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Morality Politics

Girl with cake – let them eat oversimplification

Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake”. At least, we have no reliable evidence that she did, and reason to think it unlikely. At the time (the other) Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, recorded the words, she would have been 14 years of age and not yet even resident in France.

Nevertheless, the words have come to stand for indifference to suffering, in that as the story goes, when the Queen was alerted to the fact that people were starving thanks to bread shortages, her response was “Then let them eat brioche.”

Given this widely believed historical anecdote, you’d perhaps think it an elaborate (and risky) joke if a privileged white woman were to travel the country giving cake to poor people. Or perhaps you’d assume that she’s not familiar with the anecdote.

I’m going with the latter option in the case of Girl with Cake, which involves a privileged white woman traveling the country giving cake to poor people, because “everyone deserves a cake made with love”.

Not only do they deserve it, the cake also “makes all the bad go away”. Given the Oprah-level powers of said cake, why is it that myself and some other grouches have concerns about this project – and why is it that expressing these concerns is so offensive to some?

poverty-porn

Starting with the first question: neither I, nor anyone I’ve encountered on the “concerned” side, have any objection to charitable giving. But something being charitable and perfectly well-intended does not make it immune to criticism.

In this instance, there’s a long historical context of romanticising poverty and of creating narratives of a white saviour rescuing black people from their miserable existences.

And it’s because of this context that when one engages in charitable giving, it’s usually a good idea to be somewhat discreet about it, rather than having a photographer in tow to capture your beaming white smile and the poor black people to whom you have provided the “joy of cake” (yes, that’s a quote from the website).

cake

The first photograph in this post comes from Robert Pijpers’ essay on stereotyping Africa and romanticising the poor, and I’d encourage you to read that for a fuller explanation of the point I’ve only briefly made here, that “depicting Africa as a place inhabited by helpless people that long for salvation” is a risk inherent in these sorts of endeavours.

The primary purpose of this post is rather to talk about reactions to criticism of Girl with Cake, which – in the case of one friend of mine – have made it clear that self-reflection is forbidden, nuanced discussions of poverty and charity are offensive, and that anyone who dares to do either must be evil.

Here are some quotes from Facebook:

  • All you’ve done is breakdown my faith in humanity – the lil bit that she restored
  • She should be giving them raw liver instead! #Banting (okay, that was me)
  • Because it’s so much more productive to write horrified Facebook posts? C’mon [X], at least she is making an effort and not at a distance, either.
  • Really disappointing that people get slammed for trying to uplift someone’s spirit.
  • What have you done for the poor lately?
  • you are really a sad human being
  • It is easy to sit back and be an acid queen about everything, but to take hand of your cock and stop wanking and start doing something for somebody else is something completely different.
  • do u have no humanity in u or are u just negative because ur life sucks?
  • The world doesn’t need people like you

There’s more, and it’s ongoing, but that’s enough. What these comments miss is that the problem isn’t the giving, but the apparent obliviousness to the impression of narcissism created by the manner in which the giving is promoted.

It’s irrelevant how much or how little the critic him or herself gives – all that could possibly indicate is hypocrisy, but it has no bearing on whether criticism of Girl with Cake is legitimate or not. And of course, it’s deeply ironic that defenders of charity can themselves be so lacking in charity, as demonstrated in these abusive responses.

Another friend asked me whether criticising Girl with Cake amounts to bullying, and I’ll close with a few thoughts on that. Of course it can be bullying, depending on what was said, and who it was said to.

In this case, the comment or criticism amounted to linking to her website, commenting “So here’s someone who literally thinks poor people should eat cake. And then she gives it to them while a poverty voyeur takes photos. AND THEN SHE PUTS IT ON THE INTERNET AND THANKS HER SPONSORS! I…you…WHAT?! WHAT THE FUCK?!”

The beaming white smile and the noble savage is a problematic image, and it’s one that she foregrounds on her website. Transpose her story and the cake with a missionary and a Bible, or somesuch, and we’ll have consensus that there’s an issue here.

