“I have a tall mocha for Mary on the bar.”
“Grande, caramel Frappuccino for Felicia!”
“Eric, your tall, Blonde Roast is on the bar.”
Any regular Starbucks drinker often fades baristas’ short announcements into the background, somewhere in between the soft melee of deep, sit-down chats and jazzy versions of songs like “We No Speak Americano” that float around the wooden furniture. It is so easy, so tempting, to sink into the atmosphere, into the caramel-colored lighting and the plushy sofas and the soothing, forest green hues that grace everything from the displays to the straws. The signature scent of coffee is an aromatic blanket, percolating into every object in the store down to the customers’ very clothes.
“I have a grande Pumpkin Spice Latte for Lauren!”
“Tall, Pike Place Roast for Roland!”
But if you take a moment and listen hard enough to the drinks baristas call out, and if you spend a few minutes doing some people-watching, you may start to notice a peculiar pattern. Women often pick a lot of the sweet drinks off the bar, and men tend to order simple drinks like straight coffees. This is no coincidence. In fact, only “32 percent of Starbucks drinkers are male,” according to a study by CivicScience.
Visrut Sudhakar, a first-year at UNC-Chapel Hill, feels a twinge of embarrassment when he orders sweet drinks. "I feel like ordering something like a White Chocolate Mocha (as) I do…should take my ‘man card’ away,” he says. “(That) is what it seems like.”
Sudhakar, with a thick black coiffure and a small, sparkling stud in each earlobe, grew up drinking the sweet coffee his grandmother made in his Indian household. So when he started trying Starbucks’ black coffee, he just could not bring himself to enjoy the bitter taste. "Coffee tastes bad," he says. "But I feel like men are supposed to be strong and drink black coffee. I always wanted to drink black coffee, (but) I hate it."
Sudhakar is not alone, at least in his feelings of embarrassment. It is not to say that no man ever orders a Frappuccino, but there does exist a pervasive gender disparity in the types of drinks young people order. Ask any college male if he would feel comfortable ordering a sweet drink like a caramel Frappuccino or a Peppermint Mocha, and he will likely say “no.”
Why? “I don’t know,” says UNC-Chapel Hill senior Evan Lumbra. He wears a plaid button-up and khaki slacks, cruising along I-40 on his way to a meeting for his business class. His answer is a fairly common response to a phenomenon most people may not even consciously consider when they place their order. Yet Lumbra, too, harbors similar attitudes as Sudhakar does. “I could not take myself seriously if I got (a) Pumpkin Spice (Latte),” Lumbra says. Would he order a mocha? “Sure.” A Peppermint Mocha? “No. Let’s not get crazy,” he jokes.
There exists no fine line between what constitutes too sweet a drink – or a “girly drink,” as some call it – and what constitutes a drink that is “manly” enough. In fact, UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Remington Remmel sees the beverages on more of a spectrum, with black coffee on one end and the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte on the other.
“That same spectrum gets kind of conflated with this spectrum from masculinity to femininity,” he says. “So in reality (the drinks are) completely different things. It's like the bitterness versus the sweetness of it, but those aspects I think can have more general associations with gender norms.”
Women tend to enjoy sweeter drinks. A study by PayPal found women are “59 percent more likely to drink lattes, cappuccinos or espressos than men.” Author Eric Felten, in an article he wrote for the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” about gender and cocktails, cited a study that found women may be more sensitive to bitterness because of their ovarian hormones. But the Pumpkin Spice Latte sits at one end of the spectrum for more than just these reasons.
"I think it has to do with the way that the Pumpkin Spice Latte exists in our culture,” says Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme, a sophomore and barista at the Starbucks store on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
The latte makes its debut every fall, bringing with it crunchy leaves and crimson trees and the crisp autumn air. But the drink drags along some baggage, for it is the ultimate symbol of a “white girl” stereotype that pervades social media and even television shows.
“It is a coffee drink, but it's also a cultural object that has been branded as something that 'basic bitches' drink,” says Sweitzer-Lamme. “And so there's that association between (the drink and) this certain breed of females that is sort of disdainful.”
Remmel most recently saw the latte make a cameo on the television series “Scream Queens,” which first aired in September. The show’s main character, Chanel, “is like a satire on the basic, rich, sorority girl,” Remmel says. Chanel, decked out in a pink fur coat, orders a Pumpkin Spice Latte in a scene that satirizes the stereotypes associated with the drink. Her sharp words drip with snark and sass.
