Sometimes people call me sweet. I do not like the word. It makes me think of cupcakes piled high with pink frosting and woodland creatures that help with the housework. Sweet is as girlish and unsophisticated as a gingham sundress. It’s pleasing in the proper dosage, but can easily repel. This is because sweetness is a luxury: the delight in a plate of truffles served at the end of a meal lies in their superfluity. And most of all sweetness, as a taste and as a character trait, belongs to the province of women. The sexist roots of this association are why sweetness, ascribed to a person, sounds more like dismissal than recognition.
Thankfully, there seems to be a shift under way in how television shows portray women who would typically fall under the sweetness rubric. Female-dominated series like Orange Is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Jane the Virgin show a fresh determination to explore the less savory factors that shape presentations and perceptions of doe-eyed femininity. Each show asks: What does it mean to refuse the idea that sweetness ever comes naturally?
Western lore has long held that women have an outsized preference for sweet stuff. Victorian women and girls were supposed to possess “delicate digestive systems” that “could only process softer, blander and sweeter foods,” as food studies professor Amy L. Bentley writes. The association between women and sugar in the present continues to reinforce patriarchal power structures, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz points out in his 1985 book Sweetness and Power. The assumption that certain demographics crave sugar has entrenched consumption patterns that funnel protein toward adult males while increasing malnutrition among women, children and the poor, he suggests, noting wryly that “One (male) observer after another displays the curious expectation that women will like sweet foods more than men [and] that they will employ sweet foods to achieve otherwise unattainable objectives.”
Moreover, when men express the belief that women will move mountains for a chocolate fix, they seek to affirm the connection between women and childlike hungers. (Think of the relish with which Nora Helmer’s husband scolds her for squirreling macaroons in “A Doll’s House.”) Sweetness is both a gendered concept as well as a racialized one. The adjective is most frequently applied to women who conform to historical ideals of white femininity, displaying a knack for domesticity mixed with wide-eyed innocence.
As evidence, look no further than the sweet characters of classic literature, who tend to serve as loyal chums to the prickly, gutsy heroines who drive the narrative action. Jane Bennet, elder sister to the sharp-eyed Elizabeth in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is roundly deemed “sweet” by all who encounter her. The same goes for Little Women’s Beth March and Gone with the Wind’s Melanie Wilkes, each of whom spout sweetness as reliably as Old Faithful.
By contrast, racist perceptions of black women historically disallowed the possibility that they would be associated with sweetness in the popular white imagination. As Tara McPherson writes in Reconstructing Dixie, Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell “grew up in a South where the comforts of white domesticity and femininity were quite literally built on the labor of black women, who largely worked as domestics caring for white homes and families.” So too were the rarified conditions necessary for the cultivation of sweet women like Melanie—and the South’s sugar plantations—dependent on the forced labor and blood of black slaves. In formulating sweetness as a trait specific to genteel white women, white culture further cemented stereotypes of black women as unrefined and thereby deserving of subjugation, seeking to confine them to work that produced sweetness while barring them from inhabiting its connotations of softness and delicacy.
Kara Walker confronts viewers with the disturbing relationship between race and sweetness in her 2014 art installation in New York’s Domino Sugar factory, “A Subtlety.” A 35-foot-high sphinx with exaggerated African-American features and a kerchief knotted around her head towers over the room, coated in refined white sugar. As the New Yorker’s Hilton Als writes in his review, “She is Cleopatra as worker: unknown to you because you have rarely seen her as she raised your children, cleaned up your messes—emotional and otherwise.” The monumental figure akes the labor of black women impossible to ignore, paying tribute while exposing the injustices they have faced. The sphinx is made of sweetness. Her epic scale and history is anything but.
Sweetness, then, is a quality frequently used to naturalize constructs of white femininity while attempting to erase women of color. Several contemporary portraits, however, are more cognizant of this history and the purposes that sweetness serves.
