Culture & Society

Fiction Vs Representation: Transgender Community’s Take On Starbucks Ad Sheds Light On Inclusivity

A viral Starbucks advertisement shows the rekindling of a daughter - a transgender woman - with her parents as they accept her new identity. However, a lot of people have criticised the company for indulging in tokenism.

Starbucks' new ad on transgender inclusivity.
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To get approval from our parents for anything at all is an achievement for most of us, especially when it is for a major event in our lives. But for an individual from the queer community, being accepted by their families for who they are is a feeling unmatched by others, especially if that individual is transgender. 

Recently, Starbucks launched a trans-inclusive ad campaign for the Indian audience that has been showered with praise but also equally criticised. The two-minute ad that went viral earlier this month shows the rekindling of a daughter – a transgender woman – with her parents which struck a chord with many people in the country. The ad opens with the father trying to reach his “son” Arpit on call. It goes on to show their meeting after the mother has already pleaded to him: “Iss bar gussa mat hona, please (Don’t be angry this time, please)”. The daughter walks into the cafe, sits at the table and tries to reconcile with her father. But soon after, the father stands up, as if to leave, but instead places a coffee order for everyone.

The defining moment of the ad is when the barista calls out the name ‘Arpita’ instead of Arpit for the order showing that her father has accepted her new identity.

Starring transgender model Siya Malasi, and the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName, the ad has garnered more than 9 million views on Twitter. While it attempts to address complexities surrounding one’s gender and social acceptance in India, a lot of people have criticised the company for indulging in mere tokenism. However, the ad also raises a crucial debate surrounding how the people in the transgender community combat their struggles and how it is represented to the world.

“I'm just really happy that this is happening because representation is a very important factor for any community to grow and be visible to society,” says Nitasha Biswas, India’s first transgender beauty pageant winner.

Born and raised in Kolkata, Nitasha knew from a very young age that she was different. Nitasha won the Miss Trans Queen India in 2017 and has since leveraged her fame to advocate the rights of and raise awareness about transgender on several platforms. She is also a TEDx speaker.

“When I won my first transgender beauty contest, that was in 2017, but things are finally changing in 2023. It has been a long journey. So I believe this is the beginning, baby steps are being taken to create a change,” she says.

Like Nitasha, others within the transgender community, too, have celebrated the Starbucks ad for the message it tries to deliver. 

Representation is important

“I really like the (Starbucks) ad. It’s great to see that brands are finally coming out in our support. At least people are being aware slowly. We need more of these advertisements to spread awareness (about the trans community),” says Archie Singh, who won the 2021 Miss International Trans beauty pageant in Columbia.

Deepanjali Chhetri, who was the only transgender participant in Miss Diva Universe 2021, feels that the whole criticism behind the Starbucks ad is unnecessary. “I don’t think that was a publicity stunt because that’s the reality for many of us. Things are changing for the good nowadays and more families are accepting their children for who they are. It’s just an ad where they are showing the love between a daughter, a trans woman, and her estranged family. Jo door the, ab wo paas hai (the ones who were far, are now close to her). The acceptance they have shown is very good for us, for our representation,” she says.

Deepanjali says that growing up, her parents were very supportive but her grandfather who was in the Army and her uncle, a politician, saw her as the “man” of the family. “I come from a family of five sisters. They wanted me to be manly, to make them proud”. Deepanjali moved to Delhi to start her career much before her gender affirmation surgery and was working as a translator at hospitals. But, she says, “It was when I met other people from the trans community that I started feeling a part of it. So I saved enough money to get the surgery and become who I am.” 

However, not everyone in the transgender community approved the advertisement. While some felt that it was an oversimplification by just adding the letter ‘A’ to a name to change the identity, others felt that the daughter looked “too much like a woman”.

Does it really start with your name?

The Starbucks ad campaign aims to create awareness about the transgender community with the hashtag #ItStartsWithYourName. 

Rudrani Chhetri, a transgender activist, has criticised the ad for oversimplifying the name and giving it binary definitions. “What if the character (of the daughter) chose her name as Chandani or something like that? How can my entire identity be just about just a single letter,” she asks.

Meanwhile, Nitasha found the ad meaningful and necessary. "I actually thought that the hashtag was very good and catchy. In the ad, it is only a matter of a letter that gets added to change Arpit to become Arpita. So the name definitely plays an important role. Even for me, when I changed from my previous name to Nitasha, something I chose, being called by that name, especially from your father's mouth, or through the gem actions of your father – like the way in the ad the father goes to place an order – that shows the acceptance of the parents and I think it's a very important factor that you address the person how they want to be addressed."

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Transgender individuals have been part of India’s culture and society for a very long time but they are often reduced to slang titles – which in modern day refer to the transgenders commonly seen in gaudy clothes at traffic signals, who are forced into beggary. 

"Especially for the trans community who are often called by different names in slang languages, for people like me I especially think it has been a very long fight and name does play a very important role," she adds.

On the other hand, transgender model and activist Bonita Rajpurohit says that she found the use of the daughter's dead name – the birth name of a transgender person before they change it – a little unsettling. The ad opens by showing the father calling his (trans) daughter, whose name and contact ID are of the son he has held on to. "The ad features a man named Arpit on the caller ID before the main character arrives. But I am not that comfortable with the use of a dead name."

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"Having said that, the ad refers to family acceptance which is one of the biggest hurdles for a trans person. It is good that the ad led with that messaging as it will resonate with the community," she adds.

Battling the high standards

Bella, a 22-year-old trans model from Delhi, felt a similar kind of disconnect when she saw the ad. “When I first watched on the Starbucks page, I could not connect because I could not recognise him/her as a trans,” she says, pointing at the unfeasible beauty standards expected out of transgender women. “They are a mixture of gender, and we keep forgetting that. It is the people who want them to look like either a male or a female. We also have to go through the stages of HRT (Hormonal Replacement Therapy) to look the way we want to but people only want to see beauty in the perfect sense."

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She also highlights how an ad by a brand like Starbucks has very little reach for the community. "Our community is marginalised and vulnerable. We don't go to Starbucks and we don't prefer to go to pricey places," she notes. 

Nitasha says that while it is commendable for Starbucks to showcase their inclusivity, more homegrown and local brands need to do the same.

"When we talk about a very big company, which has a lot of names, expensive stuff, that is catering for a certain segment of the society that is buying luxury. We (most transgenders) don't understand that and I don't get to see that. So I think smaller brands too need to start endorsing such inclusivity because it is these homegrown brands that are reaching the urban and the rural areas and that is where the change will start. There are so many other trans persons living in villages. We have to be the voice for them as well. We can't just cater to a section of society that can afford expensive brands. The more the visibility, the more people it will cater to, and then people with start learning," she notes.

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In the end, it’s all about acceptance

In an interview with The Indian Express, Siya Malasi, the 25-year-old model who plays Arpita in the Starbucks ad revealed how when she was in school, she used to hold her pee for hours to avoid going to the washroom where she could be bullied. This is the reality of the bias that transgenders continue to face in India, despite the efforts by its advocates.

However, when it comes to representation, even a tiny beam of hope like the Starbucks ad helps in shifting societal values and lends a helping hand for the upliftment of the community, of those seeking acceptance for their identity from their near and dear ones.

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As Nitsha highlights, the journey has been hard -- for her and many others in the community -- but then it is the resilience and hard work towards what she wanted that has always been determined in her mind. “I think we can only overcome our struggles when our zeal and resilience are very strong. I've seen a lot of hard days but I’ve also experienced happy days.”

“After all, we don’t want anything. We are just seeking inclusion and an understanding of each other's needs,” she says.

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