The cupcake is barely a cake. When we think about what “the cake-like” ideally should be, it is something spongy, moist, characterised by excess, collapsing under its own weight of gooey jam, meringue, and cream. It is something sickly and wet that makes your fingers sticky. The cupcake is none of these things; that is, it possesses none of the ideal essence of cakiness. The cupcake is neat, precise, and uniform. It is dry, polite, and low-fat. It is defined by its shape, not its taste, and the cake-cup limits any potential excess. The cupcake is largely aimed at the sort of flat-stomached people who think consuming sweet things is “a bit naughty” and who won’t even permit themselves to go overboard on their binges. The cupcake is vintagey and twee. It invokes a sense of wholesomeness and nostalgia, albeit for a past never experienced, a more perfect past, just as vintage-style clothing harks back to an idealised image of the 1920s through 60s that never existed. The cupcake appears as a cultural trope alongside the drinking of tea and gin and the lisped strumming of ukuleles.
The constellation of cultural tropes that most paradigmatically manifest in the form of the cupcake are associated in particular with infantilisation. Of course, looking back to a perfect past that never existed is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cupcake and its associates market themselves by catering to these never-never-land adults’ tastes. These products, which treat their audience as children, and more specifically the children of the middle classes – perfect special snowflakes full of wide-eyed wonder and possibility – succeed as expressions of a desire on behalf of consumers to always and forever be children, by telling consumers not only that this is OK, but also that it is, to a real degree, possible.