Again, this isn’t to question her good intentions, but rather to point out that the optics are pretty unfortunate in how they give an impression of unthinking narcissism. That, albeit in more direct language, is what the Facebook post expresses.

That’s not “bullying”, but rather highlighting a problematic stance or behaviour. Doing so is not only permissible – it’s desirable, in that debate and argument is how we improve.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

38 replies on “Girl with cake – let them eat oversimplification”

Brilliant writing, as always Jacques.

It seems to me that the best way to judge someone’s character is by their intentions, rather than their actions. And it seems to me that the best way to judge whether something should be done is by it’s impact or ramifications – which I can’t comment on here.

Her intentions seem noble, but I doubt anyone could do such a thing without thinking of the impact it’ll have on everyone who sees, and how good it’ll feel. Depending on what she her intentions were (and what she thought the consequences would be), should could as easily have been brilliantly noble, ordinary, or deeply narcissistic. Only she knows which.

Never mind the fact that she’s giving them a entire cake to eat. A cake that will most likely be vomited or an hour later because they are not used to eating such rich things. Why not R300 worth of chicken stew? Or give birthday cakes to orphanages?

I completely understand the perspective of the girl with cake story that sits uncomfortably with you Jacques. Firstly I’d like to commend you on how you write. I’ve never read anything of yours before, and I was drawn to this because ‘girl with cake’ is something that has been sitting with me since I saw her webpage. When writing a critical piece, to be clear with one’s point but not show malice is very difficult and I really enjoyed reading your opinion because it was just that. The narrative you tell about girl with cake is one where the ‘poor people’ have no power in the relationship. I can see how that story comes through and it’s what has been plaguing me but the reason it’s not settled in my head is that I don’t think it’s the whole story. Yes in some instances she has given cake to people living on the street but she has also given cake to children in oncology wards, security guards who walk neighbourhoods all night long guarding people they don’t know. She has given people, who are not starving and who don’t need her rescueing, a gift of gratitude and commendation. You may say who is she to commend someone. But witnessnesing someone’s bravery or hard work can be very powerfuk even if from a stranger. In Ingiving them cake she has said “I see you and the hard work you put into life everyday, I see you so much Ive even made you a cake”. I don’t know about you but is someone actually saw me in that way, I would not feel belittled, I would feel empowered. Also, so what that it’s cake. Who are we to say who is permitted to have a cake and not. Just because a person is poor does that mean they only deserve food that is sustaining in nature, with nutritional value but no real flavour. Food can be a joyous experience, ask any person who has over eaten on Christmas lunch. This girl is obviously very talented at making cakes and sharing her talent. There is no such thing as a selfless deed. But sometimes a good deed can create another good deed. Her over the top notion of giving cake has stood out, it has been witnessed and it has stuck in the hearts of people. Which is something more than what is sticking in people’s hearts on a normal day. This idea of witnessing is the last point I want to raise. I agree that cameras have the power to romanticize poverty but if we narrate their existence differently we could see their power as a witness. There is a lot of power in a good deed and in allowing it to be witnessed she is allowing people to view and narrate it as a good deed and this thus be passed. It’s a blurry line but one I think can be worth struggling through. I agree with what you said about whether this is not a sign we need to find a better way and I agree. The uncomfortableness doesn’t go away just because we talk about is differently. We must use it to refocus the goodwill in a better way. I think I’ve rambled on for a long enough time and I hope I have been clear and not insulted your point of view..Because in life that’s all we really have 🙂 thank you for the read. Look forward to reading more.

“You can get away with anything if it’s for charity”. Whether the young woman admits it to herself or not the intentions are deeply narcissistic; she has a website with pictures of herself all over it with a deeply patronising smile in every one. Giving to people less fortunate than yourself is a good thing and putting yourself in the spotlight is unavoidable if you happen to be Bob Geldoff or Bono but when you are an unknown it is totally unnecessary and frankly unforgivable. I hope she now does the right thing by melting into the background and doing something noble without trying to get her picture in the papers.

