Hot Air: A Yaël Education

[Big Mike Note: Tina Fey jammed a yellow cake (no, not yellowcake) into her face on Saturday Night Live five days ago. She did it for the joke, natch, which is, y’know, what she does for a living. The joke was meant to skewer a platterful of things worth skewering in this holy land, with the Charlottesville incident being the bit’s entrée.

Social media and the opinionsphere blew up immediately thereafter, with commenters howling about how inappropriate, tone-deaf, etc., Fey’s performance was. The truth is, I haven’t paid a lick of attention to the controversy because…, well, I didn’t care. That is, until I read Yaël Ksander’s essay on same yesterday AM. There are wheels within wheels of Fey’s gag, Ksander opines. Perhaps the most insurrectionary is the fact that she’s…, aw, I won’t telegraph it here. Just read Yaël’s piece, below.

Yep, YK pitched her piece my way in hopes The Pencil would run it. Ksander, in case you’ve been living off the grid since forever, is a writer, editor, and radio producer here in Bloomington who, like Tina Fey, graduated from the University of Virginia. Unlike Tina Fey, she only does comedy on the side. And she’s humble too! In fact, here’s her plea to me re: her essay: “Is there any possibility of publishing it on your blog as a guest author? I won’t get my feelings hurt if you say no.”

Is she kidding me? I’d publish one of Yaël’s weekly grocery lists if she’d let me, she’s that good of a writer. And a definitive Bloomingtonian, to boot.

So, The Pencil and I are proud and honored to present Yaël Ksander’s take on what she deems the real transgression Fey committed — and why she did it. And, yeah, I’m interested now. Yaël’s piece made it happen. Take it away, YK!]

Let Them Eat Cake: Protest à la Pinterest

by Yaël Ksander

Some folks are upset about Tina Fey’s bit with the cake. They’re pissed that she told people to stay home instead of protesting against white supremacists. They’re indignant that she said drag queens are “really men.” They’re scandalized that she made light of Thomas Jefferson’s perennial rape of an enslaved woman. Troubling, indeed, but am I the only one who was concerned with how many calories Fey seemed to be shoveling into her mouth? “That must not be real cake,” I thought to myself, as I watched her keep piling it in while delivering her screed. “There must be some special effect that makes it look as though she’s eating when she’s not,” I wagered, as Fey kept ranting, her maw exploding with crumbs and blue frosting. “I wonder how long she fasted before doing this,” I continued in my preoccupation, “and if she’s going to keep all that down.”

Admit it, ladies: you thought that too. No matter how much the really big issues trouble you. And it wasn’t just because we were raised not to speak with our mouth full. Yes, it’s bad manners and gross to look at, but Fey’s crime was far more primal than that. Watching her plow through that sheet-cake, I found myself grappling with a Kübler-Rossian-level of denial prompted by the apparently authentic ingestion of a wantonly unmeasured amount of white flour, sugar, and Crisco. What we saw during the UVA-alum’s guest appearance on SNL‘s “Weekend Update” was nothing short of porn — yes, she’s really doing it, that thing we do when no one’s looking. She was eating, a lot. And these days, it’s probably harder to come across tape of a woman stuffing her face than one of, well, the other secret things we do. A woman eating is the ne plus ultra of transgression.

Especially if she’s eating cake, and especially if she’s in show biz, as Fey herself joked only a few years earlier, when she was presenting an award for the movie Cake at the Golden Globes. “We should explain for the Hollywood people in the room,” Fey deadpanned, “Cake is like a fluffy desert that people eat on their birthdays.” She was just being helpful! It’s conceivable that like Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous, as the character’s creator Joanna Lumley suggested, many of the actresses in attendance had “not eaten since 1973.”

Creating the illusion that we don’t eat is something we’ve been working hard at for a long time. The movie stars we worship participate in keeping that fiction going with their own silhouettes, but some of the films they’re in reveal our cultural underbelly.

No one feasts without punishment in the movies. If they’re female, that is. After all, would the Mia Farrow character have gotten involved with all that carrying-the-spawn-of-Satan business had she not accepted her creepy neighbor’s chocolate “mouse”? And what about Violet, who’s enjoying the heck out of the virtual multi-course meal afforded by a single piece of gum in Wonka’s factory until she’s warned that the product is still in development, causing her to blow up into a human blueberry? It’s an object lesson that predates the movies by a long stretch. Poor Alice is always changing sizes and finding herself in predicaments every time she follows instructions to “Eat Me” or “Drink Me.” And of course Persephone finds herself wedded to the Prince of Darkness all because of eating like, I’m not even exaggerating, only about six pomegranate seeds.

Take heed when a movie gives you a gal with a healthy appetite. In Robert Altman’s 1971 Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Warren Beatty plays the eponymous kingpin of a mining town at the turn of the last century. There aren’t a lot of women in the film until a glamorous stranger shows up, requesting a meeting with McCabe. Having just disembarked from a long train ride across the dreary Pacific Northwest, the mystery lady is ravenous, and has McCabe take her to the town’s only café. Ordering everything on the menu, she proceeds to devour her meal without speaking, wiping the plate with a piece of bread and her mouth with the back of her greasy hand as the film just unspools in one long take.

