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Gender Bender

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“I’m pretty sure college was a great time,” my college roommate likes to say, “but I remember none of it, sadly.” Not incidentally, we started college at the tail end of the nineties, the decade that invented the alcopop, otherwise known as “chick beer,” and MTV Spring Break. If the alcohol industry was conspiring to attract drinkers like us, it succeeded. The rate of frequent binge drinking increased by 124 percent between 1993 and 2001 at all-female colleges. When Amstel Light began marketing directly to women, its sales volume reportedly went up by 13 percent. Suddenly, alcohol commercials weren’t just of the big-breasted, mud-wrestling lineage. A Dewar’s ad from the era showed a lovely young woman donning her work clothes while a bare-chested man slept in the bed beside her. Tagline: “You finally have a real job, a real place, and a real boyfriend. How about a real drink?” I didn’t have any of the above but thought Dewar’s would suit me just fine.

That was back when the industry was just warming up. Dr. David Jernigan, the executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, believes that the real onslaught—and its effect on the beverages women consume—didn’t reach critical mass until the turn of this century. “For decades, we’ve assumed that the beverage preference for underage drinkers is beer because it’s cheaper,” he told me. “Boys are more likely to drink beer, but starting in about 2001, the girls shift. They are decisively more likely to drink liquor. This shift in beverage preference is a really big deal because it takes a lot to change the beverage preference of a group of people.”

The change could not have happened without a calculated effort. At a time when the number of cable channels and their appeal mushroomed, alcohol ads appeared during thirteen to fifteen of the most popular shows among teenagers and increasingly in women’s magazines, where according to Jernigan, in 2002 girls 12 to 20 saw 95 percent more ads for alcopops than women 21 and above. New alcopop flavors proliferated, Jell-O shooters showed up in grocery-store aisles, and companies rolled out vodkas in increasingly exotic flavors. “How many guys are going to drink a strawberry vodka?” Jernigan asks. “There’s a clear effort by the industry to create products for female drinkers. And it has had an effect.”

Not that marketing should get all the credit for a woman’s relationship with drinking. Once an introduction to alcohol is made, the affair usually flourishes all on its own. My friends and I drank through midterms and breakups and, later, the indignities of entry-level jobs. One late night in my early twenties, I played a game called Waffles versus Pancakes. The rules are simple: You start with the choice of pancakes or waffles, and each person picks which she would choose if only one could exist in the world, then the winner—say, waffles—gets paired with a new topic, and the rules repeat. It’s a fun game, or can be, but ours was ruined when someone threw in alcohol, which obliterated everything that anyone could subsequently come up with. A few of the things we decided to forgo for alcohol: newborn puppies, the ability to read, and legs (legs?). I mercifully don’t remember how I voted, but I know that we had to call it quits when alcohol went head-to-head with world peace. No one really wanted to go there.

FEMINIST ONE: You would be proud of me. I drank alone last night!

FEMINIST TWO: I am proud! I should have called you. I was too drunk.

FEMINIST ONE: I opened a bottle of wine—a good bottle that I had been saving—poured some into a juice glass, and watched The Age of Love. My dad called, and he was like, “You know that drinking doesn’t solve things long-term?” And I was like, um, that’s a lie.

FEMINIST TWO: Hahahaha!

FEMINIST ONE: I know. I was so serious too.

FEMINIST TWO: Yeah, it solves things long-term, as long as you commit to drinking.

FEMINIST ONE: I told him booze was no different from Klonopin and it’s cheaper!

This conversation is from a posted IM exchange (with tidied punctuation) between two editors at Jezebel.com, a Website that is an avatar of a certain of-the-moment brand of feminism appealing to women too young to remember the heyday of Ms. magazine. Jezebel is very pro-alcohol. Last summer, the site stirred up controversy when a well-respected media personality invited two of its writers onto her Internet show “Thinking and Drinking”—typically a classy, semi-Socratic affair—and the younger women got so visibly shitfaced and the conversation so disturbing that some critics referred to it as “The Night Feminism Died.” (When asked why she didn’t prosecute her date-rapist, one of the young women, woozily clutching her can of beer, answered, “Because it was a load of trouble and I had better things to do, like drinking more.”)


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