The have your cake and eat it too theory of culture
Netflix's 'Is it Cake?,' a cooking show based on a meme, slices open the conflicting incentives driving contemporary media.
In addition to the podcast, we like to write things. This is an essay by Emilie.
Lately, whenever I open Facebook, I’ve been noticing a new type of viral video popping up in my feed. In one example of the format, someone ties a bunch of matches together with a rubber band, carefully deposits a number of egg yolks on top, and then tries to light the matches on fire. The point of the gag, presumably, is to see if it is possible to cook egg yolks in this way; in some versions of it I’ve seen, it’s billed as an experiment. But then, either by accident or orchestrated accident, all sorts of things get in the way.
Egg yolks slide off of the side of the bundle of matches, or burst in a cascade of yellow goo. Matches self-extinguish before the fire can take hold, and the video’s creators struggle, somewhat implausibly, to figure out how to light them — for example, sticking the end of a match into a yolk. By the time the moment of truth arrives and the bed of matches goes up in flames, 17 or 19 or even 28 minutes have elapsed. Sometimes it never arrives at all. Sometimes it does, but the video cuts off before you can discern whether the experiment was successful.
At first, I thought this genre of content was just the latest iteration of the “gross cooking hack” trend I edited a story about last year — if you’ve ever seen a clip of someone assembling a gigantic serving of nachos by mixing industrial quantities of queso, salsa, and sour cream on the surface of a table, or soaking a pineapple in a tub full of skittles, then you know what I’m talking about. But then I noticed a similar brand of delayed gratification at play in other types of videos: A doctor wearing surgical gloves spends 13 minutes trying to extract something slimy-looking, and potentially alive, that has burrowed inside of a white dude’s dreadlock. (It’s just a rubber toy). Over seven minutes, a “hairdresser” submerges a bright red wig in a pot of boiling water, claiming this to be a strategy for removing hair dye. (It doesn’t actually work). A questionable and potentially very dangerous method for removing ear wax, with a disappointing final reveal: “I hope she doesn't have a peanut allergy cuz that is straight peanut butter,” someone writes in the comments, describing the ear wax.
Mostly, these durational gags seem to inspire anger in their algorithmic recipients: It’s not unusual to see people writing they wish they could get 17 or 28 minutes of their life back. And yet — perhaps because they tap into some quasi-sexual, lizard brain part of us that derives pleasure from the tension between anticipation and payoff — these videos all have tens of thousands, and sometimes millions, of views.
This isn’t necessarily surprising. You can trace nearly all of these videos back to “Satire/Parody” studios that specialize in these cynical algorithm plays. And on its blog, Facebook states that it prioritizes long videos that “inspire people to continue watching”: “So be sure to plan your video’s opening, build-up, tension, pacing and payoff in ways that will catch a viewer’s attention and hold it until the end,” the company writes. But these clips are a depressing reminder that in the context of the platform economy, those of us who aren’t making videos like these are fighting a losing battle: Why bother trying to make work that is smart, meaningful, or even remotely enjoyable, when this is the sort of content that always wins?
In 2022, it’s hard to imagine a piece of music, art or journalism that doesn’t wrestle with this dynamic in some way. But some wrestle with it much more flagrantly than others — and I can’t think of a better example than Netflix’s Is It Cake?, a wildly popular new cooking competition show based, quite literally, on a meme. Remember that viral video compilation that Buzzfeed’s Tasty posted a few years back featuring the work of a Turkish artist named Tuba Geçkil who makes sculptures that look just like a shoe, or a houseplant, or a roll of toilet paper — until she cuts them open and reveals that they are cakes? Well, Is it Cake? bottles that mesmerizing reveal moment and turns it into the basis of an eight-episode contest.
