to do the work, do the research, do the hard thinking, and then show up to the table to discuss.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/offensive

 

[2] The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, Mark Rothko; Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2004, quote found here: http://politicstheoryphotography.blogspot.com/2006/10/art-as-social-action-mark-rothko.html

 

[3] “As will be seen more clearly in a moment, all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a "floating chain" of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.” From Image - Music - Text. Sei. and Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1,977.32-51, “Rhetoric and Image,” Roland Barthes, pg. 152, https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Barthes-Rhetoric-of-the-image-ex.pdf

 

[4] Of course, all of this additional context is ultimately somewhat subjective too (i.e., history according to the colonized v. the colonizer, etc.) but the goal here isn’t to approach one universal capital T truth- more to take in as much information as is reasonably possible and draw a conclusion with some substance that we feel comfortable living with.

 

[5] 'Twerkey Cake' quickly sells out at Minnesota bakery,” http://www.citypages.com/restaurants/twerkey-cake-quickly-sells-out-at-minnesota-bakery/500925581

 

[6] http://headlesswomenofhollywood.com/About

 

[7] And again, this gets tricky.  Aren’t we all subjected to the male gaze in the club? Aren’t we “putting ourselves in that position?” And if we’re willing to show our very real, very alive asses at the club in exchange for money, does that negate our criticism of this? Does it mean we are not allowed or able to be truly frustrated or upset when someone else capitalizes on female beauty/the male gaze?

 

Again, this comes down to who is the actor, and why are they engaging in a behavior.

 

One response is that by capitalizing on, rebelling in, and recreating the experience of our sensual and sexual performance to be holistic, multifaceted, and wholly ours we are reclaiming an autonomy that was taken from us. 

 

Another is that all workers are exploited as long as capitalism is the ruling system and order, and that there is no distinction between this type of objectification and that of a factory worker, literally made into an object that exists solely to produce more objects.

 

Yet another is that sex workers are not entitled to the respect or boundaries that other non-sex workers are entitled to, on the basis of their profession.  That as soon as a sex worker engages in any behavior outside of strict and puritanical codes of ethics, they have opened themselves up to harassment, criticism, judgement, paternal control (from the state, partners, family members, etc.) or mental and physical harm.  It’s he old “you deserved it.” 

 

[8] 'Twerkey Cake' quickly sells out at Minnesota bakery”

http://www.citypages.com/restaurants/twerkey-cake-quickly-sells-out-at-minnesota-bakery/500925581

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