Cake, Computers, and Conformity

BY JULIA CHRISTENSEN

Part 1: Examining Gender in Rosanna Pansino’s The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook

Introduction
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Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino

What do the Loch Ness Monster, moon phases, flash drives, and hashtags have in common? According to YouTube personality and host of the online baking show Nerdy Nummies, Rosanna Pansino, they all fall under the terms “nerdy” or “geeky.” In 2011, Pansino began a series of baking tutorials that culminated into The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook, published in late 2015. Pansino’s recipes and fun, bubbly attitude embody an interesting dichotomy between exploring geek culture, which carries a masculine connotation, and embracing her femininity. While this cookbook branches beyond stereotypical gender biases that separate women from advanced academia like math and science, several aspects of Nerdy Nummies actually reinforce and regress the sexist ideologies Pansino initially appears to transgress. These qualities include the simplified presentation of Pansino’s recipes, the utilization of her femininity within patriarchal norms, and her determination to experience geek culture through the typically-female realm of baking, thus re-establishing her as only capable of expressing herself through the stereotypically subordinate, female role of being in the kitchen.

The Distinct Simplification and Feminization of Nerdy Nummies’ Visual Aesthetic and Recipes
Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 76
Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 76

To begin, this cookbook’s physical presentation embodies certain undertones that conform to gender expectations, thus contradicting Pansino’s claim to cross gender boundaries. Nerdy Nummies’ aesthetic is bright and attractive: rounded font, pastel color palette, and illustrative food photography present Rosanna’s recipes (in her cookbook and YouTube videos) as rather simple and childish. This easy-to-read quality makes the cookbook accessible to younger audiences, but simultaneously “dumbs down” the advanced scientific phenomena that inspire each dessert. The content’s complexity is completely void for the sake of appearance: each recipe features a colorful header, large type, easy-to-follow instructions, and a short explanatory paragraph (Figure 1). These passages occasionally incorporate facts— for example, the Chemistry Lab Cake recipe notes that “gluten networks form as you mix the batter, while carbon dioxide escaping from baking soda helps the cake rise as it heats”—but each one closes with a joke or a pun—for example, the Atom Cookie blurb finishes with “Just remember: Never trust an atom…they make up everything!”[i]. This implies that baking and decorating is the most important factor, and scientific technicalities are irrelevant or joke-worthy. Is the “geeky” content even significant, or just a convenient outlet to create a variety of colorful treats? Pansino’s commitment to her cookbook’s thematic elements seems to outweigh her focus on the content, thus bringing into question her investment in the “geek culture” she claims to immerse herself in. Her focus on the cookbook’s visual aesthetic, more so than the complexity and intricacy of the scientific information, puts her back into the inferior female expectation that she is ironically trying to branch out from. Nerdy Nummies aims to join math, science, and baking into a comprehensive and intellectual event. Ironically, the overall presentation’s undertones actually uphold the gendered bias that women can only express themselves within the domestic, kitchen sphere, and solely respond to easy, carefully crafted guidance.

Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 7
Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 7

Pansino claims that both the geeky theme and resulting treats are “sure to please the geek in all of us”: she aims to satisfy both a mental and physical craving, so one may learn new things while enjoying an easy, comprehensible activity[ii]. In her analysis on gender and American cooking, Jessamyn Neuhaus discusses the way that 20th century domestic ideology enforced that to be feminine is to satisfy others: women should first and foremost “cater to the needs and wants of their husbands, and, in short…embody femininity”[iii]. It is interesting to note that Pansino is clearly skilled in the kitchen, yet chooses to only include sweet, sugary, dessert-like foods that often hold a motherly, feminine association. The very category of food she chooses to explore in a “geeky” context happens to be the most traditionally domestic – this point will be discussed further upon unpacking the significance of the geek culture focus. In drawing these pieces together, concerning Nerdy Nummies’ presentation and recipe choice, Pansino actually redefines herself as not a powerful female cook, but one whose understanding of advanced concepts cannot escape the domestic realm in which she is most comfortable.

