You’ve seen it on Etsy, in Oliver Bonas, anywhere you buy greeting cards or last-minute Secret Santa gifts: booze has its own, independently grown, merchandise business. Messages range from a “Press for Prosecco” bell to “Gindependent Woman” to the horrific “A banana has 108 calories. A gin & tonic has 91 calories. Enough said.“
Generally pun-based, it spans from cards to teatowels to homeware, jewellery and even Christmas decorations. It’s reached a point that making a joke out of drinking seems as integral to British culture as drinking itself – a fact that is freely capitalised on. When exactly did the act of drinking, and enjoying it, get so much merchandise? Why is so much of it so cutesy? And what does it have to do with the way women drink?
Drinking was historically a male activity, until a complex combination of access to public space, the rise in feminism and the shifting drinks industry changed women’s drinking habits. For a large part of the 20th century, women were confined to the domestic sphere while men had the public space of the pub(lic house) where women were originally not welcome, and certainly not welcome to drink. When women did drink, their capacity for alcohol was as diminished as their access to public space – women were expected to drink fortified wines or, if need be, a half-pint, according to Clare Herrick, a geographer at King’s College London.
Several changes in the drinks industry shifted what was consumed, and by whom. One of the most radical changes was the introduction of affordable wine to supermarkets in the 1960s. Wine could be drunk at home, welcoming women to the drinking fold like never before. At the same time, the political and societal upheaval of second-wave feminism changed things for women in more ways than one. Dr Amanda Atkinson, a senior researcher with the Public Health Institute, tells me: “As women became more liberated and economically independent, they began to participate in drinking but were morally judged for doing so by transcending traditional notions of femininity. For example, they [could] be labelled as lacking femininity, as being sexually promiscuous, as being ‘out of control’ when intoxicated and neglectful of traditional roles (e.g. mothers, wives and carers, passive, domestic).”
This is reflected in the medical concerns levied at women over the years. As reported in Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness: (Dis)Orderly Spaces, there was a gendered double standard in the reporting of perceived harm from drinking. The book’s authors argue that “public anxiety about women’s drinking peaks in times where their roles are subject to rapid change, most notably during first and second wave feminism.”
A stark example of this occurred during the late ’90s and early ’00s, aka the ‘ladette’ years. Dr Sadie Boniface, research coordinator for the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), tells me that where we’re currently more likely than ever not to have drunk at all in the past week, the early 2000s saw a considerable rise in heavy episodic drinking – or ‘binge’ drinking – among women (though the rates have since started to fall). A 2004 analysis of the media reporting of ‘ladette’ culture (whereby women were represented as aping male behaviour by going out, having a good time and getting volubly drunk) appeared at the same time as articles which emphasised the threats alcohol posed to women’s health (in terms of their looks, fertility, and the health of their unborn child), as well as making them more likely victims of male violence, with men being presented as victims of women who were invading traditionally male domains.
Women became a target market for the drinks industry. According to Dr Atkinson’s review for the IAS, women have been targeted since the 1990s through stereotypically ‘feminised’ products (sweet, low-calorie, slim design, focused on appearance, adverts with all-female friendships etc). While the gendering of products is still prevalent (think the recent rise in pink gins and the persistent popularity of prosecco), there has been a recent lifestyle shift to what could be called ‘commodity feminism’ or ‘femvertising’. More recently, Dr Atkinson says, the use of gender stereotypes has been “accompanied by messages of empowerment, including sexual assertiveness, ‘me time’, the promotion of equal gender representation and the celebration of women through associations with events such as International Women’s Day … thus allowing the brand to successfully associate itself with gender equity.”
All of this comes together to form a complicated picture of how we drink, and how we see our drinking habits. The ladette may be gone, and the drinking habits of women have ebbed and flowed over the years (see the recent rise in teetotalism), but what researchers call “determined drinking” (drinking solely to get drunk) has remained a constant. According to the latest ONS adult drinking habits survey in 2017, 25.6% of women binged alcohol on their heaviest drinking day,” with 16-24-year-olds most likely to binge drink when they do drink.
Where once drunkenness for the sake of drunkenness among women was framed as unladylike (and therefore to do so could be seen as a feminist statement), our attitudes to drinking have taken on a far more self-effacing, joking tone. Unlike the ladette years, it’s no longer loutish but how we cope with the inescapable stresses of modern life. Whether that’s huns dealing with feelings with a bottle of rosé, a glass of wine or a gin and tonic after the kids have gone to bed or post-work pints to unload job stress, we don’t only drink – we make a joke of it. Which is where the drinking memorabilia comes in.
