Why do people care so much about Starbucks' holiday cups?

An investigation of the reoccuring cup controversy

This opening line I’m about to write is one that’s been written every year for the past Winter’s: Starbucks’ latest holiday cup is once again stirring up controversy.

A theory that appears to have originated from a Buzzfeed article claims this year’s Starbucks holiday cup — a company cup design tradition that dates back over 20 years — features two women holding hands as a nod towards the inclusion of LGBTQ+ customers. A blink-and-you-miss-it illustration of two women holding hands in a Starbucks holiday ad seems to support this theory, though a company spokeswoman said the hands on the cup are meant to be gender-neutral. 

Critics of the design, most notably Evangelical Christian communities, have allegedly spoken out against Starbucks for using Christmas as means of propelling a “gay agenda” onto its customers.

Starbucks notably clashed with similarly devout Christian groups in 2015 when they debuted a minimalist holiday cup — completely red with a centred Starbucks logo. The absence of traditional Christmas imagery, like Christmas trees or reindeer, led some to believe Starbucks was trying to diminish the holiday’s religious importance and resulted in an ongoing boycott.

I began looking into this history of controversy to understand how there could be so much meaning and political motives behind coffee containers. After excessively researching the subject, I can now say,  I still don’t fully understand. 

The most glaringly obvious issue with this whole debate is cups are just cups. They don’t have feelings or political opinions. How could they manage to offend such a large group of people? The placement of these cups in a political argument seems to suggest more about the critics than it does about the company. 

Starbucks cups have no obligation to do anything other than hold coffee. They don’t have to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or really any other holiday. Since Starbucks serves a wide range of customers from an equally wide range of religions, it makes sense — if they’re going to celebrate holidays at all — they’d implement a broad holiday design. 

Are these controversial interpretations a result of the unparalleled divisiveness of American politics that’s led many to see everything through a political lens? Maybe aspects of internet culture like Facebook and YouTube comments have predisposed people to vocalize our thoughts about everything presented to us? It’s hard for us to say what the cause of this issue is, but it’s even harder for cups to say, since they can’t talk.

Another inconsistency I find in this debacle is many customers believe Starbucks’ greatest misstep with their holiday cups is caring too much about offending people. Accusations of political correctness plague the coffee chain’s Twitter mentions as jilted consumers berate the company for excessively eliminating elements which could hurt someone’s feelings.

Now, the debate about political correctness is an argument unto itself that goes way beyond the scope of this controversy and article. But from what I gather, critics of the cup don’t like that Starbucks cares too much. 

But isn’t caring about cups at all the definition of caring too much? 

The flawed logic behind turning inconsequential matters, like designs on a cup, into a politicized debate about gay agendas and wars on Christmas is one of the most ironic things I’ve heard to date. 

Based on their yearly track record, the one thing I can concretely infer from these controversies is that they’ll probably become as much as a tradition as the holiday cups themselves. But who knows? Maybe next year, Starbucks will finally succumb to the criticism and just pour coffee into people’s hands during the holiday season.

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