This week, RDM shifts from the usual focus on online reviews, as guest blogger Zoë Vercelli addresses one of the hottest topics in social media today: pumpkin spice.
You’d think Florida was on the cusp of a white Christmas, given the recent ubiquity of fall colors, flavors and… marketing strategies. So begins Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte season, a beverage so embedded in American culture that it’s earned its own acronym, the PSL (or at least one that Starbucks hopes will catch on). Anyone in even a casual relationship with social media has probably noticed the schizophrenic oscillations between revering and mocking all things autumnal, played out in dozens of internet memes similar to the ones above. All seem to draw clear correlations between loving lattes and one’s race, gender, and socio-economic status. The PSL trope tells us that pumpkin spice is catnip for White Girls; that a PSL is a dead giveaway that you are a “Basic B*tch”; and that only the upper-middle class (or aspiring) can afford that daily grande latte anyway.
At first glance, one may associate this love/hate relationship as simply reflecting our cultural attitudes toward the Starbucks brand – which introduced the PSL in 2003 – but I believe the memes index much deeper levels of cultural associations. First, the racial: it is clearly assumed that the PSL, and more broadly the notion of pumpkin spice and all things “traditionally” autumnal, are cultural touchstones for the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant pseudo-majority in the United States. Why is that? We as cultural observers sometimes forget the tremendous role that climate plays in shaping our deeply held values and perspectives. Autumn and winter are part of our white European DNA. Don’t believe me? Try to imagine religious Puritanism arising from a hot and sultry region. The cultural construct of “coziness” is a lodestone of tradition for wintry northern European and Scandinavian peoples; the Danish call it hygge, a warm intimacy that a friend describes as “tucking each other in for the winter.” But is it fair to say that “pumpkin spice” indexes an entirely different set of cultural associations for White People than for everyone else?
Caught up in this notion are certainly our gendered attitudes toward the limited roles the aforementioned White Girl can play. In particular, the concept of the Basic B*tch indexes the painful uncoolness of the White Girl – the kind who breaks out the seasonal potpourri, cries during It’s A Wonderful Life, and also speaks fluent Starbucks (so make that PSL a venti non-fat double soy-whip with stevia to go, please). The special viciousness of other women when criticizing the Basic B*tch, if anything, belies a deeper discomfort regarding our own limiting roles, implying there are, at most, a handful of ways to be a Woman, some better and some worse. Even Hillary Clinton attempted to subtly ditch her white uncoolness recently, telling fans during a press conference that she “used to like” PSL.
Finally, simply patronizing Starbucks requires a certain amount of disposable income – a grande will run $4.50 or more – so any socio-economic correlations we sense as a culture are easy to draw. But why is loving autumn and fall flavors associated even further with class? Our cultural construct of autumn indexes concepts of leisure time, elaborate holiday gatherings, and luxurious flavors that were once exorbitantly expensive. Exotic spices such as cinnamon and cardamom were only introduced to the European palate as a result of the spice trade beginning in the Middle Ages with India, China, and (then) Ceylon, and were revered as delicacies available only to the upper class. Is it possible that over a thousand years later, our class associations with these flavors are still holding strong?
Either way, I am a White Girl who dearly loves autumn, but I’ll skip the Pumpkin Spice Latte, thank you very much. I’d just spill it on my new Uggs, anyway – and you can’t get soy whip out of suede.