Friday, October 5, 2012

The Screams of Sugar: Agency, Violence & Confection

Sugar || Redux

Guest Post by Alan Montroso


I. The First Bite

As a response to M Bychowski’s lovely blog post on sugar, I argue that sugar doesn't merely whisper; it screams. Sugar roars & vociferously asserts its agency as it rends & hews the objects it transverses. Glossing over the problematic & primarily violent sociopolitical history of sugar as an agent, if not prime operator, in transnational networks of addiction and suppression, I instead explore sugar’s confectionary significance as a feminine product in the 21st century


II. The Sugary Filling

Western, and particularly American, culture exalts “sweetness” as a virtue of its women. Young boys are taught to recite the trite Valentine’s Day rhyme “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue. Sugar is Sweet and So are You” (the “you” being a female) as though it is an essential truth. As the cupcake fad continues to stretch its long tendrils into the desiring nostrils of consumers (grocery stores and home goods shops, long-established loci of Western housewives, now sell such an abundance of cupcake preparation supplies and paraphernalia that even the most inchoate baker is expected to dazzle and delight the insatiable slaves to this unyielding craze), women are expected to hone their skills as bakers of these frosting-saturated delicacies, thus limiting the woman’s sphere of influence to the kitchen while simultaneously linking the image of woman to the delicate and childlike portrait of a brilliantly frosted cupcake. 

Sweetness is a metric for evaluating femaleness, and the very act of producing or consuming a sugar product identifies a female who is candy-coated on the inside. We stuff our women with chocolates and cupcakes and flower petals and, should we cut one open, only pure white sugar crystals will come spilling out of the wound. Sugar imposes its agency as an operator of capitalist networks of consumption by transforming the very innards of female bodies into symbolic arterial networks of honey and nectar.

Yet sugar has a very real and material agency and ability to act upon the human body beyond its potency as an anthropocentric metaphor that defines the innards of a woman. As Jane Bennett argues, “In the eating encounter, all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance.” [i]

Thus, when we consume sugar, it does not merely disappear inside the body, but instead engages the body in a performative dance wherein both bodies act upon and transform each other. The human digestive system breaks down sugar into easily digestible elements in an attempt to harness energy from fructose and glucose, but sugar also acts upon the body that is breaking it down, making observable changes to the biological system of the consumer. Sugar has observable and measurable effects on our neurochemistry and metabolism and, even though we are aware of the deleterious effects it has once inside the human, sugar’s likely contributions to cardiometabolic diseases (sedimentation) and obesity (substance) [ii][iii][iv], we continue to perpetuation the notion that sugar fuels women, as though the female body, being composed of sugar, is immune to the corruptions of this delectable carbohydrate.


III. The Sugary Frosting

Popular music culture is saturated with images of sugar-as-costume and sugar-as-accessory. Superstar Katy Perry dons a cupcake bra in the music video for her song “California Gurls” as she prances about a mock Los Angeles-as-Candy Land dreamscape and eventually fires off two whipped cream canisters from atop her breasts, simulating a sexual climax in which breast milk substitutes for male ejaculate. M cites the Christina Aguilera song, “Candyman” which lyrically urges women to desire sexual contact with men with the same fervor that defines their craving for candy. In her music video, Christina jives 50’s style with an entire naval crew while wearing a bubble-gum pink dress so short her underwear are exposed to the camera like an innocent joke hidden inside a gum wrapper. And female rap singer Nicki Minaj is notorious for her cotton candy inspired wig fashions and the conspicuous lack of nearly any other clothing. Under the guise of fashion,” sugar carmelizes the boundaries of the female body, defining the female form as colorful, edible, slender and scantily clad.

These bodies hardly resemble the honest figure of a woman who consumes vast amounts of sugar, but instead underscore sugar’s manipulative and insidious ability to stimulate desire for sexual satiation. In the aforementioned Katy Perry music video, the pop star prances childlike around a dreamland board game of sugary delights as she frees other candy-clothed women from traps fashioned from desserts, only so they can all gyrate together on a beach wearing nothing but sparkling daisy dukes and pastry bras. By displaying the “sweetness” of women on the outside of their bodies, these characters are transformed into delicious desserts meant to be unwrapped and devoured. 

The board game itself, the entire candy land of edible women, is being controlled and manipulated by male rap star Snoop Dog, and the women shamelessly shake their sensual organs in a symbolic gesture of sexual subservience to a dominating male figure, while Perry chirps lyrics like, “Sun kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle” and other thinly veiled metaphors for fellatio. The lesson, then, is that if a woman is as sweet on the outside as she is within, she is sexually available and amenable to masculine desires. Sugar lasciviously laps at the flesh of women whilst it more violently carves out the very shapes of female bodies.