The Utilization of Pansino’s Physicality and Femininity Within A Patriarchal Framework
Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p.
Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 38

In addition to her writing style and content, Pansino’s presentation of herself in Nerdy Nummies conforms to patriarchal ideologies, contrasting the post-feminist read in which her womanhood signifies power and rebellion, and unintentionally reinscribing her cookbook as regressive rather than transgressive. The stereotypically girly theme in this cookbook’s layout, language, and colors reinforces her femininity, which is used as a tool to attract readers and introduce every chapter. The cookbook’s introductory chapters feature three full-page portraits of Pansino looking doll-like in a low-cut shirt, short skirt, and baker’s hat: she poses with a rolling pin and laughs dramatically while “eating” a large slice of cake. This immediately establishes the “woman in the kitchen” stereotype – the kitchen must be all she knows and where she is happiest!  Nerdy Nummies is divided into six color-coded sections: Math & Science, Space, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Gaming, Tech & Web, and Geeky Treats. At the start of each, Pansino displays a photograph of herself dressed up in a silly outfit with full makeup that emphasizes her attractive body and young, smiling face.

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Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 82

The Space chapter (right) sees her covered in sparkles, jewelry, and a short galaxy-purple dress; in the Geeky Treats chapter (below), her hair is in little buns, she wears a form-fitting shirt and mini skirt, and carries a notebook and pencil to complete a look reminiscent of an innocent school girl. Pansino makes sure her readers do not forget her feminine persona (in spite of her quirky, nerdy personality!): including the book’s cover, this cookbook features ten full-page photographs of her dolled up in different outfits, highlighting her flawless makeup and hair, curvy feminine physique, and innocent smile. She self-identifies as a geek, which typically holds negative, socially awkward connotations, yet consistently emphasizes her beauty and charm. This offers a double standard: it seems she pretends to look geeky but knows her attractiveness puts her above real socially inept people. In this way, she remains separate from (and superior to) geekdom.

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Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 222

Nerdy Nummies’ extensive portrayal of Pansino’s body (another ideal that might draw readers—in addition to learning new things, this cookbook unconsciously promises thigh gaps and luscious, long hair) represents patriarchal expectations of women in the kitchen. Cooking is a messy activity, but domestic ideologies put pressure on women to always satisfy their husbands and families, which means performing the complicated tasks while remaining desirable and beautiful in the process. In her YouTube videos and cookbook’s photographs, Pansino remains clean, done up, and attractive: no messes are made! She is a professional cook who stays simultaneously productive and clean, but Nerdy Nummies’ uses her face and body to introduce, communicate, and enhance mathematical and scientific concepts. Her attractive image outlines how she experiences science and math, making her femininity a key factor to her understanding, rather than an irrelevant piece of her identity. Anybody can love science, regardless of their gender, but the fact that Panino so heavily emphasizes how “girly” she is seems to suggest that she uses her looks to attract readers rather than her knowledge. Pansino’s femininity is a tool used to legitimize herself in this historically male realm, rather than an empowering aspect of her identity as female lover of science.

The Rendering of Geekdom as Acceptable for Women Through Baking
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Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 148

Finally, Pansino’s presentation and communication of geek culture is problematic in that she has to use her femininity to legitimize geek culture, thus automatically stigmatizing “nerdy” activities and putting herself back in the traditionally feminine sphere that she is trying to escape. First, the cookbook’s feminization of geekiness reinforces the separated male (public) and female (private) spheres. The labels “geek” and “nerd” are gendered: both have masculine associations. Searching “geek” in Google images yields a majority of photos featuring men. Here, however, masculinity does not mean a stereotypically strong, rational, manly-man. Merriam-Webster defines a geek as “a person often of intellectual bent who is disliked”[iv] and a nerd as “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits”[v]. How does Pansino turn this stigma on its head to make geekdom something desirable, fun, and quirky? She uses her feminine appearance to legitimize its negative qualities, and in doing so communicates that being female is essential to her understanding of the complexities of geek culture.

