During an early scene in “Singin’ in the Rain,” there’s a moment that I’ve always found memorable, and mildly confusing. A man throwing a party shows off a massive cake and tells movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, “An American in Paris”) that there’s something “special” about it. And then Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds, “How the West Was Won”) pops out with a big performer’s smile, but when she looks down at Don, a man she had literally just rejected and lied to and generally belittled out of spite for the fact that he was being a jerk, her smile fades and is replaced with a look of shock.
The idea of a woman popping out of a cake being more surprised than the people witnessing said moment is kind of absurd. But at the same time, isn’t the idea of a woman popping out of a cake already absurd?
It’s a trope that I’ve heard about more than witnessed: It happens occasionally in the context of celebrity events and historical parties, as well as films and TV shows (including “The Bachelor”). The point here is that it’s not a common part of life, but is a recognizable trope; if I were to ask someone about “those cakes that people jump out of,” most people would know what I was talking about. There’s a societal understanding or at least acknowledgment that pop-out cakes exist, and a general association with them as signs of surprise, celebration, wealth and status.
Truthfully, I can’t believe I haven’t questioned the idea of pop-out cakes sooner, because they are even more bizarre the more you think about them. There are so many pieces that go into the creation of a pop-out cake, and every single one of them is strange. As a result, I have a lot of questions.
Who came up with this?
The answer is apparently the Romans — which, unlike someone popping out of a cake, is not much of a surprise. It was originally with pies; it became popular among the English to make it appear as if live animals were popping out of pies (which is how we get “four-and-twenty blackbirds”). But I more want to know who exactly came up with this idea, the same way I want to know how someone looked at a pineapple and said, “That looks edible!” or how someone looked at the sea and said, “This looks like a great spot to build Venice.” I want to know who looked at a cake and said, “You know what would make this better? If it was bigger, but instead of more cake, it had a person inside of it.” It’s a chain of thoughts that will forever baffle me.
Who even makes these cakes?
In my opinion, it’s not worth asking how these cakes are made — there are videos and instructions about DIYs on the internet. I’m more interested in how it feels to make this kind of cake, especially for bakers that are making pop-out cakes made of real cake. Most pop-out cakes are made of cardboard and covered in frosting to make them look like real cakes. For a true cake maker, it must be humiliating to have your one true passion be reduced to making a prop so that some rich guy can feel cool when a girl jumps out of his cake.
Some of them don’t bother with cake altogether — you can rent fake pop-out cakes for a decently steep price. The ones made of real cake are even more expensive — which means that these bakers are making a cake with a giant part of it taken out but charging more than a fully-intact cake would cost. Maybe they’re the real winners here.
If you’re in the cake, how do you know when to pop out?
Because I cannot imagine that sound travels well through layers of cardboard and frosting. Is there a signal, like a musical cue, that you have to hit at exactly the right time? Obviously being crouched in the sweaty, cramped space within the cake would be torturous enough, but then there’s the attempt to smash through the cake and get out gracefully at the exact perfect moment. What if you’re too early? It would be simply mortifying; a smashed-through pop-out cake cannot be un-smashed-through.
Then there’s the other part of it: the moment when you emerge. If you’re in the unfortunate position of being Kathy Selden, you might find yourself face-to-face with a very famous man that you just emotionally destroyed mere hours before. I don’t know who I would expect to see the moment I jumped out of the cake, and I can’t imagine it would be easy to control my emotions. In all truth, Kathy’s only slightly stunned face is impressive; I probably would’ve fallen out of the cake altogether.
Why don’t men pop out of cakes?
I’m serious. Imagine a large man breaking out of a giant cake — imagine Aidan Hutchinson busting out of a cake. I’d certainly be surprised.
The humor in that might be part of the problem. In movies or TV shows, if a man pops out of a cake, it’s usually done as a gag — i.e., they were expecting a beautiful woman, and a large and/or hairy and/or ugly and/or just general man is a disappointment. Or it’s used as a trick, like in “Some Like It Hot,” where a gangster pops out of a cake and starts shooting people. In this case, the element of surprise is used to their advantage for a move that is equal parts brilliant, ludicrous and violent.
But in general, if a man in a pop-out cake is supposed to be funny, then a woman in a pop-out cake is supposed to be … what? Elegant? I doubt it; clearly, being covered in frosting makes it easy to dance.
What would it feel like to be the recipient of a pop-out cake?
Honestly, I would be a little disappointed, and upset on behalf of the woman who was forced to crouch in a cake on her hands and knees for a significant amount of time just to be treated like an object. I’d rather just eat cake.
Who wants this, sincerely?
The answer is, as always, men. Not to get on my feminist high horse, but the idea behind putting a woman in a cake is the same reason that the Wikipedia article about pop-out cakes exclusively refers to the woman in the cake as “the lady”: It’s textbook male gaze. These cakes are associated with scantily clad women for the purpose of entertainment. The concept is built by men, for men. Calling the women involved “ladies” doesn’t change the fact that they’re being used.
Pop-out cakes haven’t been particularly popular as of late, but it’s still an idea that exists without people thinking about it much. I personally think that it’s something we need to devote a little bit more thought to — at least to understand the sexism and the hypocrisy behind it.
My questions persist, and many of them remain unanswered — perhaps because some are simply unanswerable. But I think the answer is obvious: Let’s get rid of whatever societal vestiges of pop-out cakes remain and simply move on. The phrase is let them eat cake, not let them make someone wait for a while and then jump out of said cake. I think we should all just eat the cake instead.