What does your coffee flavor say about you?
Fall is in the air, and you know what that means: Falling leaves, brisk weather, more layers, and—of course—fall food and drinks. And for the past few years, nothing has quite said “autumn” like pumpkin-flavored-everything, and it all started with Starbucks’s iconic Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Of course, pumpkin flavored coffee is hotly debated: For some, no fall is complete without pumpkin drinks close at hand; for others, artificial pumpkin flavor shall never sully their brew.
Regardless of your personal taste, chances are you’ve come to associate Pumpkin Spice Lattes—or, as they’re endearingly called, PSLs—with a specific demographic: young white women.
Though it started as a stereotype or joke, the concept of the “basic” white girl with a PSL has transcended humor and become a both a farce and reality at once. Now, a new study reveals how the drink encapsulates white privilege.
The Humble Origins of the PSL
Like any great product, Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte started small and incited a revolution.
Though Starbucks wasn’t the first company to brew the popular drink, it did introduce it to mainstream and render it an autumnal staple.
In an attempt to reproduce the success of their speciality winter drinks, Starbucks drafted a list of about 20 fall drinks and polled customers on what they’d most want to try. Unfortunately for Peter Dukes, who was a product manager in Starbucks’s espresso division in 2003, customers were not interested in his idea for a pumpkin-flavored drink. Yet Dukes was set on bringing his idea to the masses; he told his boss, “Trust me. Let us play with it. I’ve seen what’s out there in the market, and there’s nothing like it.”
By fall 2003, the drink launched in stores and was near immediately successful. Dukes recalled, “You just looked at the sales results and you knew. It clearly separated itself from any other beverages we had tested at that point in the market.”
More Than Just a Beverage
13 years later, the PSL has become synonymous with fall; creator Peter Dukes once called it “More than just a beverage. It has become a harbinger of the season.”
And it truly has become more than just a drink: It’s become an empire. Other food companies set out to imitate Starbucks’s success with the PSL, and now Forbes estimates that the flavor has turned into an industry worth over $500 million.
Yet, when thinking of the PSL and all things pumpkin, the image that pops into your mind might not just be that of a family gathered around their table in the fall, but rather one of a specific group of people donned in specific clothing and perhaps representing a specific lifestyle. This group? White people. More specifically, young white women, who have since earned the moniker of “basic b*tches.”
Pumpkin Fever and Racial Identity
Sure, it might be an idea rooted in humor, or an easy Halloween costume that requires little more than UGGs, leggings, a vest, and a PSL, but does the concept of being “basic” have more significant cultural meaning?
According Lisa Jordan Powell, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and Elizabeth Engelhardt, a professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the answer is yes. In fact, Powell and Engelhardt published a report last fall entitled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins,” and it’s now gaining significant traction. As stated in the article’s abstract, “Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte […] provide[s] entry points into whiteness-pumpkin connections. Such analysis illuminates how class, gender, place, and especially race are employed in popular media and marketing of food and flavor.”
In the paper, the authors cite media studies scholar and cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen and her 2014 article “‘Basic Is Just Another Word for Class Anxiety.” They write:
“Petersen described the PSL as ‘the ultimate signifier of basicness.’ Acknowledging a longer trajectory for the term, Petersen positioned ‘basic’ in the current cultural moment as a stereotype wielded to convey distance from predictably consuming and behaving white women. A woman called basic thus ‘cherishes uninspired brands,’ ‘lives a banal existence,’ and talks about both in bland ways (Petersen’s examples are the hashtags #blessed and #thankful on Facebook and Pinterest). Petersen turned a keen eye on the gendered nature of such stereotypes. Here, a particular feminized consumerism makes others anxious to separate themselves as better and different while still consuming, living, and using social media. She concluded, rather than analyzing or criticizing economic and social systems, ‘basic’ functions as ‘casual misogyny.’ To Petersen, ‘that’s a behavior far more troubling—and regressive—than taking pleasure in all things pumpkin spice.’ ‘Basic’ is just another word for class anxiety […] In analyses like Petersen’s, whiteness of people is conflated with whiteness of pumpkins.”
So just how problematic is this? Turns out it’s just the tip of the pumpkin-flavored iceberg.