Small-town bakery, wedding prep, and tons of cake and kitsch — the only other ingredient Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake needs to add to be a certified Hallmark movie is a straight, white couple, possibly complimented by a queer best-friend. But pouring Brunstetter’s play into a Hallmark cake mold would be impossible. How can you bake a seven-layer, rainbow swirl cake in a single layer sheet pan? You can’t, and Hallmark, sadly, hasn’t bothered to create any layers.
Similar to the exclusionary nature of the Hallmark Channel, Della cannot accept Jen and Macy’s queer relationship and refuses to bake their wedding cake, which results in self-isolation from her family and community. By paralleling Della’s self-isolation and Jen’s experiences of exclusion, Brunstetter takes a paradoxical look at what keeps these characters from relating to each other and bridging their differences.
From Della’s opening monologue, her stance on life, and consequently gay marriage, is obvious: “You must — follow — the directions” (8). A hint could also be in Della’s explanation to Macy (the then not-yet-introduced bride-to-be) of the cake she’s decorating as an honorary godmother: “Oh! It’s a Noah’s Ark Cake” (9). Della believes that the assigned ingredients of society cannot be skimped upon, and it’s clear she doesn’t allow for anything to go beyond them, even gluten free cake! A criticism of the less-sweet treat and Macy’s “I don’t eat cake” attitude is baked into a sweet story about Della and her husband’s visit to Boston:
We went to see Tim’s cousin, that’s my husband, we went to see his cousin in Boston and I tried a gluten-free cake and it tasted like the back of my mouth after I have a good cry. Now that is just wrong. You poor thing, somebody needs to invent a good kind of cake for you (15).
Not only can she not accept people’s differing preferences, she also totally disregards people’s different sexual orientations. Thus, begins her journey to self-isolation.
Della refuses to break the cake mold of the alienating values of her Christian faith. She believes cakes are a reward for being good, as she details to the baking show host:
This cake is not a sin. It is a reward. See I think God made butter and sugar as rewards for us, for our good choices, for sticking to what’s right no matter how much the world changes. Because the world’s gonna change and we cannot. We must follow the directions ‘til we die. Right? (27).
Jen is sinning in her relationship. Therefore, she’s not deserving of a wedding cake. When Della tells Jen, “I think I am all backed up,” she chooses to self-isolate (25). Della becomes like Jen’s mother who thinks Jen will go to hell for having premarital sex (60). She’s the mother who triggers a disturbing dinging noise every time she kisses her partner, Macy (61). The last thing Jen needs is another mother-figure informing her she’s on a collision course to hell.
Rooted in doubt, Jen expresses her hopelessness, “I just feel so stupid. For thinking she might be okay with this” (36). Macy understands in a way only those who share in the relatable experience of isolation specific to the LGBTQ community. She challenges Jen to break Della’s mold while also pushing for the breaking of society’s mold, “But if you don’t push her to change then they / never will” (37). It starts with a person initiating face-to-face conversation, it can’t be a well-written article or a TV character (37).
Repeated attempts follow on Jen’s part to help Della understand the pain she’s going through over Della’s intolerance and the resulting isolation. It’s a personal mission for her as she replies to Macy, “I’m not talking about all of them, I am talking about one person, who I love, who I know” (37). Unfortunately, Della’s go-by-the-recipe mantra for life won’t budge. It’s clear to Jen an ultimatum has emerged — choose between Della (family) and Macy (new family). Jen is forced to make a difficult decision beyond disinviting Della from the wedding, “Well then I don’t know if I can have you in my life anymore” (65). Della is sliced out of her life. Hope prevails; it isn’t lost or stupid (37). Della makes the couple’s cake, symbolizing a first-step toward re-entering Jen’s life.
Della’s intolerance to accept Jen’s relationship is a major part of what isolates Jen from her home, the South. Conversely, her traditional and conservative Southern roots seem at odds with her Northern LGBTQ community. The awkwardness Jen experiences also causes her dissociation; when describing her isolation, Jen tells Macy, “We live in Brooklyn! Everyone is a lesbian! We are in a young adult book club just for lesbians! There are so many of you” (59). Southern belle versus cosmopolitan New York woman: Jen is torn in two. She lives between two worlds, and as she explains to Macy, “I’m of two different minds. All the time” (59).
Della also feels excluded from her community. Her disqualification from the Big American Bake-Off, after coming hot-and-ready out of the oven only to be brutally exposed on the counter, isolates her from the greater baking community. Macy’s exposing article results in the competition’s decision, but it’s Della’s own discriminatory cake-making policies which cost her a cherished spot on the show. Apparently, her bigotry isn’t sweet enough for TV.
Even though the news is devastating, the disqualification is less cause for sadness in comparison to being isolated by Jen.
At her core, Della is ignorant to the consequences of her words and actions, telling the baking show correspondent, “I would say that’s got nothing to do with my cakes. They’re not — those are separate issues, so I don’t see why I —” (63). In the same way, the baker refuses to fully comprehend what she’s doing to Jen in not accepting her love. Despite multiple attempts by Jen to prove her genuine love for Macy, Della cannot, fundamentally, appreciate them. She confesses to Jen, “It still does not sit right with me” (64).
Della’s exclusion from the baking competition and Jen’s life could feel like a high cost for her unacceptance. Yet, queer people face these exclusions on a daily basis. Now, Della’s been given a “queer” experience but completely misses her chance to empathize. Despite Della’s refusal to acquiesce, it’s clear we must keep pushing for change in the same way Macy pushes Jen to bridge that gap. Hope for change isn’t impossible, even for Della. Change is gradual. The first step may even be making a wedding cake with two bride cake-toppers. The Cake depicts paralleling experiences between Della and Jen. It calls us to live outside our bubbles and pop those of exclusion and prejudice. We must expand our palates to all the diversity out there. There’s a rainbow of flavors, and that makes life so much sweeter.