Every week, three realistic cake artists spend eight hours crafting a cake-based dupe of something like a suitcase, a bowling pin, or a sneaker, then present them to a panel of celebrity judges who squint at them from a far distance (???) and try to pick them out of a line-up of similar non-cake objects. Then, SNL cast member and host Mikey Day takes a giant knife, maniacally exclaims the show’s recurring punchline — “Is it cake?” — and cuts into the one the judges select. The baker who manages to fool the judges (or, in the event of a draw, whose cake they deem to be the prettiest and tastiest) gets $5000 and other bonuses. In the finale, the three most successful bakers compete for a $50,000 cash prize.
On a level, it’s understandable why they turned the cake meme into a show: Watching objects get sliced open to reveal layers of sponge, curd, and frosting is addictive. And, as we discussed with journalist-turned-tv-writer Cord Jefferson on our episode about Succession, Hollywood’s accelerating tendency towards risk aversion makes the industry partial to projects that have already been audience-tested in some way: Why else would we see remake after remake, or get to binge on no fewer than three high-profile scripted dramas centering a prominent 2010s scam artist (Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann) within the span of two months?
But there’s something about Is It Cake? that makes it a particularly illuminating example of the way commercial considerations infiltrate creative ones: Its nature as an attempt to juice an already-successful meme for clicks is so bald, it can seem as if the show is attempting to justify its own existence. And it does this, I’d argue, in a particularly “2022” way: Not by using its attention-grabbing premise as a vehicle for centering the humanity of its contestants, as the Great British Baking Show does so well, or detailing the fascinating craftsmanship that goes into these cakes, but by reminding us at every opportunity that it is aware of its own ridiculousness.
The glittering, deep blue stage set and emphatic bubble fonts look like a cartoonish throwback to Family Feud or The Price is Right. Day seems less like a game show host than an actor openly satirizing one on a Saturday Night Live skit, modulating his voice to sound extra “eviiiiiil” when it comes time to summon the spinning cake wall (another bit of 1970s game show camp) or bring down the knife of judgment. Even his endless, cloying repetition of the phrase “Is it Cake?” drives home the surreality of the whole affair: Why not just say, “Is it a cake?” The contestants are baking cakes, after all. By leaning on the hashtag-specific turn of phrase Geçkil used to promote her Instagram videos (#everythingiscake), is the show gesturing at some larger point about our inability to discern reality from fiction in a news cycle that feels like an endless succession of “Bingo card” moments, including the fact that this particular piece of entertainment even got made?
In its extreme self-awareness, its nature as a cultural object that exists to parody itself, Is It Cake? exemplifies what has become probably the dominant culture-industry strategy for navigating the attentional and economic dynamics of our time: The show is having its cake and eating it too. Or, put another way, it’s thinking in platform logic first, then going through all sorts of contortions to justify the fact of its creation. Sure, there’s something cynical about making a show out of a meme, but at least it knows it’s being cynical. Yes, it’s clearly tapping into the same anticipation-reward loop that a viral video about a bug in a dreadlock does, but it’s doing it in a way that feels elevated, stylish, even a little smart.
Having one’s cake and eating it too isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably necessary for survival in today’s information economy. While working in the trenches of digital media, I used to tell my writers to approach their pitches using “Trojan horse” logic. Regardless of the topic, to get it past the gate (i.e., approved for publication), they just had to find a framing conceit that would convince the powers that be that it had a shot at generating clicks on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google search, or whatever platform the company I worked for happened to be focusing on at the time.
I could write an entire book about how the fact that writers need to worry about this at all is warping the craft and integrity of journalism in all sorts of insidious and even dangerous ways. But in the best of cases, I also think that the Trojan horse mentality can be a tool for subversion. Think: Boot Boyz Biz using the scarcity-driven allure of the streetwear drop to pay tribute to radical theorists like Karl Marx and Stafford Beer, or the Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF, who got sued by Nike last year after refabbing the brand’s sneakers with a drop of blood to create the notorious Lil Nas X Satan Shoe. As Metalabel co-founder Yancey Strickler put it on The Culture Journalist last week, “The goal of MSCHF is to reveal how manipulative capitalism is by making drops that are really manipulative using various tools of capitalism to reinforce that idea.”