IV. The Sugar Rush

Sugar is an agent of violence. Like a razor blade secretly nestled inside Halloween candy, sugar masks its sharper edges in polychromatic wrappers and gummy coatings. It carves and cleaves the bodies of women only to pinion them into sexual submission. Self-fashioned underground electro-pop star Jeffree Star taps into this violence as he appropriates and subverts stereotypical images of female “sweetness” and sugary goods by rending his own flesh into a cross-dressing, gender deviant body. 

The male sexed performer employs the candy coated fashions of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, including hot pink hair and lollipop accessories, to superimpose a recognizably female caricature upon his own masculine body. He also appropriates the image of the candy-loving-thus-hyper-sexualized female by deploying lyrics about delighting in lollipops that are metaphors for fellatio as thinly veiled as the lyrics to the Katy Perry song quoted above. By displaying the cut-and-paste figure of the pop star female upon his own body, Jeffree exposes the constructedness of the sugarcoated female gender boundary.

Beyond merely subverting the gendered symbolic currency of sugar-simulating apparel, Star also incorporates violent imagery into his carefully crafted persona by accessorizing with neck-braces and faux nosebleeds. In the song “Cupcakes Taste Like Violence,” he describes this visual montage:

My hair looks like cotton candy/My heart is made of sequins/Blowpops and meat cleavers…My skin looks like vanilla/My mouth is made of sugar/Syringes and cupcakes…I’m good enough to eat.

This violence is both the violence of sugar upon the gendered body, sugar’s socio-cultural influence on the shapes and features of women, as well as the violence of a body subjected to excessive sugar. The juxtaposition of blowpops and meat cleavers, of cupcakes and syringes, underscore the similarity between sugar and illegal drugs of abuse, both capable of producing emotional highs while simultaneously brutalizing the human body. Jeffree uses photographs to illustrate the body rejecting saccharine stimulants, like the image of Jeffree lying on a linoleum kitchen floor in a pool of vomited Fruit Loops, as though he has just died from an overdose. In another image, the gender ambivalent singer is forcing himself to regurgitate a gooey pink frosting. For Jeffree, sugar is a not just a symbol of female sexuality, but is also a metaphor for drug addiction and brutality.

This metaphor works precisely because sugar IS both addictive and destructive. In the song, “Electric Sugar Pop,” Jeffree sings, “Deliciously and naughty/Feel a shock to the body/ It's electric sugar pop/Your heartbeat's racin'/With the anticipation/I'm electric sugar pop,” implying that he (as a sexual object, reversing the more common assumption that the woman is the object to be savored) is capable of producing a high similar to that produced by sugar. This “high” is an observable phenomenon, the result of the manufacture of dopamine in the brain. 

In 2005, a study by Rada, Avena and Hoebel evidenced the production of dopamine in a manner similar to that which is produced by drugs of abuse in rats that were forced to binge daily on sucrose[v]. The same authors released another study in 2009, arguing that, based on the behavioral and neurological effects it engenders, sugar can be classified as addictive [vi]. They argue not only that sugar withdrawal is similar to opioid withdrawal, but also that there is an intimate and identifiable relationship between excess sugar bingeing and the dopamine levels that are associated with bulimia nervosa. Thus, the image of Jeffree purging himself of a pink-confectionary syrup underscores a very real neurochemical and behavioral reaction to excessive sugar consumption. Through music and image, Jeffree uncovers sugar’s socio-cultural agency as an artificial boundary carved into human bodies to signify gender difference as well as its material agency as a drug/toxin within those very same bodies.


V. The Last Bite

Although I set out to explore the significance of sugar as a feminine product, I conclude instead the inverse of my initial thesis: women are a product of sugar.


[i] Vibrant Matter (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), 49.

[ii] George A. Bray, “Fructose: Pure, White, and Deadly? Fructose, by Any Other Name, Is a Health Hazard,” Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology 4(4) (2010): 1003-7, accessed October 2, 2012,

[iii] Minam B. Vos et al. “Dietary Fructose Consumption Among US Children and Adults: The Third National Health   and Nutrition Examination Survey,” The Medscape Journal of Medicine 10(7) (2008), accessed October 2, 2012,

[iv] Gary Taubes, “Is Sugar Toxic?” New York Times, April 13, 2001, accessed October 1, 2012,

[v] P. Rada, NM Avena and BG Hoebel, “Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell,” Neuroscience 134(3) (2005): 737-744, accessed October 2, 2012,

[vi] ---“Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake,” Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 32(1) (2008): 20-39, accessed October 2, 2012,


Alan Montroso is an embedded librarian at NASA's Glen Research Library
and is applying to graduate programs in medieval English literature this fall;
while maintaining his own blog:

1 comment:

  1. You were right, Alan. I'm thinking desert tonight might consist of orange slices, perhaps a banana.

    Well reasoned, well put. Have you considered a career in writing or literature?