Because ,like you, she clearly has no insight into her own privilege. This type of self aggrandizing has no place in a humanitarian world. Her critics are mostly professional humanitarians who understand how to give in a culturally appropriate and selfless. I don’t expect for a second that you will understand but just take a minute to reflect before sending your all too predictable repost.

Wow…. why don’t you people leave the judging to God? Firstly she is not a white ‘woman’ as you so describe her. She is a white young girl, whos good intentions seem to have been totally twisted, as usual, by social media into a ‘evil gesture’ and compared to Marie Antoinette. How dare she help the poor dam her, dam her to hell! (Note the sarcasm) Seriously people if you can do better than what she is doing why dont you get your fat lazy arses off the your chair and go and dos omething about it? Just by the way with the cake she delivers she also gives the poor a bag filled OH MY WORD “bad intentions”, yes a blanket, tins of food, shoes, etc.. again how dare she help the poor… OFF WITH HER HEAD!

She is 27. I am afraid that makes her a woman in every definition of the word.

she also gives them cup a soup. which is super helpful for someone living on the streets…. :/

Whatever happened to Adri Sinclair’s comment? Now THAT was brilliant writing! Oh and I hope you have permission to use HER photos on YOUR blog…

I read this – and you know… Here’s my thoughts;
While there may be a few misquotes, [which is really just nitpicking, so I’ll skip over that] – I think the writer of this article, did exactly what this girl has been accused of: Over simplified the entire situation.
It is strange how something as ‘frivolous’ and ‘small’ can actually make a change in someone’s life, on a scale that impacts a future. As it was stated [should the ENTIRE website have been read] It isn’t about feeding them, it is about giving them a chance to open up. To have a little interaction that goes beyond the norm.
Nobody’s claimed to try and solve world poverty issues. It was not to sensationalise – but you know what?
You sensationalised it, you made it a drama peace and fed into the human nature of latching on to what is the ‘now’ thing. So kudos for actually doing that.
DO I think the gal is being bullied? Not at all. Do I think the writer of this has a few lessons to learn in human nature? Absolutely.
Criticism goes both ways. SO allow me to put this to you.
1. The cake and help parcels, are tools to connect with another person – not solve their problems.
2. For a few seconds, the world is just that bit sweeter, that bit nicer and the memory is solidified in the nature of the person. They may not remember the cake, but they will remember her – or vise versa. In the end, the INTENT is what will remain.
3. It is human nature to walk past, shrug your shoulders and say: SEP – someone else’s problem – or worse yet: I can’t change anything so I won’t even try. When I lived on the streets, I would have LOVED to meet a person like her – for a minute I’d feel less afraid, less worthless, less abandoned. For a minute, I’d have felt like a human being.
4. Be careful what you pass off as constructive criticism – as that too is a passive aggressive manner in which to say: You’re not making a big enough change, with a big enough impact, so STOP IT.
5. And why NOT put it on the internet? WHY NOT share it with people such as myself – who’s reminded of what we used to be about, until people with their ‘constructive input’ tore me down to my lowest point in life yet. Because of this girl, and several others doing something similar in their own ways and rights – I am back on track, I am giving a smile if nothing else because that is what I can.

Perhaps our excellent skills in PR would have been put to better use had you actually focussed on the positive outcome of this entire project by one single woman – who’s not asked for anything. NOT for the exposure, NOT for the criticism, and certainly not for a backhanded P.R stint.

You insist it was just ‘constructive criticism’? Let me point out that the opening line is blatantly hostile. As there are not proof one way or another, the point is moot, other than you picking an argument in an effort to disqualify the person of your attack.

SHE never called anyone a savage. You did. Remember that. You. DID.