This brings to question – what is geekdom? The variety of topics in Pansino’s cookbook is enormous, ranging from Periodic Table Cupcakes to Wifi Cheesecake, Star Constellation Cookies to Petrie Dish Jellies, and Flash Drive Krispie treats to Chess Cake. Pansino’s comfort labeling so many things as “nerdy” diminishes the academic aspect of this cookbook: there is no uniqueness between subjects since it’s all embarrassing and geeky! A certain shame underlies her discussion of geek culture, such as ridiculing herself in dress-up photos. By dedicating this book to “the geek in all of us!”[vi] Pansino treats loving video games or geology as a secret, embarrassing pastime that everybody secretly harbors but is too guilty to share. Interestingly, this correlates to how diet culture treats the fattening, sugary desserts her cookbooks features as guilt-inducing – the treats are also something special and forbidden that we get to share with Pansino. Although she means to embrace love of coding or science fiction, the ease with which she distributes the negative, “geek” label reduces these concepts’ importance. As discussed previously, in feminizing geek culture, Pansino both embraces her womanhood in this historically male realm, while heavily simplifying it for her readers. Perhaps her target audience is self-identified geeks who need easy cooking instructions to remedy their negligent social skills, in an attempt at sending an “I’m one of you” message. Nerdy Nummies brings gender and geek culture together, but unfortunately yields more conflict than cohesion.

To close, it is interesting that Pansino expresses her love for nerdy concepts and advanced academia through baking, a historically feminine activity. In her essay on Campbell’s Soup and traditional gender roles, Katherine Parkin notes that 20th century American culture established cooking as “a gender-specific activity…women should cook for others to express their love”[vii]. Preparing food is expression, and American women’s subordinate marital role made the kitchen their only outlet for that expression. Now, in 2015, Pansino upholds this expectation: she must communicate her knowledge through a dumbed-down, feminized filter while baking. She does break historical gender norms by simultaneously embracing her femininity and investment in intellectual pursuits, but the relentless portrayal of her physical beauty and self-image produces the opposite effect. Instead of delving into the complexities of academic language in her cookbook, she only borrows pieces of the “nerd” aesthetic to augment her appearance as attractive to those within and beyond “geekdom.” Rather than appearing a baking-savvy woman traversing gender expectations via her passion for math and science, Pansino promotes her incapability of adequately expressing her knowledge except via this domestic act. Pansino confines herself within the kitchen’s ideologies, limiting her intellectual credibility.

Conclusion
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Photo Credit: Rosanna Pansino, Nerdy Nummies, p. 110

The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook is an interesting glimpse into the intersection between gendered ideologies and geek culture in 2015. Over the past few decades, Americans have made tremendous progress in gender equality and understanding, socially and politically, however, works of literature like this one still bring into question whether historical, sexist expectations still remain (consciously or unconsciously). Underneath the initial assumption that Pansino uses her femininity as power to break stereotypes lies an immovable conformity to outdated gender roles and the necessity to use her femininity to simplify and justify geek culture. The presentation of recipes, her own physicality, and geekdom undermine the feminist notions Pansino aims for, and illuminate where gender issues are still ingrained today.


Part 2: A Close Read of Pansino’s Nerdy Nummies YouTube Channel

Pansino’s fame began in 2011 when she posted a video online informing YouTubers how to make a Star Mario cake. Instantly, she gathered followers, produced more and more videos, and eventually, in 2015, published the cookbook that has been analyzed above. In addition to cooking videos, she’s also become a YouTube sensation who has filmed tours of her home, music videos, and videos with other famous vloggers. Here, I’d like to acknowledge the underlying regressive ideology within her online presence, in addition to her cookbook. While in her cookbook, Pansino consistently demonstrates academic prowess by focusing on treats with a math-science base, her YouTube videos are more focused on geeky franchises, and she relentlessly self-deprecates and diminishes her intellect.

Here are a selection of videos that demonstrate this unfortunate treatment of both her own legitimacy and the content that inspires her culinary creations. Each photo is a screen capture of the referenced video – click the YouTube links to watch each video! Pansino’s entire Nerdy Nummies channel can be found here.

