Welcome to Lady Liquor, where, for the next two months, I’ll be writing about the relationship between, well, ladies and liquor. Primarily.
I’m interested in the ways women’s attitudes about drinking – and society’s attitudes about women who drink – have shaped history and pop culture. But it’s pretty much impossible to talk about those things without also talking about other mind-altering substances (I’m looking at you, War on Drugs); I’d also be remiss not to talk about the relationship between booze and other social justice movements – like the gay rights movement, which, after all, started in a bar.
I’m here because I consume alcohol and feminist theory with equal enthusiasm, and it made perfect sense to finally throw the two in the shaker and pour them out. I’m also here because enough of a history nerd to know that in the 19th century, the temperance and suffrage movements were closely linked, but until I started reading up for this series, I didn’t know why they were so closely linked, nor did I realize that the two movements eventually parted ways – nor that women were instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed. I’m here because I’m as uncomfortable with “Girls Gone Wild” as I am with tongue-clucking about “raunch culture”. And I’m here because when I first stumbled on Modern Drunkard magazine, which seeks to restore drunkenness to the glory days of the Rat Pack and Jackie Gleeson, I badly wanted to identify with it, but found that I couldn’t, maybe because it includes a column called “Concerned Cad” and runs incessant editorials about the “nanny state,” an expression that will always get the side-eye from me. I’m enough of a snob that when I order a martini and the bartender asks what kind of martini I want, I visibly wince, but enough of a populist to happily defend sweet, tasty “girl drinks” from sexist eye-rolling.
I mean, really: one of the most important projects of feminism, and particularly of feminism’s third wave, is encouraging women to embrace pleasure. It’s about embracing pleasure in a consensual, conscientious way, but it is by all means about getting your rocks off as you please – without shame or apology. But all of that talk has focused almost exclusively on sex, or on issues of bodily autonomy that relate to sex directly, such as contraception or abortion. But mind-altering substances – apart from being involved, for better and for worse, in many of our sexual experiences – offer their own particular pleasures, a dopamine flood that doesn’t so much as require a trip to the local sex shop.
But talking about women and their relationship to booze also means acknowledging that the spaces in which beer, wine and spirits are sold – and made – are stil, by and large, boy’s clubs. It wasn’t that long ago that this was literally true: in the 18th century, women were rarely allowed to visit restaurants, let alone bars, and were generally assumed to be prostitutes if they walked into the latter. In 2012, some bars are still hostile spaces for women: I make a policy of not visiting most bars that advertise Ladies’ Nights, on the assumption that there can’t be a good reason they’re begging for women customers. (Ladies’ Nights, as we’ll see, were made illegal in some states following legal complaints, but are alive and well in Portland, where I live.) Still, most women in most parts of the U.S. can wander into any bar they please without fear of arrest or reproach, or even a logistical headache; that’s not necessarily true for transgender people and people with disabilities, who are still fighting for safe, accessible spaces.
I don’t think it’s an enormous stretch to say that drinking, or just visiting bars, can have a revolutionary effect – for women as well as other marginalized groups. But not everything a woman does is liberating, just because a woman does it, which is to say I’m hard pressed to call Katy Perry a feminist heroine just because she recorded a song about being hungover once, though”Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” deserves a nod for making her almost seem relatable to me. (Sidenote: did anyone ever actually make out to Radiohead? Does even seem plausible that Katy Perry ever did? These are questions that keep me up at night.) I don’t intend to ignore alcohol’s rather serious downside: I’m interested in how gender intersects with narratives of recovery and addiction in our culture: I might roll my eyes at Cat Marnell’s suggestion that just by writing about being fucked up, she is doing this cool, transgressive, feminist-ass thing, but I have to concede her point that male writers get to write about these things unapologetically, and female writers almost invariably cloud their drinking or addiction stories in apology, self-judgment and a tidy moral ending: Here’s What I’ve Learned, and Why I Know Better Now. Charlie Sheen’s (reputedly drug-related) breakdown was an episode, with a relatively happy ending; Lindsay Lohan’s legal and personal battles (also often involving drugs or drink) are a serial drama, one in which a redeeming finale seems increasingly unlikely. In addition to the apparent gendered double standard in our culture’s reaction to addiction, I’m interested in the gender dynamics of the recovery movement itself – both its origins and its manifestation. I’m also interested in how the disease model of addiction has affected U.S. race politics: has the idea that some ethnic groups are just more susceptible to alcohol addiction been a tool to help those communities, or just a weapon with which to stereotype them? And what’s the science behind it, anyway?
Finally, booze is big business, and it’s one in which many, many women make their living. I’ll also be presenting the stories of female, trans and genderqueer bartenders, brewers, vintners, and distillers – past and present. Brewing beer, historically, was not a man’s job, but a woman’s; I’ll take a look at what changed, and how gender roles continue to evolve in the industry itself, and how that does or doesn’t affect the marketing of alcoholic beverages. (The month of pink nausea has just come to an end, but the pink-booze-for-breast-cancer hangover remains.)
In high school and for my whole freshman year of college, I was a rigid teetotaler (though I preferred the cooler-sounding “straight edge”), then a cautious sipper; both approaches were right for me at the time, and I don’t regret taking them. I spent a good chunk of my mid-to-late 20s being somewhat less cautious in the company of alcohol, and I don’t regret that, either, though I could do without the reflux. Now my drinking ethos is something along the lines of “all things in moderation, including moderation.” That is to say, I try to lead a balanced life, but I don’t mind falling on my ass now and then. If a single beer makes me a little dizzier at 32 than it did at 25, so does the way we talk about alcohol and young women – it’s polarized, it’s disorienting. I want balance in the discourse, too. This blog will be an attempt to help create it.