Narcissism? I am not exactly sure why you would even use that particular word in association of what is being portrayed. Not only is it, yet again, a personal assessment of the woman in question’s personality, I’d go as far as saying it is a misuse of the word itself too.
“Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes.”
Anyone who has spend time on this entire matter – would not have found a thing about vanity or self indulgent attitude.
I would like to know now from you:

Every charitable event, ever advertised or reported: Narcisissim too?

While you make very one sided observations with a clear undertone of your misgivings about this entire project – I have these last few questions to ask you:
When you wrote that, what was your intent? Why did you write it? To be right? To be heard? To help this girl? What was your end goal? Was it to warn people of ONE woman’s effort to be a self-involved, money grabber? Was it to discredit her, or the medium she uses to gain help? Was it to create awareness of bigger problems and her shortcomings in solving those? Was it … Why? Why did you write this entire article at all?
From where I’m sitting,and I AM an narcissist by the way, you seem to be needing my banner too. I see no real purpose or constructive input in this particular article that could assist this girl at all. I see nothing that would guide her to a better result, or a bigger solution. I see nothing that is encouraging, supporting of the cause…
What I see? Is a big flood of information thrown out there in a knee-jerk defence reaction to be right, to be heard, to get a little of that lime-light she apparently is hogging.
In future [and this is the constructive part to my criticism of your article] consider saying ALL you have said, and then try offering up a better way to make a more positive impact. You don’t even have to offer help, or support – just offer the actual constructive part… to the criticism.
Have a wonderful Week again

Your comments do bring added clarity to this discussion. God bless the holy internet.

Thank you for writing this. I totally agree.
Though her intentions might be pure and well-intended, I think the posing and publicising takes away from the good being done. (Though, I have to question a well-intending person wittingly taking a photographer with them to snap some pictures, to be used later on their blog.)
I agree with Lisa about the richness of the cake and the discomfort that could cause to someone’s digestive system – someone not use to “the joys of cake”. Stew or soup would indeed be better – filled with vitamins! But if she is set on giving cake, then surely kids deserve the elation (and sugar high) that comes with cake – who her 37th cake ended up being for (yay progress!).

I sincerely hope more children get to experience the joy of cake.

Or that she starts telling the stories of the people she is helping. Like the real life stories of Humans of New York – it took me a while to learn who the author was. And his work is also charitable.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humans_of_New_York

Tom Eaton tweeted sympathies to your Facebook page and I followed the link here. I read your piece, above, and was very much aligned with your thinking, for much the same reasons that others have posted here.

By far the worst offender is Corporate South Africa which spends vast amounts on PR, advertorials and advertising to show the world that it is just so darn caring. So, I do get what you’re arguing to some degree, but your ire would be better directed at the self-congratulatory world of business.

Then I followed some other links and checked up on the cake person’s web site and her Facebook response to you.

It seems you’ve not covered important, er, slices, of the story. She has not set out to say that she’s trying to cure hunger and poverty by dishing out cake. Perhaps naively, she’s trying to show a different kind of caring and to have conversations with people, the cake really being a prop, a device, in this rather than her raison d’etre.

Having read her stuff and the responses of others, it is quite plausible that the taking of the photographs at least partly aims to encourage others to do something nice for other people rather than be something to put on a CV, American style.

In addition, she has not merely identified the poor and hungry on the streets but also a range of others to receive her form of thanks and recognition.

With your academic background one would have expected you to at least recognise that her cake-giving could just as easily be her way of demonstrating recognition and respect at a fundamental level. You don’t have to think much of that strand of philosophy — about life being a struggle for recognition and respect — or even care much for the likes of Hegel to recognise that as a possibility.

Had you paused to reflect for a bit you might have avoided the sneering snark and tried to reflect a bit before belittling someone who seems a little naive but sincere.

yeah and perhaps she just likes to give – the cheerful giver which corporates are NOT.

Has anyone asked the people she gave cake to how they felt about the experience? Not going for provactive here. Just asking since I would be interested to understand that angle.

Did she bother to check back in on them to see what the possible effects on a malnourished person devouring an entire cake full of sugar and fat is?