One prime example is Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman, whose WASP background, liberal-arts education and artisanal soap business have afforded her a cushy life that allows sweetness to flourish. But prison exposes Piper’s sweetness as a fabrication. True, her simpering wins her some favor in a system dominated by white male authorities. But her fellow inmates—many of whom are women of color, and almost all of whom have had harder lives than Piper—see through her affect. “I used to think you was a yellow dandelion,” Suzanne, an African-American inmate, says after learning that Piper mocked her behind her back. “But you’re all dried up with the puff blown off.” By the time Piper breaks down and nearly beats her prison nemesis Pennsatucky to death at the end of season one, the show has dismantled her sweetness, revealing both the artificiality of the trait and Piper’s raw fury when comforts are stripped away.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is equally aware of sweetness as performance. But rather than methodically take Kimmy’s sweetness apart, the Netflix comedy exposes how hard its titular character works to maintain it. Kimmy is a trauma survivor, as critic Emily Nussbaum points out, having been abducted, imprisoned, and raped (the show implies) for years in an underground bunker. The show’s theme song declares the mere fact that Kimmy is alive to be a “miracle,” but her resiliency is its true marvel.
The series acknowledges Kimmy’s girlish, naive exterior as a form of armor by showing us the cracks. Her attempt at intimacy with a new boyfriend is cut short when instincts honed by years of abuse compel her to try to take him down with a series of defensive moves. A cosmetic surgeon observes that she has the “scream lines” of a submarine captain. Yet Kimmy remains buoyant in her light-up sneakers, disarming a leering construction worker by sincerely complimenting his yellow hat. Taken together, these details reveal Kimmy’s sweetness not as the signifier of an easy life but as a quality she’s fought to preserve through trauma and that’s helped her survive it.
Like Kimmy Schmidt, this year’s CW hit Jane the Virgin also makes visible the effort that goes into sweetness. Jane Villanueva possesses a number of traits associated with the quality: besides being a virgin out of loyalty to both her Catholic upbringing and devout grandmother, she goes out of her way to avoid conflict and has a penchant for flowery sundresses. But these characteristics are disassociated from privileged white femininity; Jane is a Latina woman who was raised by her single mom and undocumented immigrant grandmother and works at a hotel to put herself through school.
Establishing a new brand of sweetness (which draws from, but is not coextensive with the racialized norms of white femininity), the series explores the internal conflicts that often stem from Jane’s desire to do right, as in an episode in which she must decide whether to have an amniocentesis that will reveal whether her baby has genetic abnormalities but raises her risk of miscarriage. In highlighting the difficult decision-making process behind Jane’s actions, the series eschews the sweetness trap that belittles women by attributing kindness and generosity to a childlike lack of guile. Jane may be pure of heart, but her moral behavior is the product of deliberate and often collaborative reflection; she frequently weighs conflicting advice from her free-spirited mother Xo and conservative grandmother Alba before determining her own course of action.
There is also, of course, the matter of Jane the Virgin’s intense focus on virginity—one of the ultimate signifiers of sweetness. But the series takes the concept so far as to verge on camp, making Jane into a minor religious icon whose beaming image appears on medallions peddled by Catholic nuns. As of the show’s season finale, Jane has managed to juggle multiple marriage proposals and deliver the baby she became impregnated with via accidental artificial insemination—all without ever having sex.
The show’s executive producers have indicated that they plan for Jane to get down with someone or other eventually. “When she loses her virginity, you’ll see a line go through the Virgin and then that’ll be the title,” Jennie Snyder Urman told Deadline. I suspect the show may have taken Jane’s commitment to abstinence to such extremes in order to set up the moment in which she’ll discover that her level of sexual activity has no bearing on her fundamental goodness. Jane, who cares deeply about being a good person and being perceived as such, has held onto the idea that her virginity is proof of virtue. But Jane the Virgin has never made it the source of her worth.
It’s no coincidence that these more self-aware portraits of sweetness arise when the character in question is the protagonist of a series, rather than the sidekick to a thornier, and infinitely more compelling, heroine. Sweetness is a word we apply to others but rarely to ourselves. That’s because when we call women sweet, we cast them as supporting characters in our own stories, ignoring their interiority by assigning them uncomplicated minds. But in real life, nothing is as sweet as it seems.