The onslaught of criticism that followed, however warranted, failed to take into account the fact that, for better or worse, drinking has become entwined with progressive feminism. “I don’t think that the drinking in and of itself is feminist, but I do think that it comes from a feminist place, that it can bolster one’s sense of herself as liberated,” says Jezebel editor Jessica Grose. “You know, the whole point of Third Wave feminism is that individual choice should not be judged. If you choose to opt out and be a stay-at-home mom, then that’s your choice.” And if you choose to drink yourself unconscious in some random guy’s bed, that’s also your prerogative. To say that you shouldn’t would be paternalistic hand-wringing, implying that a woman needs to be protected from herself.
It’s a more maverick form of feminism, sure, and perhaps misguided—something akin to the type of reasoning that paints Girls Gone Wild participants as sexually liberated. But the paradox of a woman exerting her power by making herself, to one degree or another, incapacitated does not read as a disjunction to most of the women I spoke with. On the contrary, a woman’s control over her life—and the decision of when and how to lose that control—seems to be the point.
In the working world of disposable incomes and valid forms of I.D., alcohol is the one sanctioned way to let loose, and all of these women mentioned social acceptability as a selling point. A few rounds allow a woman to be just naughty enough, the bourgeois mixed with the bohemian in one gulp. As Anne, a young woman fresh from a stint in rehab, told me, “No one is going to be like, ‘No, don’t have a fourth drink.’ That’s the thing, you can get away with it. Nobody’s counting.”
And so alcohol is our choice to soothe us in times of trouble, celebrate with us in times of joy, engage us in times of boredom. We use it to change our mood, to forget our problems, to give us courage, to access some essential, uncensored, better self. “It’s literally like insta-spa,” says a friend. “You have some alcohol, and your muscles relax. I can smoke a bowl or pop a Xanax, but it’s like wine is the likeliest choice.” Says another, vodka soda in hand: “I feel like I’m the shit when I drink. I feel invincible. You kind of get beer muscles. The bullshit falls away.”
The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to drink. “College,” says Morgenstern, “is really a training ground for becoming an alcoholic.”
My point here is that the closing of the gender gap isn’t about men—needing to compete with men or wanting to feel like men. It’s about women going after the things they want and feeling that alcohol, variously, can help them. If men come into the picture at all, it’s only because what women sometimes want is sex, the final frontier of gender equality, and the socially sanctified follies of alcohol set the stage perfectly for the type of sex women may want but fear is unacceptable to seek.
“Drinking gives you an excuse to do something you wouldn’t want to believe you would normally do,” one young woman told me. “You can be on a mission because you’re not self-conscious.”
“For me, it’s not about getting up the guts to seduce someone,” added her friend. “It’s about getting up the guts to allow myself to be seduced.”
“It’s about wanting to get laid,” someone cut to the chase.
At the bright and airy midtown offices of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the receptionist is cheery, people wave to you as you walk down the hall, and no one seems the slightest bit hungover. Still, it’s a place that can make one apprehensive, having the potential to be such a buzzkill.
I had come here to find out just how much of a fuss should be made over all this female tippling. Drinking, after all, is not the same as alcoholism. Though women are inarguably drinking more, and in more numerous contexts, not all of us are boozing it up Lindsay/Britney style. Isn’t moderate alcohol consumption supposed to be good for you?
“There’s been a lot of debate on this subject,” acknowledges Susan Foster, the center’s director of policy and analysis and a trim and tidy woman whose office was peppered with alcopop and beer bottles. “There was some research that was done maybe five years ago which showed that drinking moderately was healthy. Now, much of that research has been discredited,” she explains. “The way much of that research was done, they had a ‘don’t drink’ and a ‘drink’ category. In the ‘don’t drink’ category, they had put people who were too sick to be able to drink and people who were alcoholic and in recovery. That way of structuring the results degraded the quality of health in that category.”