O no… really? Sugar, does it matter? what was the point again… NO SHE BOTHERED TO BAKE A CAKE WHICH IS DAMN HARD WORK. She didn’t go to the same person everyday – it is a treat for them – makes them happy, for a moment.

So I assume then that all the people who received the cakes and goody bags confirmed to you their personal feelings of “a long historical context of romanticising poverty and of creating narratives of a white saviour rescuing black people from their miserable existences”? And that they would have prefered that the “narcissistic” white woman had just kept her good deeds to herself and not involved them in her cake giving? If so, then yes I absolutely agree with your appraisal of what Girl with Cake is doing, and that perhaps she should rethink her good intentions. And if through social media she is not getting additional contributions and donations so as to spread her work wider, but merely promoting herself as a self-centered do-gooder, then yes she needs to think again. But if not, then who are you to put words in the mouths of potential cake recipients??

Whether she is doing good or not must be asked to those who got the cake. Did this make their day? Did this make them feel special for once, or rather feel disgusted by the naivety of a privileged white girl?
Everything else is ranting of other people who want the same attention.

Or maybe it points to a blind spot amongst those who are well to do, about the context and history of inequality and race relations in South Africa.

I’m glad you wrote your column. At first when I saw “Girl With Cake” I would hit SHARE, and then I thought, why is this good deed be so publicized? My daughter takes her daughters and nieces and nephews out regularly in Pensacola and hands out a dozen or so homemade lunches to the street people. She does not post it on facebook.

Mnr. Rousseau het jy enigsins die kind wat jy afneem op die foto se lewe verryk of het jy eerder gebaat uit inkomste, het jy ‘n 10de gegee aan ‘n organisasie?
Kan jy elke aand huis toe gaan na ‘n warm stort, ‘n bord met kos? Kan jy jou basiese behoeftes betaal elke maand met die betaaling wat jy kry uit iemand anders se swaarkry?

When a friend first recommended Girl with Cake to me as the sort of project we could emulate, I couldn’t figure out why I was so horrified. Here was a person doing a sweet thing and enjoying doing it. Then I did a double-take and realised that what was turning my stomach were the gratuitous images of people who, though pleased to have received such thoughtful gifts, were not holding any power with regard to the free use of their stories, their identities, and limiting their own agency. Here was her story – nuanced, interesting, celebrated – while they had become non-people. I didn’t say anything negative about it except to decline the offer to engage in a similar project, because one immediately becomes the arsehole who kicked the puppy if one does this. I agree that she might be inspiring more people to ‘reach out and make someone’s day’, but there are far too many fucking people wanting credit for doing such ‘day-making’ that it’s getting nauseating.

so where did she get credit? NOthing stops you from finding that strange credit yourself so why diss it. you people all have a passage booked and payed for to heaven of course. No doubt about that.

My G-d, I cannot believe this thesis re a girl who simply gave cake. What is WRONG with you people. I am starting to think Journalists – no let me write that without a cap – journalists are becoming totally desperate. People no longer read “articles” if there’s no forum below. Did any of these people give back their cakes? did you go and find out before you wrote this drivel. EVERYBODY loves cake – you people have lost the plot of life. I am disgusted. Listen, and I DO give money to a drunk on the streets because if he doesn’t get that fix he may DIE from DT’s – that’s what Dr. G says. what’s the point, you’re either a cheerful giver or you’re a penny pincher who justifies everything uttered from your mouth. Blo-ddy H-ell

I don’t think treating people like human beings with human hearts is reprehensible.

I had the same uneasy and very skeptical reaction when it started to go viral. It also feeds into a much bigger dynamic in South Africa with the country’s history.

