The link between a siren–specifically a “twin-tailed mermaid”–and coffee is not immediately apparent; nor does it become apparent after several reflective moments. Aside from being the logo for one of, if not the largest coffee company, sirens are not something that populate modern culture frequently. Assumedly, most people are unaware that the logo is a siren opposed to a mere mermaid.
Enter “Starbucks siren” into any search engine and the first entry will detail the company’s desire for a logo evocative of its “seaport roots,” and the serendipitous discovery of a “16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid.” That discovery led to the creation of the original Starbucks logo.
The initial logo used for Starbucks depicts a smiling, nude, mer-woman with twin tails spread apart appearing to be held back by her own two hands, her breasts bared, her figure full and portly. This image arouses images more closely aligned with medieval patriarchy than capturing the essence of a seaport-based company. Of course, the original 1971 logo wouldn’t have proliferated as much as today, but nonetheless, it is unsettling to imagine, in place of the cropped, minimalist logo of today; a half nude woman with legs spread wide plastered across cups littering the sidewalk . . .
Since the initial iteration of the logo, the siren has evolved gradually, but many of same characteristics are discernible. She is still nude, though her figure has been streamlined and her breasts obstructed by strands of hair. Her twin tails are still visible, though where the two meet at the end of the torso is no longer so. Portions of her arms remain visible and appear to maintain a position holding the two tails apart–a gesture I suppose often goes unnoticed.
Many debates have raged over the years regarding the various iterations of the Starbucks logo. I can recall, several years ago now, a news headline touching upon the sexualizing characteristics inherent in the siren logo. Of course, time’s passed and that has faded. More recently, debate has surfaced with regards to the authenticity of the published Starbucks story relaying the selection process of the initial logo. There’s debate as to whether the twin-tailed siren is even Norse, whether something can even be called Norse with regards to the 16th century. There are concerns of plagiarism (as illustrated in the featured image which shows the original image alongside the purported “Norse woodcut”). There are even concerns that deem the current iteration as “overly minimal” and too in keeping with current design trends. All of these overlook the fact that Sirens have little to do with coffee, but perhaps that’s just me.
In the store where I work, seventy-five percent of the “partners” are women. All of these women surprised me when I first began at the store. Not in the sort of “jump out at you” fashion, but in the sort of subtle, going against expectations fashion. Coming into the job, perhaps in an egotistical manner, I assumed I’d be in the minority on the intelligence scale of things given my college education. Not to say that working at Starbucks as a barista necessarily attracts the ill-educated, but it isn’t the sort of intellectually stimulating job you’d expect to meet people with whom you could hold intellectually stimulating conversations. Prefaces aside, I’ve come to know a range of women not like those I’ve been subject to in other venues. Admittedly, the range of women (and men for that matter) I knew pre-Starbucks was narrow. Of course, there were peers, friends of family, ‘generic’ friends, and the like, but it is rare to get to know people with whom you are otherwise divorced. I suppose high-turnover jobs tend to provide many opportunities for these sort of relationships. Relationship which, regardless of their brevity, are unique and filled with glimpses into the ways others see the word around them. I suppose I’ve come to better know some different archetypes of women. Not to say that people are archetypal, but people tend to follow patterns, so it seems safe to say that meeting people of a certain character has furnished me with a deeper understanding of certain circumstances . . .
Take one of the shift-supervisors for example. She’s young, though I’m not entirely sure of her age because of the taboo placed on asking a woman’s age. I’d guess late twenties. She’s petite, she’s friendly, smiley. She’s the sort of person you’d assume not to be smart, but then you learn she has a psychology degree and wonder whether she’s been assessing you since the moment you first met. Only through my interactions with her, and my observation (and occasional eavesdropping on her conversations with customers) have I learned that she’s searching for a more intellectually stimulating job; that she has an internship, that she feels stuck, that she’s been with Starbucks for nine years, that she’s worried about making it back to Hawaii to see her family.
Take the pregnant woman I work with. The feminist, jack-of-all trades sort. The one who’s of Persian ancestry, but seemingly cosmopolitan in her roots. The one who could tell you about the caffeine content per ounce of espresso verses coffee. The one who brings books with her every shift and squeezes in pages during ten-minute breaks and while she sips from the water jug she carries to ensure she remains hydrated.
Take my boss. I learned about a month in, that she’s a lesbian. It didn’t really change my view of her, because the way she lives doesn’t really affect me directly–aside from her quirkiness. The meowing sounds she makes, her nasally laugh that sounds as though it’s caught in her throat. Her extended conversations on food. Her favorite–nachos or tacos–anything smothered with cheese I presume. Our shared chuckles at the hilarity of the training videos and her excerpted quotes: “Knives are sharp, Coffee is hot, Wet floors are slick . . .”
I’ve come to know more many more woman than these while working at Starbucks, and I feel that they’ve all altered the way I see things.They’ve put a story to the faces on the other side of the counter, something I think is often overlooked whenever I go to a place of service. Just because they have on a green apron with an embroidered Siren spreading its legs doesn’t mean that the women behind them don’t have a story and a life. It is easy to forget the the women and the men who serve us in any setting are men and women first and baristas, “partners”, and workers after.
I wonder about the people in corporate, whether they have the same ration of women to men, whether those women wear a logo with a twin-tailed siren proudly on their chest.