Drinking “Like a Man”: Second-Guessing Secret Sexism

by Brittany Allen

This might strike as a funny double standard to quibble with (as it involves the ever- dubious devil’s brew), but I’m interested today in the gender divisions across bar culture. As a frequenter of the, ahem, “libation establishment” – and a former bartender of two years – I like to think I know a thing or two about drinking culture. And here’s the sorriest fact of things, friends: it’s a  truth universally acknowledged and assumed that a man walks into a bar and orders a) a stout or b) a whiskey on the rocks. On the other hand, a woman walks into a bar and orders a) a vodka soda (maybe a G&T in the summertime) or b) “something fruity and fun!” Now that it’s 20friggin14, what’s wrong with this picture? 

I reduce. And for the record? I’m a Maker’s Mark girl, myself. But let’s all agree that the bar is one institution that’s managed to keep most waves of feminism at bay. Even in purportedly progressive neighborhoods (such as, for instance, the East Village), women at a bar can still expect to deal with unsolicited come-ons in the best case scenario. The sports and dive bars, in particular, remain strongholds of the hetero-gent. And again, not to speak in generalizations, but I’ll argue that our male-centric drinking culture is in part responsible for the way women behave on social visits to the bar; because of deeply entrenched cultural customs (read: the supposed swaggery of a dude with a dark brew), we women are often put on the defensive from our entrance. We are cast from the get-go as docile, possible conquests, so we act – and order – accordingly.

Again! I find myself speaking in generalities. Plenty of women and men don’t go to bars to flirt, nor do they adhere to prescribed stereotypes of alcohol-related sexual conduct; I’m just saying that this cat and mouse dance has been fed to us in pop culture. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether or not a woman can walk into a bar and feel comfortable ordering a “manly drink” (here’s hoping you already see the problem here). It’s all a matter of taste anyways, right? But consider some info compiled by Katy Waldman at Slate, who’s made a study of hard liquor commercials (and wrote a great article on this very subject EARLIER TODAY):

“…on the one hand, [hard liquor] wants to beguile female customers by trading on the myth of the cool girl, but pushing the narrative of female whiskey-drinkers too hard might drive men away. (Wade calls this phenomenon ‘male flight’: ‘As an activity, occupation, or product is increasingly associated with women, men leave.’)”

Yikes. Yet again, perhaps it all comes down to advertising: men who are “tough” drink whiskey, so say the ads through all of history. Ipso facto, women who are “tough” drink whiskey. It’s a pretty damning indictment of our culture when liquor companies see these two tacks as a) acceptable and b) mutually exclusive.

A condensed illustration: let’s consider the stressful implications of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks’ shelling for Johnnie Walker:

Hendricks’ whole character in the (ironically related) AMC series is a fabulous icon of female sexuality. Joan Harris is tough and feminine; lovely. This ad is therefore saying, “you, women, are tough and lovely like Joan when you drink whiskey. And men watching this ad? You get to look at Joan talking and wearing a rad dress, which is just bully for you.” This message seems somewhat empowering at first, but I argue that the song actually remains the same: this ad is selling alternately sex and coolness, and from the women’s end of things, it conflates the two. So for women, drinking necessarily resolves into two camps: 1) the presumably feminine side, full of maraschino cherries and flavored Absolut or 2) the presumably “cool” and “counter” side, full of…hops. Either way, we’re being slightly pressured via marketing to pick a side and stay there. Ditto for men, of course, but on a less aggressive scale. 

Behind the bar, I’ve observed all manner of gender-menu-shaming. A man orders an Aperol Spritz, he’s instantly vilified by his buddies for being “girly.” A lady orders a double anything? Oh, she’s a badass. The other patrons will assess and counter accordingly. I’m even guilty of buying into this narrative – I’d catch myself making assumptions about someone’s intelligence when they ordered “just something fruity and fun in a glass.” That’s a pretty horrifying nutshell of incidental sexism. Even though I LIKE AND IMBIBE WHISKEY, I was actively buying in to this myth wherein men drink dark liquor, and only cool, exciting, badass women do the same. 

I work at a bar now where all the cocktails come in “fun,” “cute,” “girly,” mason jars, and most are garnished with tiny umbrellas. Everyone orders them – partly because they’re delicious, and partly because no one has a choice. And slowly but surely, I’ve seen the snide comments erode. Less and less will a big dude appear sheepish, requesting a “Bunny Hoover Mai Tai,” just as ladies will order a whiskey-heavy “Earl Ball” with confidence. So do spins on classic cocktails level the playing field? Perhaps. 

I’m not advocating anyone change their taste buds, but rather their attitudes and assumptions. And mind: this is all just drink for thought. 

Image courtesy of The Guardian. 

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