Stein and Sexuality
Many scholars have likewise identified an underlying theme of lesbianism within Tender Buttons. In addition to the title's French implication of nipples, some have speculated that the poems reveal the intimacies of Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Phallic and vaginal symbolism are scattered throughout the poems, and Kathryn Kent, among others, argue that Stein uses familiar objects to invite the reader to "tend her buttons" and indulge in Stein's "sexual/ textual manipulations". Others have relied on a correlation between Stein's fascination with gazing on the subjects of her poems with Freud's fetishization of the object to reveal this underlying theme of sexuality.
Stein and Cubism
Stein insisted on the book as being a "realistic" portrayal of everyday objects. Her first poem in "Food", "Roastbeef", describes what some have accepted to be the work's overarching manifesto, as it states, "Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession". Rather than attempt to define and give meaning to the object or work of art, Stein instead "claims nothing" in an attempt to capture the object's "realistic" nature when stripped of the connotations of its typical representation.
Elsewhere, Stein insists on portraying a material world without using the object's preexisting name. She emphasizes the importance of sight, stating, "I was trying to live in looking, and looking was not to mix itself up with remembering", and "I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing, but a great deal by looking at that thing… I had the feeling that something should be included and that something was looking, and so concentrating on looking I did the Tender Buttons because it was easier to do objects than people if you were just looking".
Stein here reveals herself as a Cubist artist in her determination to reconfigure a one-sided perspective while revealing a subject's essence through multiple perspectives. She has additionally cited Picasso's influence on her work, stating, "I began to play with words then. I was a little obsessed by words of equal value. Picasso was painting my portrait at that time, and he and I used to talk this thing over endlessly. At the time he had just begun on Cubism". Stein likewise experiments with Cubist ideals in composition, stating, "Each part is as important as the whole".
Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition (City Lights Publishers) was released in April, 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of its publication.