Chanel: “I’ll have a trenta, no-foam, five-shot, half-caf, no foam, Pumpkin Spice Latte with no foam at 210 degrees.”
Barista: “First of all, that’s really hot. That’s two degrees below boiling.”
Chanel: “I’m sorry. Did I enter a wormhole to a universe where this coffee house does not possess the technology to heat my favorite autumnal tradition to 210 degrees? I like my Pumpkin Spice Lattes extra hot, so please comply with my request.”
Barista: “But extra hot is 170 degrees–”
Chanel: “I’m sorry – does your job description entail arguing with your customers, thereby delaying the moment at which they receive the irresistible nutmeg-y sweetness of the extra-hot, no-foam, Pumpkin Spice Latte they’ve been thinking about all day? I mean, God!”
You get the idea. For Rachel Maguire, a barista at Starbucks on the youthful and vibrant Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, N.C., the trifecta is obvious: “UGG boots, leggings, Pumpkin Spice Latte.” The stereotype may exist online, but Maguire thinks it is far less prevalent in actual Starbucks stores. “For us when we're behind the bar, we don't even have time to think about (stereotypes),” she says. “I mean, people go through the line so fast that I doubt anyone else has time.”
Based on her own observations, Sweitzer-Lamme feels as if more young men actually order sweet drinks than young women, maybe because women tend to be more health-conscious. On the whole Maguire notices little difference between men’s and women’s orders. With few statistics about the gender breakdown in terms of Starbucks drinks, coming to a solid conclusion about customers’ actual versus perceived order preferences is simply not possible.
But the question still lingers: Where do underlying, gendered associations with certain types of drinks come from, and why do they persist?
Social media may play a part, but Remmel has a better theory. Stereotypes about coffee may have evolved from the association of alcoholic beverages with certain genders. Today, and even in the 1700s, he says, people who can afford expensive alcohol are likely rich, white men. “The only people who would have a refined enough palate to understand these…nice alcohols are people who have tasted a lot of them,” he says. “There's this built up culture around these (beverages) that's associated with manliness….It (has) kind of trickled down into our modern society.”
Both Sudhakar and Lumbra point out that sweet coffee drinks and sweet alcoholic drinks exist in similar realms. A young man ordering a Peppermint Mocha may, in the minds of some, exist on the same level as a man holding a cranberry-red cosmopolitan at a bar.
Author Eric Felten, in his book “How’s Your Drink? Cocktail, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well,” pinpoints the issue. “Women who buck convention and drink gin Martinis or Scotch on the rocks raise no eyebrows – instead, they are rightly applauded for the sophistication of their choices,” he writes. “But for guys, the choice brings no small risk of social stigma: If men think that they're being judged by the drinks they order, they're right.”
Remmel thinks such judgement may arise from the fact that Starbucks customers have options when they order. Coffee drinkers can load up with syrup and whipped cream or even customize their order – or they can just go bitter and black. “So it's not just the sweetness,” he says. “It’s the fact that there's an alternative, and you have to make a choice.” Choices also may be generally influenced by advertising, which Sudhakar says often promotes what “real men” should purchase and do.
Sweitzer-Lamme witnesses the personification of these ideals when a group of young men comes in to order drinks. “Guys will make fun of each other,” she says. “Sometimes people will tease each other for getting I think what they perceive as a ‘girly drink’ (such as) a white chocolate mocha or something that's very sweet.”
Embarrassment is one thing, but getting teased for a coffee preference or a few pumps of pumpkin syrup is another. “The reason that I'm embarrassed when I go pick up my Pumpkin Spice Latte is because…cultural norms (suggest) I'm not supposed to be doing that,” Remmel says. “And I think that is on the blurred line of (misogyny).”
Multiple layers of underlying attitudes, which stretch back into time and the depths of gender norms in popular culture, dictate coffee preferences. Considered as a whole, these factors are a lot to contemplate as you fumble, still groggy and half asleep, for your credit card in a quickly-moving Starbucks line. What is the best way to proceed, especially for the men in the queue? The simple answer: Just order what you want.
“I kind of just got over it,” Remmel says. “I like Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and, I mean, they’re delicious."