But there are risks to the “have your cake and eat it too” mentality: What do we miss out on when the only cultural works that see the light of day are the ones that slot neatly into Trojan horses? I’ll never forget being told by a media company years ago that we couldn’t cover a story about a tragedy impacting members of a marginalized community, partly because it felt too “local” — which is New York media speak for any city that isn’t New York — and partly because, at the time, the company was only greenlighting stories that had already “gone national” on social media. I thought about this again last month, when I developed a nightly habit of binging on CNN’s non-stop coverage of the war in Ukraine. CNN’s on-the-ground reporting on the conflict and its horrific human toll was and continues to be vivid and powerful. But aside from the confirmation hearing leading up to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s history-making Supreme Court appointment, I can’t remember the network airing any prime-time stories in March that didn’t relate to the invasion in some way. I wondered: What other calamities are happening around the world right now that viewers will never hear about?
Internally, media companies use all sorts of noble-sounding justifications to explain their coverage decisions. We report on the news that our audience cares about. We do thorough, trustworthy reporting on the biggest stories of the day. Or, in the case of culture publications whose bread and butter is writing about viral stories like the cake meme: We are taking the smartest approach to reporting on the dumb thing that everyone on Media Twitter is talking about, in consultation with university credentialed experts in fondant production and historical cake-cutting practices. Having our cake and eating it too.
Ultimately, these are all just rationalizations for the bigger elephant in the room: At the end of March, CNN announced that its all-Ukraine, all-the-time strategy had led it to surpass “last year’s historic ratings highs,” beating out MSNBC in both total viewers and viewers in the 25-54 age demographic. In case you’re looking for a good primer on the ways that financial incentives drive coverage decisions, I highly recommend watching the media episode of Jon Stewart’s The Problem with Jon Stewart, and in particular his extremely uncomfortable interview with former Disney CEO Bob Iger. At one point, Stewart asks Iger if he can imagine a successful news company that doesn’t engage in ratings-driven story selection or use hyperbole to drive engagement. Iger responds: “I just don’t know how practical that is.”
Perhaps it is foolish to extrapolate such disturbing conclusions from a show like Is It Cake. It’s a game show that, despite its self-awareness, never tries to be anything more than a game show. But it’s also a reminder of what we miss when the payoff — the moment of reveal — becomes the fulcrum around which cultural production revolves. Despite the show’s sarcastic framing of their work, I came out of it being filled with serious respect and admiration for the contestants. We don’t always find out what their confections taste like (the show’s premise reduces this question to little more than an afterthought, after all), but these people are artists, and they do this for a living. And it clearly takes an enormous amount of skill and ingenuity to learn how to make a funfetti almond cake with almond buttercream and popping candies look like a pile of red Solo Cups, as contestant Andrew Fuller, owner of Sugar Freakshow in Des Moines, Iowa, does on episode five.
Though the episodes are almost 40 minutes long, the show squeezes the eight hours they spend making these cakes, along with occasional bits of backstory on their lives, into a little over 10 minutes. Like Cleo Levin, who wrote about the show for Slate, I wanted to see “close-up of the cakes,” to “learn how they mimic the gooeynes of an oyster, or the texture of rubber.” I wanted to know more about these people: how they stumbled into this unusual line of work, what it means to them to be using their hands to recreate objects that are normally created by machines, or by a series of humans on an assembly line, or by nature. I wanted to know more about Tuba Geçkil, the meme’s creator, though she is absent from the proceedings, and I couldn’t locate her name in the credits. After watching all eight episodes of this show, would viewers even know that she exists?
Instead, over and over again, we find ourselves observing these creations at a remove, squinting alongside the celebrity judges to divine the answer to the only question that seems to matter in this universe: Is it cake? The host lowers the knife, and after the surprise wears off, we’re filled with a sensation of emptiness that can only possibly be alleviated by consuming more minutes of this show, more cut-open cakes, more reality-bending memes. It’s a reminder that trying to have your cake and eat it too, in this information economy, is also a losing battle: The Trojan horse is cut open, but there is nothing inside.