Stuff Girls Like
August 30, 2022
Brace yourselves, for PSL season is upon us. (Pumpkin Spice Latte, for the uninitiated.) The Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is back in stores today. Wawa’s was out last week. Dunkin’s launch of all things fall was on the 17th. This harbinger of fall is here, in all it’s cinnamony, sweet, basic glory–
It’s become really popular to make fun of the whole Pumpkin Spice Latte thing. There are countless memes, videos, etc about obsessive, “basic” women flipping out over the return of their beloved drink.
The joke has expanded to include lots of autumn-y things – cozy sweaters, plaid, pumpkins generally, twee Halloween, legwarmers, candles, scarves, and so on, forever.
Can you see where we’re headed?
If you guessed a passionate defense of All Things Fall, you’re not wrong, but the plot is about to THICKEN, y’all.
Sure, ardent PSL love and girls losing their minds over fall might seem like a pretty innocuous thing to make fun of. Humans love to poke fun at each other, especially things that are culturally popular and thus easily identifiable among specific folk groups (or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves.)
Your typical pumpkin spice latte drinker? Obviously it’s a 20-something white girl in leggings, Uggs, and a big scarf, standing around looking bored while she snaps a picture for Instagram. She’s probably got a “live, love, laugh” framed print at her cute minimalist apartment and a dog she can fit in her purse. She’s probably on her way to brunch, where she’ll joke with her friends about the “sexy nurse” costume she’s going to wear for Halloween. She’s “basic.”
But here’s the thing. There’s something more complicated going on here. We hinted at it with our “fall of the patriarchy” graphic above.
Things coded as explicitly feminine – think romance novels, sexy vampire films, fairy tales, and, yes, pumpkin spice lattes – tend to receive disproportionate cultural scorn. So much that the scorn becomes almost reflexive. We don’t even consciously think about it any more – it is Culturally Known that these things are bad/ boring/ uncool/ BASIC, and if you admit to liking them, you will forfeit 10 cool points.
Basically, stuff girls like is identified as terrible and culturally degrading, while equivalent stuff that’s tailored to men? It’s just good fun!
That description of the 20-something girl above? We didn’t have to look that up at all – it’s been engraved in our minds by a society that likes to put people into boxes. And, when you really think about it, it’s not that funny.
Let’s take sexy vampire films as another example. We’ve been thinking a lot about vampires lately because of a big project we’re working on, and it’s almost a punchline that vampires are sexy now. Part of this, we think, has to do with the way vampire stories shifted when they moved from book to the screen. Television shows and films allow us not only to imagine the vampire but to see him – and the image we see again and again is steeped in sensuality. Between Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Antonio Banderez’s characterization in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, the explicit sexuality of the HBO series True Blood, and even, arguably, suave Bela Lugosi in his iconic cape, this trend is long established and almost inescapably pervasive.
The short version: vampires became hot.
The sexy vampire is pretty polarizing amongst vampire media fans. Clearly, it’s an immensely popular strategy that has helped achieve eye-popping box office numbers, not to mention shaped the way vampires are portrayed in media beyond the screen, including novels and video games. But there are also people who HATE IT. The reason usually given for this is that it makes vampires less scary, less monstrous, moving vampire stories from squarely in the middle of the horror genre and bringing them adjacent, or even into, romance. And a lot of people – mostly men – don’t like this. Why? Because these romantic vampires often cater to the female gaze – think Brad Pitt in his white shirt staring moodily into the sunset as he contemplates his mortality, as seen in Interview with the Vampire – not the male gaze.
We can see this dramatically in the backlash that followed the wild success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, which targeted a female audience and features stunningly beautiful vampires who literally sparkle in sunlight.
To be clear, we’re not saying that you need to adore Twilight or indeed the sexy vampire trend at all (or pumpkin spice lattes for that matter.)
True confession: Neither Sara nor Brittany have actually ever had a pumpkin spice latte.
We’re also not saying that people can’t meaningfully critique stuff girls like. (We just wrote a 10 episode series about vampires, and there’s plenty that could be said about the corporatization of seasonality and folklore.)
What we are saying is that it’s important to think about why stuff girls like is almost always culturally coded as basic, dumb, frivolous, surface-oriented and superficial, silly, cute, and unimportant. Especially when compared to similar cultural stuff that gets a pass.
As Jaya Saxena wrote in Taste in 2017, which was later quoted in this Vox article: “[w]hen men enjoy something, they elevate it. But when women enjoy something, they ruin it.”
And it’s not just men – other women, who aren’t into any of these things, tend to feel superior to those who DO like these things: “ugh, Twilight is so stupid, it completely ruins REAL vampires…” “Omg, could that girl BE more basic? She’s taking an Instagram photo with her Starbucks cup, LOL!” “I’m not like other girls.”
(PSA: “I’m not like other girls” will definitely be getting its own blog post at some point.)
In conclusion – this fall, let’s all try to fight that knee jerk reaction to Stuff Girls Like. Especially in ourselves. If we enjoy something and it’s not hurting anyone, let the Fall-Sexy Vampire-PSL flag fly!