Well, fellow ladettes, you can’t say they didn’t warn us. Back in the 1990s, when we were all drinking ourselves into the gutter, experts said it was a ticking timebomb. And lo, it has come to pass. According to research carried out by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, women of my generation — born in the 1970s, now in our 30s and 40s — are more likely than those of previous generations to die of alcohol-related causes. And yes, “ladette culture” is to blame (damn you, Sara Cox and Zoe Ball! My liver will never forgive you!).
Only kidding. My liver function is perfectly normal, although that’s fortunate given how much I downed between ‘93 and ‘97. I prefer not to dwell on the precise quantity but suffice it to say that upon reading Koren Zailckas’ memoir Smashed – subtitle “growing up a drunk girl” – all I could think was “sodding lightweight”. After all, how can it be proper drinking if you can remember enough to write a whole book about it?
To be clear, I’ve no real desire to trivialise binge drinking. Even if it doesn’t destroy you in body and mind, it will turn you, temporarily at least, into a total knob. I’ve spent more time than I care to think of being a pissed, slobbering, hyper-emotional, self-centred idiot, unable to walk straight and a total pain in the arse for every slightly more sober person within a ten-mile radius. Fortunately for me, I never got photographed in such a state, shoved into a photo library and paraded before the general public during every future moral panic regarding women and booze. That woman lying on that bench, whom you’ve all seen a million times before? It’s not me (although I do have a friend who claims to know her. Apparently she wasn’t even all that wasted. Can’t a woman just lie on a bench these days? Do newspaper editors even realise just how agonising an evening out in boots like that could be?).
The sexism running through mainstream reporting into women’s drinking habits — the patronising tone, the slut-shaming photos, the downplaying of what remain much more extreme statistics for men — is galling, but it’s also hard to challenge. After all, dying in your 30s because you’ve drunk too much is a tragic waste, whichever way you look at it. The Daily Mail might illustrate its latest burst of moral outrage with a close-up of your arse as you trip out of the latest club, but perhaps in this one instance Paul Dacre’s misogyny could save you from yourself. So what’s a girl (as all grown women must be called in this context) to do? Sticking to the Lambrini isn’t exactly liberating but hey, it’s only common sense.
This, however, is where I start to have issues. Treating the problem isn’t simply a matter of dissuading women from embracing what Sally Marlow from the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London calls “male behaviours — such as excessive drinking”. Much of British society has an entirely hypocritical attitude towards alcohol, a powerful drug which, stripped of its cultural relevance, would surely be made illegal. Nonetheless, this is also a society imbued with a messed-up attitude towards women’s independence and ownership of their own bodies. Put these two together and suddenly it’s the maturity and autonomy of women, rather than the illogicality of our broader relationship with booze, that’s being put into question.
Like “Blair babes” “ladette” is one of those crappy 1990s terms which captures so much about what’s wrong with attitudes towards women in public space. A cutesy diminutive – not a real lad, an interloper, a childish imitator – it belittles the choices of grown women. Lads drink because they’re lads – it’s one of many established “male behaviours” – whereas women are annoying younger siblings, trying desperately hard to keep up even though their frail little bodies can’t take it. The implication is that those women now dying of liver disease have got their just desserts for encroaching on male space. No one stops to point out that our fucked-up attitude towards getting wasted isn’t a male birthright. If women spread out and occupy the same cultural environments as men – the same space, not male space – then they will be exposed to the same risks. We should be questioning the rules of the game, not the fact that the ladies are demanding a go, too.
While it might be true that the average female body suffers more damage than the average male one when the same amount of alcohol is consumed, let’s be clear about one thing: women of my generation haven’t been consuming the same amount of alcohol as their male counterparts. The death rate due to alcohol-related causes has been decreasing rather than increasing for men, but it’s still considerably higher: 30 per 100,000 for men compared to 20 per 100,000 for women. Men are not out of the woods just yet, but then again, boys will be boys. We’ve a long way to go before men get accused of emulating the ladettes (which is just as well, because I’m struggling to think of a male diminutive of “ladette” — laddette-kin? But anyhow, whatever it is, they’d be that).
Back in the 90s, when I was getting pissed, I didn’t do it in order to feel liberated. I did it because that was what people did in the space I occupied. I did it to belong. Twenty years on, I drink far less but resent the way my decision to do so (or not) is not considered mine to make. Twenty years on, I’m still being reminded I’m not one of the boys and that is that.
And twenty years on, we’re not challenging the powerful alcohol lobby, we’re not challenging lad culture, and we’re not challenging the idea that women are merely an immature version of men, requiring control and admonishment whenever they venture into adult space. I hate to say it, but such a trio of failures is enough to turn any person to drink.