It’s a stunning scene, one that elicited hearty laughs and a few cheers the last time I saw it, over at the IU Cinema. Like me, I’m sure no one in that audience could bring to mind another scene in which a woman’s appetite was so directly stated and roundly sated.

McCabe, too, seems fairly impressed. (Beatty suggests McCabe’s incredulousness, by the way, with one of those adorably bewildered brow furrows that gave him access to every A-list actress of the second half of the 20th century.) Once she’s pushed her dish to the side, and McCabe has — in sympathy one imagines — taken a swig of his own ascetic meal — a raw egg in a glass — the newcomer, played by the ravishing Julie Christie, states her business:

“So Mr. McCabe, I’m a whore and I know an awful lot about whorehouses.”

Ay, there’s the rub. Now we know why this one gets to eat with gusto. It’s the prerogative of the woman who has truck with matters of the flesh to acknowledge her own physical needs and desires. Mrs. Miller proceeds to turn McCabe into her, well, the nice word for it is “partner” in the business of running a frontier bordello. When she’s not taking him to bed, turning the occasional trick, or slipping into an opium haze. Like the Melanie Griffith character in Working Girl, she’s “got a head for business and a bod for sin.” And that’s why Mrs. Miller gets to eat like that.

And hardly any other woman does. When Tina Fey was destroying that American flag sheet cake, she didn’t look like she was having a ton of fun. Or satisfying her appetite. No one eats sheet cake for nourishment. Nor because it’s irresistibly delicious – these goods are baked for square footage, not taste. And she was eating for square footage too. Bingeing on sweets is the way we girls cope sometimes. “Obedient white girl[s] from the suburbs” — as Fey once described herself in a personal history in The New Yorker — who went to good schools like UVA, and aren’t really the type to get into meth, porn, or online gambling when we get overwhelmed by life’s problems and our sense of powerlessness in the face of them.

No, we have a different way to deal, and for some of us, it may have started back at the dorm in Charlottesville. For others, speaking in the lingua franca of baked goods goes all the way back to childhood. After all, we’re the ones who learned leadership and financial savvy by selling Girl Scout Cookies. And figured we could tackle social justice and economic inequality or at least make our dreams of orchestra camp come true by holding a bake sale. Cake has been there for us in times of need. “Most of the women I know have been doing it once a week since the election!” Fey exclaimed, with regard to her invented “sheet caking” pandemic. Stifling our screams with forkfuls of sweetness and light.

But for a lot of us girls, eating is anything but. We’re not allowed to do it, so when you see us do it, we’re breaking the law out of desperation, to express something deep and dark. With apologies to Freud, a cake is never just a cake. And with apologies to all of the crafty types trading sheet cake recipes on Pinterest and the bakery owners standing by for a rash of sheet cake orders, Fey was not actually advocating that people host cake-eating parties instead of attending neo-Nazi rallies any more than Jonathan Swift was proposing that taking up the practice of cannibalism would solve Ireland’s overpopulation and unemployment problems in the early 18th century.

Satire is like that — it straddles the line between the absurd and the plausible. The fact that so many have interpreted Fey’s suggestion literally speaks to the brilliant subtlety of her comic achievement. With her UVA sweatshirt, horn-rimmed glasses, and a rallying cry last issued by Marie Antoinette, Fey was the picture of preppy privilege. So how does a gal who’s none too street register her dissent in an authentic way, anyway? Start with the most transgressive thing she can do in public: eat.

5 thoughts on “Hot Air: A Yaël Education

  1. Dotty Sharp says:

    Brilliant!

  2. A welcome reading of this satire–and the satire is the false act of “buying” justice. And if we are allowed, we can obviously understand every negative reaction to it. And surely, as Tina Fey is a supremely intelligent writer, we can also believe she had every reason to expect those reactions. It certainly seems to me that she was critiquing herself, her class, her privilege, and her own sense of powerlessness. In fact, it sounded to me that she was saying doing nothing (eating cake) was definitely not the thing to do, especially as she closed with the jab and Jefferson. As to the eating–one of many things the virgin-mother in America cannot do while the whore-lover can because she is not a social person of consequence. Other things to note in this SNL skit is that the white boy host has lines too–and they are satirical also–“Well, I don’t say…”–and “are you gonna keep going till you eat the whole thing?” And finally, when she talks about militia she shares the cake with the black co-host. A white women and a black man. A fraught pairing still.

    • Yael Ksander says:

      Thanks, Doug, wonderful extension of my interpretation. And yes, I think Fey does acknowledge and critique her own privilege and powerlessness here. And the fact that Che reaches over and finally grabs cake as well is a nod to his own sense of doom and disenfranchisement. Thanks again.

  3. Jim Lynch says:

    Clap…clap…clap…

    As the father of teen daughters, this issue has never ceased to fascinate and horrify me. I am often at a loss.

    I have to confess that I’ve never watched “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”; if it’s not streaming, I’m going to have to buy it now and watch it today. The mention of Beatty made me think of the film “Cool Hand Luke” and the absurd and gluttonous egg-eating contest. Hmmmm…

    I’m often not proud to admit that I am from PA, but the state *has* produced some solid folks like TF. She is a national treasure!

    Please keep writing these pieces, Yael–a friend of ours whom I miss dearly would have approved greatly…

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