A couple of weeks ago on a particularly warm fall day, I went to Starbucks with a friend. As I surveyed my drink options, weighing the merits of the perennial caramel iced latte against the promise of an iced café mocha, something caught my eye. Approaching the register, I said with a blush of shame, “I’ll have a small”—because I refuse to use the Starbucks lexicon—“pumpkin spice latte.”
In my imagination, what follows is a hyperbolic eye roll from the certainly jaded barista and a chorus of voices whispering “basic” when I reach for my beverage. None of this transpired; yet, as the autumnal drink met my lips, my self-consciousness was undeniable. Though Latina, I felt like I had just realized a pervasive stereotype about women and coffee: I became a white girl holding a pumpkin spice latte.
As I sipped on my coffee, notes of nutmeg and cinnamon punctuated by ginger swirling on my tongue, I became indignant. I wasn’t sorry. What about drinking this drink was so loathsome?
I’m not sure when I had my first pumpkin spice latte, but I can say with confidence that the flavor has been propelling toward its cultural significance at a steady pace, seemingly reaching its peak this season. And if it hasn’t, I fear for what’s to come. Pumpkin spice ale, Oreos, bagels, Pop-Tarts, M&Ms, Greek yogurt, Pinnacle vodka, protein powder, dog treats (!)—the list goes on. If you’re a food brand and don’t currently have a limited time-only pumpkin spice product on supermarket shelves, you’re sitting at the loser table in the cafeteria.
In terms of a trend, it’s a pretty self-aware one. A Google search for “pumpkin spice products” reaped as many invented items as real ones, including pumpkin spice tampons, Doritos, salad dressing and the decidedly postmodern “pumpkin spice pumpkin spiced latte,” all part of a list compiled by Elite Daily of “18 Pumpkin Spice Products That Will Be On Every Basic Shopping List This Fall.”
I wouldn’t say I’m truly obsessed with pumpkin spice foods and beverages, but I will say that when I was abroad in Madrid, I felt their absence. So much so that when my friends from Vassar came to visit over October break, I had them bring me a bag of Dunkin’ Donuts’ pumpkin spice coffee. Coffee purists, and completely unacquainted with this use of pumpkin, Spain’s cafés offered no such drinks. As I brewed my first cup of the season in my homestay, I asked my host mother if she wanted a cup. Confused by the image of the pumpkin superimposed on the bag of coffee grinds, she politely declined.
The demonization that pumpkin spice coffee receives in the United States, however, comes from a different place than my señora’s gracious distaste for it. It is a demonization of women and the things women like. This condemnation of femaleness reaches a maximum in the teenage girl: Her interests are frivolous, her opinions affected by hormone-induced moodiness. She’s bland, but easily excitable. Uninteresting. Basic.
Pumpkin spice lattes, aside from the artificial flavors and high fructose corn syrup, were entirely innocuous until they became associated with femininity. But once the alliance was forged, misogynists everywhere ran with it. As such, liking pumpkin spice products has become a guilty pleasure, something one must confess to or claim via the sorrynotsorry hashtag. Something one must order in hushed, but secretly reverent, tones at the front of the Starbucks line.
Yet, the very systems that punish young women for enjoying these seasonal foodstuffs benefit from this enduring obsession. From the misogynist perspective, the only thing worse than a girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte is a girl Instagramming it. Though this trend, too has become a hopeless cliché, it functions as free advertising for Starbucks. Ranked number two most-Instagrammed brand according to Forbes, the coffee giant boasts 9,320,026 photos in its hashtag. You needn’t be business savvy to see how this works in Starbucks’ favor.
The more we unpack this trope, the more we find that this contradictory narrative reproduces itself endlessly. Women are deemed vain for caring about their appearance, but our economy relies on a market of placing value on beauty and perpetuating women’s insecurities; Uggs are basic, but the founder of the company won’t turn his nose up to the millions of dollars he has pouring in. Our society thrives on putting women down only to exploit them for their purchasing power.
While the systems of patriarchy and capitalism are monoliths in their own right, when they work together, their effects can be so subtle as to politicize even a flavor profile. Certainly, there are far worse manifestations of these oppressive structures, but usually they can be temporarily forgotten with the proper execution of self-care—a bubble bath, a good television show or, humor me, a good cup of coffee.
With the condemnation of pumpkin spice lattes, I can only conclude that nothing is sacred.
As I got to the end of my drink on that September evening, an unpleasant taste suddenly entered my mouth. Was the flavored syrup too strong? The espresso too bitter? Was my shame creating a synesthetic experience? Ah, now I can pinpoint it. It was the distinct flavor of the acrid dregs of misogyny.
—Marie Solis ’15 is an English major.