Mini Raspberry Pi Bars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahbp4KoqNl4

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To begin, it is interesting to note that while her YouTube channel came first, many of the recipes in her cookbook do not appear online. Almost all of her YouTube videos focus on “nerdy” franchises or commercial products, like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, MarioKart, and even apps and emojis. Her cookbook is full of academic concepts that are enforced with occasional scientific supplements, such as atoms, circuits, and the concept of pi. The only video on her YouTube channel that relates to actual mathematics or science is her instructional video for Mini Raspberry Pi Bars. At 0:32 – 1:05, she explains to the audience briefly what pi means, but the focus of her description falls on her inability to remember the numbers of pi, with which she closes, “Ohhh, see I’m losing it.” Why does she ridicule her own intellect? Why is there a lack of academia in her online videos, and such a heavily focus on commercial fandoms? Will that draw a bigger audience? And if so, why does her cookbook focus on more scientific concepts? In my opinion, Pansino’s exclusion of academic-themed treats online might relate to the fact that they aren’t as “fun” or “interesting” to make, and she doesn’t have as much to say or perform about them.

BB8 Cake Pops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RirCUnCKke4

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In her BB8 Cake Pops video, Pansino again makes fun of herself and reminds the audience subconsciously that her skills are embarrassing. Upon referencing Star Wars – the “nerdy” franchise that has inspired this treat – she uses a baby-like voice and claims she “hasn’t had enough training” when pretending to use the force to mix her batter, from 1:49 – 2:20. Not only does this diminish her professional nature, she seems to be actively trying to minimize her intelligence and create this clumsy, silly persona. She also doesn’t sincerely address her passion for this franchise – she can only communicate in a joking way, for fear of seeming too “nerdy.” Again, she separates herself by positioning herself as a geek, but not too geeky.

My Little Pony Rainbow Cupcakes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdeMkg_5m9w

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In addition to being careful not to appear “too geeky,” Pansino frequently reminds her audience that she is very “girly.” Pansino expands the geek culture umbrella to include everything from Wifi to Doctor Who to castles, and one of her most popular videos with over 34 million views is her My Little Pony Rainbow Cupcakes. The first minute and a half of this video features Pansino advertising her flashy My Little Pony apron (“Brony Pony Cutie Pie apron”), dancing around, pretending to ride on a horse, and singing and making small squeaky noises. As a viewer, this performance slightly detracts from her professionalism and is an almost cringe-worthy attempt at being “geeky.” She is so made-up and fancy that when she makes fun of herself, plays awkward or “geeks out” over something, it feels fake and childish. Furthermore, most of these performances are accompanied with a reference to how she is “so girly” (see 5:05 of her House Tour video below when she explicitly mentions embarrassment at her femininity). As noted in my cookbook analysis, Pansino seems to use her femininity to legitimize geekdom’s negative qualities.

In these videos, Pansino demonstrates her exquisite skills when baking and decorating, but consistently reminds the audience that she is joking when she describes her passion for these “geeky” subjects, or flails about in an overdone performance of femininity. She balances this interesting dichotomy of engaging in the traditionally-female activity of baking but inspired by the traditionally-male realm of advanced academia, however makes a point in each of her videos to joke about in a self-deprecating way that reduces her intellect and diminishes her passion for the topics that inspire her baking creations.

(As an extra feature, here is Pansino’s first music video and original song, “Perfect Together” whose lyrics are all food-related!)

Works Cited

“geek.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

“nerd.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

Neuhaus, Jessamyn. Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Pansino, Rosanna. The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook: Sweet Treats for the Geek in All of Us. New York, NY: Atria Books, 2015.

Parkin, Katherine. “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, 51-67. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Images

Pansino, Rosanna. The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook: Sweet Treats for the Geek in All of Us. New York, NY: Atria Books, 2015.

Cover photo image can be found here.

notes

[i] Rosanna Pansino, The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook: Sweet Treats for the Geek in All of Us. (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2015), 44, 48.

[ii] Pansino, The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook, 8.

[iii] Jessamyn Neuhaus, Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 219.

[iv] “geek.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

[v] “nerd.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003.

[vi] Pansino, The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook, 8.

[vii] Katherine Parkin, “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, 51-67. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 52.