When I was a freshman in high school and thought that I was the height of maturity, I ordered a pumpkin spice latte, blended into a Frappuccino, from the Starbucks next to my high school. Worse, I asked for venti, nonfat milk, no whip, sweetener instead of sugar, as if these modifications would counteract the monstrosity I ordered. I am sure that my mother saw that huge plastic cup in my hand and worried about my future decision-making skills.
This was perhaps in 2007, about four years after the pumpkin spice latte first debuted in a few Starbucks. Google Trends reveals a set of hills, where Google searches for “pumpkin spice lattes” spike, starting from August and tapering off in January. These hills repeat, year and year, and escalating each year to its current monstrosity in 2014. Pumpkin spice lattes are now a staple at any café and pumpkin spice has infiltrated waffles, Oreos, bagels, and other foods.
As Jon Oliver said in his perhaps-overly-virulent diatribe against pumpkin spice, pumpkin spice reminds us of autumn. Since pumpkin spice is not available all year (or at least, the marketing team at Starbucks announces the “return” of pumpkin spice), the drink acquires an air of uniqueness, associated with a particular season. Moreover, Starbucks’ locations around the country means that no matter where you are, you can grab a pumpkin spice latte on the first day that it is made available.
Adoration of Starbucks seems to be associated with a specific socio-economic status—middle to upper class girls, who use Instagram and Tumblr to post pictures of their lattes with filters. Pumpkin spice lattes are perhaps the epitome of this association between this socioeconomic status and Starbucks. Ordering a pumpkin spice latte is first on Buzzfeed’s list of things that “basic white girls” do, along with wearing yoga pants and uggs; there are plenty of social media posts about drinking pumpkin spice lattes and being a white girl.
Somehow, this association makes me uncomfortable sometimes. I know that it is in good fun, but jokes about pumpkin spice lattes points to these girls being airheads, who mindlessly wear uggs and overly large sweaters, order pumpkin spice lattes, and spend ages arranging said latte on top of autumn leaves for the perfect Instagram picture. She’s basic—she’s predictable—she’s simple in mind and heart—she just wants sweet and pretty things and not much of substance.
It’s almost a dismissive attitude that I cannot exactly pin down. Perhaps it’s just knowing that even when I go into a Starbucks and see a bunch of girls with “PSL” written on their white cups, and wearing huge sweaters and boots, I am going to make a sweeping generalization of them. The fact that I make a generalization of them gives me pause.