“Then let them eat Brioche…” In the world of the critic, their objective is to generate debate and argument for our improvement, to show up the underlying assumptions of our thinking. The critique of Verwoerd, of Bush, of Zuma is the offering up of brioche. It is easy pickings, its comfortable terrain, it’s something most people would deem valid territory for the critic to roam.
The true test of the critic is whether he will pick on the likes of Little Red Riding Hood.
It is one of our fundamental myths – the innocent Virgin with only good intent putting herself at risk to help someone less fortunate. The girl with cake is the modern embodiment of this myth. That the critic dare question her motive, that the critic dare suggest a different interpretation of this sweet scene will have most respondents rushing for their axes to slay the big bad wolf. Few stop to ask why Little Red is putting herself knowingly in danger, why does the Grandmama live on her own and not in the home of Little Red, what loving parent allows their child to enter the dangerous forest to fulfil a duty of care they themselves should be doing?
Can you see the fairy tale? In reaching for the axe, before insisting, “off with his head” was there a pause in your thinking, did you wonder why it’s your job to save Little Red? Did you see the story differently even if only for a fleeting moment? If so then the critic has succeeded in giving you a wholesome LCHF meal, but he has taken away the sugar to do so.
Like all sugar addicts, it is really the icing on the cake we’re after, we get grumpy if someone denies us the eating thereof. Very grumpy if the comments are anything to go by.
The critique is not personal, the questioning of Little Red is to expose why the defence of this mythical character is so essential to who we are.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this issue since reading this post. I’ve also been following the comment thread, and have found Judit’s comments particularly interesting.

First, despite Judit’s claim, not EVERYBODY loves cake. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of cake which brings me to my concerns about this endeavor.

Why hand out cakes?

From a practical standpoint it’s ill-conceived. 1) Cakes are messy and require utensils to eat or the ability to wash your hands if you eat them by hand. If someone is homeless, easy access to soap and clean running water can be problematic which leaves the homeless cake receiver with a sticky mess on their hands. 2) Cakes are not easy to store and carry and, if the picture is accurate, the homeless person isn’t given the cake in a cake box. So, the recipient either has to eat the entire cake when it’s received or try to find a way to store this messy gift for future consumption.

So, my first concern about this endeavor is a purely practical one. As homemade baked goods go, cake seems like a foolish choice as a handout. Cookies would probably be the best choice as they are less messy to eat, can be given in a bag making them much easier to carry and store for later consumption, and have a longer shelf life before spoiling (unless of course it’s fruitcakes she’s handing out which, unfortunately, are the only food that would likely survive a nuclear holocaust ;-).

My second concern is the “EVERYBODY loves cake” assumption. It isn’t true that everybody loves cake and since the charitable endeavor being discussed is being done on an individual basis, the giving of cake reenforces the notion that it’s more about the giver than the recipients. It glosses over the individuality and personal concerns of the recipients. Not all homeless people are homeless for the same reason and not all homeless people love cake.

So, if the goal is to help individual homeless people then perhaps the person working towards this goal should take the time to talk to the homeless people they want to help and find out what would actually make their lives better. If the goal is to feed the homeless, then perhaps it would be better to donate food or funds to charitable organizations which provide food to the homeless on a daily basis. And, if you’re really into cake baking then bring your cake to a homeless shelter at dinnertime so it can be easily consumed by all of the cake-loving homeless who are being fed at the shelter.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jacques! It reminded me that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I grew up very poor in an abusive household. Every year at Christmas I would get a toy donated by well-intentioned people. The pleasure of getting a toy was short-lived because these toy handouts made my father angry. He would throw them in the trash and beat me with a board for having gotten them. On one day of the year I received peoples’ good intentions. Their good intentions did nothing to make my life better. Handing a cake to a homeless person doesn’t make their life any better either. We don’t solve difficult problems with good intentions. Acting on good intentions which don’t truly address these difficult issues causes more harm than good, IMO. It allows us to think we’re being helpful while not actually providing anything worthwhile to those in need.

This whole discussion is fascinating to me. It doesn’t tell me much about the Girl with Cake, but it sure gives me a deep and unpleasant look at some of my fellow man/woman. Leads me to believe there are a whole lot of sad, lonely, sick, abused, and/or unhappy people out there. I wish love and hope for all.

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