In sci-fi classic The Handmaid's Tale, women's bodies are controlled and seriously policied by society.
We can all agree that fetal alcohol syndrome is a tragedy. But although American public awareness campaigns about the dangers of drinking while pregnant have good intentions at heart, recent media initiatives have deployed tactics that shame moms while ignoring bigger issues. Instead of helping improve the lives of women and kids, these public action campaigns veer into borderline Handmaid’s Tale territory.
Stories of self-censorship in the media are sadly common; here's one that's relevant to what I tried to do with this series. Years ago, Barry Lopez addressed an environmental philosophy class at my alma mater and I cornered him later to ask him some questions about journalism. He said it can be a constant fight to get good, varied content published, and as an example told me that a writer friend had had an essay pulled from a mainstream magazine that's well-respected for its reporting and commentary, and which has a pretty highbrow, progressive slant. The essay talked about alcoholism from a personal perspective; it was yanked because one of the magazine's major sponsors, a vodka distiller, was none too thrilled with the writer's discussion of the dark side of drinking. Bitch's commitment to providing a forum for non-mainstream voices and perspectives meant that I was allowed to talk about alcohol from whatever perspective I chose – good, bad, indifferent or amused – and I am enormously grateful for that.
It turns out! Women drink too! Sometimes they even drink faster or more than men, according to a charmingly colloquially written science news piece that crossed my notice over the holidays. According to a survey of Spanish college students, male college students drink more on average, but women drink faster, and a higher percentage of women were identified as "binge drinkers." A survey of US students also found that students in mixed-gender housing were more likely to binge-drink than students in single-gender housing. Which, as we've discussed, is completely true in my experience, therefore I believe it! And nothing is wrong with the article itself, and the research could guide policy changes on college campuses that keep students safer, whether they drink or not.
But an almost-inevitable result of research – however sound or suspect – on gender breakdowns on, well, anything, is the inevitable tide of sexist eye-rolling or concern trolling that follows. (Look no further than the comments on that article. I kid. There is no reason to read them.) I've long been fascinated by moral panics, as they inevitably target the young, or the ladies, or people of color or sexual minorities. (Christine Sismondo notes that while bars catering to sexual minorities have probably always been around, raids on same in the 1940s and '50s started because Joseph McCarthy was disproportionately interested in the behavior of gay men, who he believed could be more easily blackmailed and brainwashed by Communists. Of course, the moral panic – and the attendant official interest in gay bars – took on a life of its own, and raids continued well after McCarthy's resignation.)
I've asserted several times in this series that bars were, traditionally, male spaces. It wasn't until checking Christine Sismondo's phenomenal history America Walks Into a Bar out from my local library that I found out this was not just an informal taboo: in the decades after Prohibition, many bars explicitly banned women, or banned them from visiting during certain hours.
There were a few reasons for this, depending on the region and the bar: first, during World War II, as was the case in many other fields, women went into traditionally male occupations, including bartending (in some cases forming barmaids' unions). When men came back from the war, they formed their own, all-male unions to muscle female bartenders out. But bars did employ women during the postwar era – just not to pour drinks. Instead, "B-girls" employed by the bar would show up, pretending to be nurses or secretaries on their way home from work, and charm the male clientele into buying them drink after drink. After several drinks, the woman in question – usually called a "B-girl" – would disappear, leaving her companion with an artificially inflated bar tab: he'd be charged for cocktails even as the in-the-know bartenders had been pouring one glass of juice, soda pop or iced tea after another.
The ensuing moral panic (which focused on protecting the male victims, and didn't concern itself one way or another with the women involved in the work) had the result that many bars banned women from visiting, or just from visiting during certain hours. And, of course, there were the bars that had never opened their doors to women in the first place, or just refused to serve unaccompanied women.
In college, I lived in a co-op – on-campus, owned by the university and so-called because rather than rely on the custodial service that cleaned the other campus buildings, we divvied cleaning tasks among ourselves. It was cheaper to live there than in the dorms or off-campus. There were several on our campus, and I lived in no fewer than three. There were not the hippie havens they sound like, though the one I lived in for two years in a row had a hackey sack circle going out front pretty much 24/7. That house – the only coed house in Oregon State's co-op system – was far more like a coed fraternity.
None of us would have admitted that at the time, of course. All of considered ourselves a little too cool, a little too lefty and a little too mellow to participate in the, pshhhh, Greek system.