Andrew Misell is the Wales Director for the charity Alcohol Change UK, a national organisation that works on drinking issues across the spectrum, encouraging people to have what he calls “sensible, adult conversations about alcohol”. He tells me that this work is important because it’s still hard to speak frankly about the way we drink in the UK. “I think it’s a difficult one because this mock regret and humour around alcohol is quite ingrained in British culture. Any other illness is not funny, but a hangover is funny.” This is most apparent in the clearly successful market for pun-based products. “There’s quite a big market for things like birthday cards, mugs, teapots, teatowels, aprons, posters – all quite whimsical, and saying things like ‘Just Add Prosecco’ or ‘It’s Gin O’Clock’ or whatever it might be.” When I ask him where they’ve come from, he’s quick to emphasise that these are independent products, not from the drinks industry itself.
“This whimsical merchandise … is not being produced by the brewers or the wine companies, it’s being produced independently by card manufacturers, gift manufacturers and you do see messages encouraging excess there. The question to ask is how much of this is driven by manufacturers and how much is coming from the public because blatantly this stuff sells.” He adds: “People like this humour.” There isn’t an easy cause and effect: if someone makes a birthday card joking about getting wasted for your birthday, that could be seen as irresponsible of the manufacturers. But “you’ve gotta look at both sides there: if there wasn’t already a certain openness to that kind of humour, you wouldn’t be able to sell birthday cards that suggest you get drunk on your birthday.”
Dr Atkinson tells me these novelty items have existed for a while, but “there has definitely been an increase in the availability and marketing of such items in recent years. This both reflects the normalisation and acceptability of women’s drinking over time, and reinforces drinking as a key aspect of women’s everyday lives and identities.” And as they become more common, they become more problematic. “For example, I recently came across a champagne-shaped baby bottle targeted at mothers of baby girls. This symbolises the way in which alcohol use is gendered from a young age and the way in which, in British culture, alcohol use is so ingrained we do not question it.”
This seems to be a peculiarly British phenomenon. Our drinking culture has been referred to as a ‘dry’ culture, according to Dr Aktinson: “Traditionally we drink less frequently, yet when we do drink, we drink more than other cultures (i.e. a night out at the weekend), thus we have more of a ‘binge’ culture.” We also find drunkenness very funny in and of itself, which seems to be fairly unique. In Andrew’s experience, “We do seem to find drunkenness particularly funny. Whereas, if you go to perhaps somewhere like America or most of southern Europe, it’s regarded as somewhat shameful to be drunk.”
When I ask Andrew why we’re so ready to make a joke out of the way we drink that we’d buy novelty items, he says it comes back to our discomfort with being upfront about drinking, especially drinking a lot. “We use humour [to talk] about things we’re not quite comfortable about. The question then would be why are we not quite comfortable about drinking? If we think we’re drinking too much, then why don’t we talk about that in a straightforward fashion? There’s a lot to be said for enjoying alcohol up to a point with friends. People need to socialise. The potential problems come when that consumption is taking place at a level that is likely to cause you harm either mentally or physically, or where you don’t feel able to opt out because you’re in a drinking group of friends.”
What does this bring to the table and for what occasion could you ever give it to someone pic.twitter.com/rtDqAb5Tl6
— charlotte (@charlotte_gggg) October 12, 2019
The cutesy merchandise geared towards women seems to be one particularly popular iteration of the same problem – we just want to enjoy our drinking and laugh about it, because the alternative might mean opting out of something that is, for so many of us, fundamentally fun. But whether drinking is framed as quirky and sparkly and adorable, or aspirationally high end, or even tins in the park with the lads, constantly making it into a joke masks our ability to identify when it slips from occasional to problematic.
Cutesy stuff can often reiterate harmful gender stereotypes (framing womanhood around weight loss, sweetness and pink) but we’re long past the point where liking pink, because it’s also a stereotype, makes you a bad woman or a bad feminist. The problem isn’t necessarily the glittery swirling cursive or ’50s housewife illustrations; it’s that framing drinking – through any lens – as fundamental doesn’t allow us to work out when it tips from freedom of choice to dependency, and assertions that we can do whatever we want could make it harder to interrogate when the way we drink becomes a problem.
Tides do seem to be shifting. Campaigns like #dontpinkmydrink are aiming to tackle gender stereotyping in the drinks industry, and there’s been a surge in books and media covering everything from teetotalism to what’s been dubbed ‘sober curious’. This growth in self-reflection indicates that perhaps we can find a new normal, where we recognise that drinking is a choice we are all free to make, but that it should always be a choice – not something we feel obliged to partake in or can only do in excess and then laugh about. We are all so much more than a “Gindependent Woman”.
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