INDIA - 2023/04/02: In this photo Photo Illustration by Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Starbucks Dad solves the gender wars

But what about Starbucks Mum?

If you’re still feeling confused about the gender wars, you could do worse than consult the latest advert for coffee giant Starbucks. Now that feminists are all massive bigots, if not genocidal fascists, it’s been left to multinational corporations with questionable human rights records to lead us to enlightenment. 

If Starbucks Dad can do it, so can you!

To be fair, Starbucks does it quite well. In a clip for Starbucks India, we see a man and woman waiting to meet their adult trans child for coffee. The father has been distant for years — he’s had issues with the whole trans thing, as shown by the fact he keeps an old, deadnamed photo on his phone, and by his wife’s plea with him not to “get angry this time”. Yet when his child arrives, bigot dad is told that he “still means the world” to his offspring (Mum, who’s not spent the past few years sulking, gets no such declaration of appreciation). The moment of truth comes when Dad orders coffee, using his child’s new, female name (Arpita) rather than the male name (Arpit) that was stored on his phone. #ItStartsWithYourName, we are told. If Starbucks Dad can do it, so can you!

As parenting messages go, it seems a good one (though it reminds me of my youngest son’s criticism of Star Wars: “why does everyone forgive Anakin straight away, after he’s spent years as Darth Vader?” Because he’s a dad, son). Don’t reject your children in order to preserve some misplaced sense of what is “normal”! #BeKind is overused, but kindness does matter. If this was all the “gender wars” amounted to — people being pointlessly cruel to anyone who’s a bit different, before learning not to be — we could all go home. 

Witnessing positive responses to the advert, I think this is how many people do want to see it. Imagine if that was it! All this fuss over hair length and a name on a coffee cup! When you look at it this way, all those raising objections to gender self-ID seem insane. If only radical feminists, lesbians and women on Mumsnet could be more like Starbucks Dad. The trouble is, they can’t, and the reason they can’t isn’t because they are less open-minded. This way of understanding debates on sex and gender only ever sees things through the eyes of Starbucks Dad. It is, ironically, a profoundly gender normative way of seeing things. 

Remember the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it was set so low? With trans activism, it’s this, but on a whole other level. Many of us will be familiar with the “progressive” man who, after years of making transphobic jokes on social media, suddenly pivots to denouncing women as “terfs”. Incapable of realising that his way of experiencing the world is not the only one, he cannot imagine that women would do anything to upset trans people for reasons other than his own — namely, because he was being an arsehole. He got over that, didn’t he? Why can’t they?

Your paranoias are ridiculous, but they are not the same as our fears

It’s true: women such as Julie Bindel and JK Rowling would be total bitches if their entire objection to gender self-ID boiled down to feeling a bit funny about others not fulfilling their “proper” roles. Those desperate to make such a claim will often say “terfs” feel theirwomanhood is threatened” (which always makes me think of Mary O’Brien’s observation that “women do not need to bear children to know themselves as women … All the while, men have fashioned their world with a multiplicity of phallic symbols which even Freud could not catalogue exhaustively”. There’s a reason you see cocks, not vulvas, spray-painted on walls). Feminists are not worried about names on coffee cups, or graffitied genitalia. They are worried about losing things that matter: female-centred language, single-sex spaces, the right not to be defined by stereotypes. As long as male oppression of women exists, we need to make it clear to men: yes, your paranoias are ridiculous — and we’re glad some of you can admit it — but they are not the same as our fears. 

As Jane Clare Jones notes, “moral disgust aimed at trans people” is something we find in “the kind of people who, say, find femininity in men distressing, i.e. patriarchally invested people, and particularly, patriarchally invested men”. Men, that is, like Starbucks Dad. Yet, Jones writes, “accusations of ‘transphobia’ flow, overwhelmingly, from trans activists towards the speech of feminist women”:

Women who, importantly, are pretty much the last people on earth who’d be morally disgusted by someone transgressing patriarchal gender conventions, and whose speech shows no empirically verifiable relationship with the kind of patriarchal violence directed at trans women. That is, accusations of transphobia are being directed against the group of people — women who have theoretical and political objections to the trans rights agenda — who are actually least likely to experience moral disgust over trans people’s gender expression, and this is being done for purely political reasons.

This is one of the most galling things about this debate. So many of those calling feminists fascists do not seem to realise that these women are not lagging behind them in overcoming moral disgust. Like the patient, support-human mother in the Starbucks advert, we were never the ones having the extended tantrum over whether our “true” selves might be compromised by the coexistence of biological maleness and socially constructed femininity in one person. That’s a fragile male ego-driven worry, and it’s profoundly insulting to women to see it routinely conflated with women’s legitimate fear and mistrust of male people. 

In the end, the Starbucks advert does not challenge gender norms. On the contrary, it reasserts them: father and male offspring come to terms with one another once more, whilst mother remains in the background. The fundamental bond between the main players is restored. Who knew that one does not have to call something — masculinity, maleness, patriarchy — by its original name for the values to remain intact? What kind of fool was Starbucks Dad not to have realised this from the start? 

All men have to do is become au fait with the updated terminology; all women and girls have to do is give up everything, same as before, only minus the language to even describe the process. This is all the male version of “trans inclusion” amounts to: working out slightly earlier than other men that your privileged status will remain intact, regardless of what you call your fellow males. It’s hardly an act of great generosity, or any generosity at all. 

As the philosopher Clare Chambers warns, “If a category is removed before the oppression that creates it, the oppression stays in place but the ability to describe it is lost. This is only a problem for members of the oppressed class, though. For everyone else, it’s simply a title change. 

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