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?


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).


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.