I drink. I like to drink. I do it for a lot of reasons and I'm glad I have the right to do it. (The right to drink was actually never taken away from the public, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
I also grew up in a family in which some people abused alcohol. Most of the details of that, I'll refrain from making your business, as they involve folks who haven't consented to be written about here. The point is, I am under no illusion that drinking is only a personal and private choice. And not just in cases where people drink and get behind the wheels of cars, beat or sexually assault their parnters or children or die too young of cirhhosis of the liver because they drank too much: the subtler effects of drinking on human behavior affect the drinker's work and relationships, and these can ripple outward. Anyone who's ever lost a job due to a single, unproductive, hungover morning, or had a friendship go south after one boozy night, knows what I'm talking about. (I broke my foot earlier this year in a bike accident after riding home with a couple of cocktails in my system. It cost me the part-time job I was using to supplement freelance work, and that affected my finances, and my financial status has affected my relationships with my friends. Heck, so has my reduced mobility, an ongoing thing I am still getting used to. So, drunks – and users of other intoxicants – can we agree that "I'm only hurting myself" is not necessarily the right way of talking about these things?)
Some of the negative effects of drinking – particularly the subtle ones – are, I think, best managed in privacy. Break a wine glass? Sweep it up, go to Ikea or the thrift store and get some more. Find out you're pregnant following a boozy one-night stand? Do what you think is best. From that perspective I've been sympathetic to the NRA's rhetoric about responsible, educated gun ownership. I think there is such a thing; I really do. Just as I think there is such a thing as responsible, educated alcohol consumption.
I've been the coworker who never missed a chance to drink with coworkers and I've been the one who hated my job so much that the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day was spend more time with my coworkers. That turned out to be a mistake, though: at my first job out of college, the occasional beer with coworkers kept me sane, but it took me a year to even consider it. One coworker there said I seemed "stuffy" to her, which would have been hilarious to the staff and volunteers at my next job. I drank with them regularly and developed a rep as something of a party girl. During the day, I fended off sexist comments and had to fight to be respected; being known as cool, fun and likeable probably worked against me.
A massively unfair catch-22, that: skipping the office Christmas party and keeping your head down at work can get you the wrong reputation in the office, but so can being known as the lampshader. (While men aren't immune to this kind of gossip, I frankly don't hear nearly as much murmured concern that the guy who got too lit last weekend might be a little more committed to the good life than he is to his job.)
At least half – if not two-thirds – of the essays in Drinking Diaries (a newly published book spawned by the blog of the same name) are downers. That stands to reason: alcohol is a depressant, and as I've written before in this series, historically women have borne its consequences more severely than men.
If the book sometimes feels like a long self-help meeting—with one story after another about hitting bottom, living with the consequences of a parent's or friend's drinking or simply realizing it's time to slow down—there are also moments of complexity and nuance. Rita Williams's lyric essay, "The Root Cellar," is hardly about drinking at all: it's actually about class and racial identity, and how her failure to deliver a bottle of homemade dandelion wine on time bore disastrous consequences for a coworker. Jane Friedman's "Drinking as a Genuine Vocation" made me want to be her friend for life, and Samantha Dunn's "Slake," about her mother's death due to alcoholism (that is, but due to an untreated infection from falling on broken glass) resists easy answers about the causes of her mother's thirst for booze.
There's a script for women in commercial country music that doesn't necessarily coincide with more mainstream stereotypes and assumptions about women. If you've ever heard Carrie Underwood's ubiquitous 2007 single, "Before He Cheats" (lyrics), you'll recognize the tropes.
Of course there are exceptions, but the ideal country woman is often blond (and white), feisty, world-wise, and hot. She is deeply possessive of her man, and aims to squelch competitors for his affection. She gives the appearance of working-class roots even if she didn't grow up working class, and she's equally comfortable talking about guns (Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead"), Jesus (Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel"), and heterosexual romantic relationships (Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away").
One of the newer variations on these themes is the girl group Pistol Annies (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley). Check out the first single of their August LP, Hell on Heels (lyrics):
America, it would seem, is on a bender. From the shot-fueled mayhem of Jersey Shore (the most popular show in MTV’s history) to a special booze-themed episode of Glee, to the blog Texts From Last Night immortalizing those crucial missives sent while sloshed, there seems to be no way to slake our collective thirst for entertainment exploring the fun of drinking—though attempting to do so has become a popular and lucrative pursuit.
Nowhere is this quite as clear as in the music industry.