This piece originally appeared on VinePair.com
“Clear liquor is for rich women on diets.”
So says Ron Swanson, one of the most quotable characters on television today. In this case, I find myself disagreeing with his typical wiseness, but the goal of this article isn’t to give a takedown of an internet meme, but rather to ask why? Why are certain spirits and tastes considered feminine while others are considered manly?
Let’s first consider taste. Do women really like sweets more than men? Try to recall food commercials you see on TV. Without thinking too hard, which foods do you associate with women, and which do you associate with men? When it comes to female-targeted commercials, the first thing I think of is chocolate. When was the last time you saw a chocolate commercial geared toward men? In the U.S., they’re nearly always marketed toward women, typically as an indulgence. CollegeHumor parodied this theme in their skit “If Chocolate Ads Were Honest.”
The skit plays off of how chocolate is often advertised as a guilty pleasure, something women should eat in secret, hilariously enough giving the candy both sexualization and shame. The food commercials aimed toward men, however, typically tell a different narrative. First off, they don’t push candy, they push meat. And men aren’t shown nibbling burgers in private, they’re shown chomping down on steaks or grilling proudly. Thus, meat – a savory taste – is shown as “strong,” something to aspire to like, while chocolate – a sweet taste – is shown as “weak,” something to be ashamed of enjoying. I’m afraid to say this line of marketing is more sinister than simply sweet equals weak. It’s also saying sweet equals weak and therefore equals female. This is an idea that’s played ad nauseum in American advertising and media. It must at least partially contribute to why sweetness in a drink is thought of as embarrassing. Perhaps this is why ordering a Margarita is more embarrassing than, say, a Manhattan.
You also might chock up the manly factor of a “dry” (not sweet) drink being “stronger” (more alcoholic) than a more sugary beverage. There’s little logic behind this. In the above example, the Margarita and Manhattan typically have a close ABV content, if not slightly higher in the former. You can also think about dessert wines, which are often higher in alcoholic content than typical wine – but you still don’t see Don Draper ordering a glass of Sauternes.
Now, think back to Ron Swanson’s quote. I just want to clear something up: a shot of vodka and a shot of whiskey are calorically equivalent. I believe the reason vodka is perhaps thought of as a girlier drink than whiskey once again harkens back to the factor of sweetness. Vodka is often used as a mixer, while whiskey is served for taste. Thus, vodka ends up in sweeter cocktails (Sex On The Beach, White Russian, Screwdriver). And, since sweet equals feminine, so does vodka.
In fact, when a woman drinks whiskey, she’s elevated to goddesslike status. I’m sorry to do this, but I’m going to recall that infamous Elite Daily piece, “10 Reasons Why You Should Always Go For The Girl Who Drinks Whiskey.” Amongst the reasons? “Ordering whiskey shows confidence — and confidence can be a good indicator of strength.” Why does ordering whiskey show confidence? Everyone already thinks of whiskey as cool. Why is it confident to order something everyone already likes? Wouldn’t it be cooler to order something “girly” and drink it proudly? Nope, the idea here is simple: a woman is cool because she’s ordering something that men are supposed to like. A woman is cool because she’s acting like a man, even though there’s no inherent reason why a man should like whiskey more than a sweet drink.
Now, you may be thinking, Aliza, whiskey on the rocks obviously tastes better than a sweet drink, and that very well could be where your palate lies. But let’s get something straight, you like whiskey on the rocks better than a sweet drink because that’s what you like, not because you’re better, stronger, or more manly than someone who doesn’t.
I also want to address the terminology we use to describe the alcoholic nature of drinks. Let’s ignore taste and simply say “strong” drinks are more alcoholic and “weak” drinks are less alcoholic. Why do we use these words? To show that the the stronger you are, the more alcohol you can consume? The truth is, several factors go into how much booze you can keep down, including your body weight, what you’ve eaten that day, and yes, to a certain extent, gender. So, perhaps as a whole, men can allow more liquor in their systems than women. However, I’m still not sure what the message is here: why does being able to keep down more booze make you “strong,” and why is that considered a good thing? Reacting to alcohol isn’t a sign of weakness. When you pass a certain level of drunkenness and get sick, that’s your body saying, “hey, kid, you’re done for the day.” That’s a positive thing. In fact, people who have a high tolerance are more prone to alcoholism, the reasoning behind this being simple, you can drink more booze while feeling more normal, and therefore are more likely to continue to drink more. However, that excess alcohol, while it may not feel like it to a person with a high tolerance, is still having a negative effect on your body. Yet we still associate low alcohol tolerance with weakness, thus making it feminine.
Another place baseless gender stereotypes get pulled into play is with beer drinking “etiquette.” A friend of mine mentioned that when he was in college, girls who drank beer from the can as opposed to bottled beer or beer poured in a glass were considered more “chilled out.” Yeah, it’s an anecdote, but it’s pumped up in plenty of articles similar to the “Why You Should Date The Girl Who Drinks Whiskey” piece. Take a line from this gem, listing the difference between female canned and bottle beer drinkers, for example. The article states, “Bottle drinkers are all about movies, especially romantic comedies and any movie with puppies. Can drinkers are all about reality TV—Party Down South, The Real World, and Redneck Island..” Again, the message is clear: a casual, laid back attitude has been engraved into our minds as “manly,” canned beer is casual and laid back, girls are better when they’re “manly,” so the canned beer drinking girl is sexy. She’s down for anything. Who wants to hang out with the girl who watches romantic comedies and puppy movies? (Me, but that’s besides the point.)
I’m not just annoyed at these fluffy girls who drink X vs girls who drink X pieces. I’m not just annoyed at the fact that drinking terminology is slanted to applaud or look down on people based on an arbitrary strength factor. And I’m not just annoyed that we’ve been conditioned to associate certain tastes with femininity and thus with shame. I’m annoyed that all of these factors have combined to make the bar, a sacred place, a breeding ground for empty judgment and reinforced gender stereotypes.
Look, femininity is a complicated thing. But on behalf of those who take pride in being girly, I would like you to stop using the word synonymously with “cloyingly sweet” and “bad” drinks. Girly is a term that doesn’t belong in drinking lingo, unless it’s used to mean awesome. Then use it all you want.