(this entry is CC’d. If anyone wants to download some pictures, do a voice over, and throw this up on our Khan Academy for Anthropology, be my guest)
Anthropology is, in many ways, the art of taking implicit, taken-for-granted meanings and making them explicit. This is important because human beings cram a tremendous amount of meaning into everything we do, and yet much of the time we are only vaguely conscious of the meanings we surround ourselves with — and if you are a cultural outsider, you may miss them entirely. Just as learning the grammar of a language will help you understand it and write clearly in it, learning to make cultural meanings explicit helps us understand and express ourselves to others. Take, for instance, the thinking woman’s crumpet.
The other night I was watching a documentary about Shakespeare written and presented by the historian Michael Wood. As the documentary went on and I spent more and more time watching Michael Wood describe the Tudor police state with great enthusiasm, it occurred to me that he might be physically attractive. So I turned to my wife and asked: “is he attractive?” She thought for a minute and said she didn’t think so. But since she is a professor, just to be sure, she looked him up on wikipedia. “Apparently,” she said, “he’s the thinking woman’s crumpet.”
If you are British, or an anglophile American, it is not too hard to understand what it means to say “Michael Wood is the thinking woman’s crumpet”. Implicitly, you might understand that educated middle-class women find Michael Wood attractive even though he is not conventionally attractive. But as an anthropologist, I want to move beyond this implicit awareness to a richer, more explicit understanding of this phrase, an understanding of it that explains what it means even if you don’t even know what a crumpet is, much less what it symbolizes to the British. I’ll begin by talking about what it means to be a ‘thinking woman’ and then I’ll move on to the ‘crumpet’.
The noun phrase “thinking women” seems at first cut to describe women who think, but this is not exactly right. I’m not British and not an anthropologist of Britain, so I may not have all the details right (anthropologists are, like everyone else, fallible). But the UK is a class-conscious place and I think that the term is meant to invoke a certain socioeconomic position and the entire set of habits and dispositions that come along with it: affluent and educated, refined enough to be attracted to someone’s personality as well as their looks, etc. ‘Thinking woman’ is just two words but for those with the cultural knowledge necessary to decode them it summons up an entire way of classifying people which is more or less systematic. In particular, it implicitly defines large swaths of the population as people who ‘don’t think’. These people are usually less wealthy, less educated, and less powerful than ‘thinking people’. Anthropology as a discipline often finds these kinds of systems of inequality hiding within our implicit meanings, and as a result we’ve grown to be very mindful of the way that power and inequality are omnipresent in human life.
In addition to class, the phrase “thinking woman’s crumpet” has a lot of implicit things about gender relations in the UK within it, things which can be (as we anthropologists like to say) ‘unpacked’ or made explicit. The term is actually a transformation of the pre-existing phrase ‘thinking man’s crumpet’. The phrase was (according to Wikipedia and Google) originally used to describe Joan Bakewell, a TV presenter in the sixties. The comedian who invented it did so as a joke but, like most labels that stick, it made explicit a set of ideas and desires that were at work implicitly. Bakewell was intelligent, articulate, and chic and object of desire for male viewers of a certain social position.
Something happens when you turn the phrase around so that women, rather than men, want ‘crumpet’. The idea that ‘thinking women’ can want ‘crumpet’ has a certain empowering air about it — if thinking men can find articulate and intelligent women attractive, why can’t thinking women find Michael Wood attractive? I would say that the phrase has a whiff of feminism about it (sensing cultural meaning, like smelling a scent, has a certain indomitability that comes from being deeply embodied, and yet is also intangible and ephemeral). But ‘feminism’ is the wrong word to use here, since the term invokes a cultural move that is opposed to the sexual objectification of women and other people. That ‘thinking woman’ can have ‘crumpet’ is an ’empowering appropriation of the male gaze’. Or, in plainer english, women assert their equality with men by adopting male ways of looking at and finding people attractive, ways which in themselves might seem sexist. Or, as the British say in another culinary metaphor that I don’t have time to unpack here, ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’.
So that was ‘thinking woman’. Let’s turn now to ‘crumpet’, the second part of the phrase I’ve been examining. As we’ve seen, there are people like Michael Wood, who is “thinking woman’s crumpet” and Joan Bakewell, who is “thinking man’s crumpet”. But what is plain, unmodified crumpet?
At a certain level, the answer can be easily found on wikipedia: crumpet is a griddle cake, one of the large number of foods Europeans (and the people in their settler colonies) cook by heating flour, water, a fat (typically butter) and a bit of salt and/or sugar on a griddle or pan and leavened with yeast and/or baking powder. If you can read this blog entry in the original English I wrote it in you will already be familiar with pancakes, biscuits, waffles, crepes, and similar foods which are the cousins of crumpets. Americans may even be familiar with “English muffins” which are something like crumpets.
Now we face the very common anthropological problem of people’s use of metaphor. Michael Wood, on the face of it, has almost nothing in common with crumpet. Crumpets are seven centimeters in diameter and Michael Wood is around six feet tall. Crumpets are inanimate, while Michael Wood moves under his own power and enthusiastically describes the Tudor police state. Crumpets are eaten by British people, but British people would consider completely disgusting the idea of killing and eating Michael Wood or Joan Bakewell or any other human.
Or would they? Like many peoples, the British often draw metaphors between people and food, and in the metaphor hunger for the food is equated with sexual desire (an anthropologist would describe both of these as ‘appetitive longing’). Thus, for instance, a pastry shell filled with fruit called a ‘tart’ is often used as a metaphor for a sexually promiscuous woman.
And in fact ‘crumpet’ is a term used to describe a certain kind of sexually attractive woman. My knowledge of this topic is extremely limited, but according to the youtube documentary “Crumpet – A Very British Sex Symbol” the term originated in the 1930s with the rise of mass media such as the television and film. It denoted scantily clad, voluptuous women whose appearance in movies and television was inappropriate but not actually pornographic. The pieces they appeared in were low-brow and down-market — vulgar and working class. Apparently men of the thinking class weren’t supposed to like that sort of crumpet. They preferred Joan Blakewell. At times there’s a strong feel of class warfare to the youtube documentary — for instance where the narrator accuses Monty Python of objectifying Carol Cleveland while other films (not made by Oxbridge grads) present crumpets as empowered in their sexuality.
It’s hard for me to say as a cultural outsider and non-expert, but I think that calling a woman ‘crumpet’ evokes a wide range of associations: just as a crumpet is not a proper, nutritious meal, crumpets are not properly modest women; watching a crumpet on TV, like eating a crumpet, is a sort of cheap fullfilment — perhaps a guilt pleasure? Do working class people eat crumpet while upper class people eat some other sort of griddle cake? Its hard to say.
All I wanted to establish here is that even simple phrases like “thinking woman’s crumpet” contain within themselves incredible depth. Because they are part of a tightly interwoven and rich cultural system, understanding them requires that they be placed in their cultural context. In this case, this involves everything from British food to the class system to the history of mass media. At the same time, making the meanings of ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ explicit makes cultural insiders see their own culture in a new way because it forces them to rethink what they used to take for granted — indeed, it may actually prompt some of them to learn about television shows and movies that have shaped their culture in ways they didn’t previously understand. Above all, unpacking the term ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ allows us to take a look at how anthropologists interpret cultural materials.