The Bug Behind Red

By Matt Christy

Judy Chicago, Red Flag, 1971, 20”x 24”, photolithograph

In 2012 a public relations scandal erupted around Starbucks when a group of vegans revealed that the red dye in then-new Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino was made from the bodies of crushed cochineal insects. The story was picked up by major networks like CNN and NPR, and articles appeared in the L.A. Times tracing the use of cochineal insects back to their historic use in textiles and more recent, extensive use in products like food and makeup. Vegans problematized a consumer product, forcing us to discover the normally invisible origins of a single ingredient.

At times finicky and paranoiac, the vegan community had revealed a deeper paranoia at the heart of a consumer culture ruled by global conglomerates. When the mystification of the consumer world produces a gap between one’s knowledge and one’s embodied consumption and this disparity is revealed, the issue begs an answer to the question: what is this?! Cochineal dye (often labeled carmine) is an old dye traditionally found in central and South America. Females feed on the prickly pear cactus and produce a bright red dye when crushed.

What inspired the group’s focus on the Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino and not another red product containing carmine? At the time, ads for the beverage looked like wallpaper with strawberries floating on a pastel pink ground. The drink itself was topped with whipped cream floating on a super-sweet red syrup mixed with soymilk that turned a chalky pink. Airy, light, excessive, luxurious, and feminine, Starbucks identified their target audience for this product: women. Perhaps the ad campaign contributed to the discovery of the insect in the pink drink through an unconsciously patronizing attitude toward the feminine.

Cochineal has negligible health costs or benefits; it is innocuous compared to the sins of its other ingredients including excessive sugar and its links to major health problems or soy and the environmental costs of its production. One is tempted to scream through the noise of vegan outrage, leave the bug in the red! Vegans want to purify us from the sin of animal meat, but in this case they also continue the old tradition of purifying the feminine. Against this patronizing, virginal red – innocuous, prepubescent, sapped of its dangerous seduction and made into a chalky pink – we might champion the striated cochineal – gray with six segmented legs, sucking on cactus juice.

For centuries sexy red lips have included crushed bugs.

Leon Cogniet, July 1830, or The Flags (study), 1830, oil on canvas

Judy Chicago’s photolithograph, Red Flag, shows a close-up of a woman pulling a bloody tampon out of herself. The tampon is transformed into a call to arms, a flag. In Europe as far back as the 1600s ships would raise a red flag to signal they were prepared to fight. This urgent red flag was flown by the Jacobins during the French Revolution. A painting by Leon Cogniet from 1830 depicts the creation of the French tricolor flag adopted by France soon after the revolution, illustrating progression from the white and gold of the monarch’s flag to the bloodied tricolor of post-revolution France. After dethroning the ruling family, Russians would adopt a red flag signaling the urgency of revolution. Chicago makes a connection between this urgent revolutionary flag and the female’s censured menstruation blood.

In America, red was the color of the left; the Red Scare rooted out communist spies and vilified militant anarchists. Today, red is color coded for the right. When and how did Russian red get applied to the neoliberal right with their nationalistic values and crony capitalism? During the 2000 presidential elections The Today Show used a color-coded map of America to designate what we now call the “red states” from the “blue states,” reversing the long-standing connection between red and the left. The hope was to sever any last remaining associations between the Democratic Party and communism. Thus, a symbolic death to leftist politics in America?

Symbolizing the blood of revolution, red now refers to the catastrophic revolution of neoliberal destruction. Here, capitalism gets to fulfill communism’s dream of “permanent revolution,” taking it out not only on its alienated consumers and its dis-empowered workers but on the body of every living thing it touches and turns to capital.

Starbucks agreed to phase out the use of cochineal insects in their Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino. News reporters could not suppress their tongue-in-cheek tone when reporting on the Starbuck’s vegans; it was an exaggerated outrage coming from a privileged community with an apolitical, life-style oriented criticism satisfying only the most trivial demand. They won, but their win was ambiguous. Ingredients have slipped back into their mystified invisibility, the feminine has been sapped of its bug, and workers have gone back to work.

Author Cutline: Matt Christy is an artist, teacher, and writer in Nashville.