Whether it’s “ladette culture”, “party girls” or “students gone wild”, the tabloids have always had a love-hate relationship with women getting drunk, an activity and apparent social phenomenon which British newspaper readers have long been taught to associate with pictures of half-naked girls being sick in gutters along with outraged cries of the word epidemic. Yep, female drinking is a social disease and, as far as the media’s concerned, an arbitrary binary will always be preferable to having to admit that being a lass who enjoys the lash might fall somewhere in the grey area between the two camps of “sexy but incapacitated party animal what we’d like to bone” and “total wino with a disgusting bloated booze belly/pissed-up face of modern Britain”. This increasing failure to pay attention to the middle ground has led to newspapers engaging in what we can only describe as “hatefucking” drunken female members of the public, as evidenced by Amanda Platell’s article in the Daily Mail this week entitled: “Why do some of our brightest young girls want to drink themselves into oblivion?”
Friends and readers, as we know, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Somewhat incredibly, Platell’s piece manages to feature almost every aspect of drunken female behaviour that tabloids simultaneously loathe and desire. Yes, this article has the whole shebang: long lens photos of young women with their fishnets torn up to the bum at a fancy dress party in freshers’ week; phrases like “barely leaving anything to the imagination” and “neo-feminists behaving like men” and creepily voyeuristic descriptions of “pretty young girls lying comatose on the pavement”. Not to mention hotpants, girls giving each other piggy-backs, and themed nights at the local clubs – all of which, it has to be said, looks like a pretty cracking night out, especially as no one appears to have even been sick. Yet during the course of the piece, Platell glides seamlessly from her condemnation of a “Dirty Doctors and Naughty Nurses” party to a discussion of NekNomination, the competitive drinking phenomenon that “so far seems to be mainly confined to men, although it can only be a matter of time before girls feel they need to get in on it.”
Clearly, Amanda hadn’t been following the tale of the County Durham woman who rode into a supermarket last week on horseback, before downing a pint and NekNominating three of her friends as well as the security guard who was ineffectually attempting to move her and her equine companion out of the refrigerated goods aisle. Nor does she seem to have seen the Mail’s salivating coverage of a young woman who walked into a supermarket and stripped down to her bra and knickers while downing a can as part of the same drinking game. If she had done, though, perhaps she would still have merely upheld this of evidence of her claim that NekNomination is a man’s game. Because men invent things, and then women jump on board because they feel like they have to – that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? It’s not like those of the female variety enjoy a pint, after all, or even – God forbid – enjoy the sensation of drunkenness once in a blue moon. It’s not as though our decision whether or not to drink has anything to do with us or our own lives. Just as the heavy-drinking ‘ladette’ antics of the nineties were framed within a media context of women emulating male drinking behaviours, modern female binge drinking is still all about the men.
If you needed further convincing of the fact that modern attitudes towards female partying still have more to do with men than they do women, look no further than what happens when women get drunk: they get raped, obviously – or, if we’re being a little more sympathetic, they “leave themselves open to sexual assault”. The number of female public figures who continue to spout this line is staggering, and, as we discovered a couple of weeks ago, disappointingly includes Irma “don’t get drunk or you’ll get raped” Kurtz. Yes, it really is that Irma Kurtz, the Cosmopolitan agony aunt of Ask Irma fame, who once advised you on how to stop your friends from treating you badly and how to get over your pathological fear of tampons. The fact that the benevolent face staring out from the pages of one of Britain’s best-loved women’s magazines has been harbouring those assumptions about her target demographic is disappointing, but not surprising. “It really is careless to lose your self-defence,” she commented on Women’s Hour (of all places), as if they were discussing throwing away your kitchen knives in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. And it turns out that her attitude isn’t particularly nuanced when it comes to men, either. “Please remember that your new freedom to go out and play with the boys requires you to employ an even greater freedom new to women, the greatest freedom … the freedom to take responsibility for ourselves,” she continued, as though going out and “playing” with the boys is all that’s needed to unleash the underlying Neanderthal rapist just biding its time in the subconscious of all menfolk around the globe.
Granted, man-as-monster/woman-as-prey was the cultural paradigm with which Kurtz’s generation were raised, but sadly a general consensus that women are entering dangerous territory when they venture outside still prevails. This is despite the fact that young men are statistically the most vulnerable to violent crime in the UK. It’s downright irritating, in such a climate, to see such a gender discrepancy in reporting about who is apparently “leaving themselves open to crime”. We all know that crime is committed by criminals, rather than “invited” by victims, regardless of gender: anti-rape campaigners in particular have been tirelessly spreading this message for decades. Nevertheless, there’s something about drunk girls that a lot of hacks can’t hack. Perhaps it’s because women are taught from a young age to keep their bodies under a constant regime of control – from how it looks to what you do with it, everything is mandated. Thus when a man loses control of his body, it’s an embarrassing story over a Bloody Mary the next day; when a woman does the same, she has essentially relinquished her femininity. And, if femininity means self-monitoring restraint, then the act of getting drunk for a woman is an act of deliberate transgression. Dangerously, it’s symptomatic of that creeping social malaise, the death of the “young lady”, and it’s terrible news for tequila-lovers everywhere.
“Young ladies” don’t want to go out and obliterate their feelings about their ex-boyfriends with the help of a half bottle of vodka and a particularly undiscerning karaoke night. Instead, they are more naturally inclined toward a bit of a cry in the powder room in between afternoon teas. They don’t feel sexual desire or enjoy casual sex. They dress demurely, not provocatively. They don’t stagger home with one shoe off, say ridiculous things before falling over onto the pavement, and undergo meaningless one night stands that are just a bit of a laugh and have no far-reaching ramifications in their daily lives. “Young ladies” are being warped by the hard-drinking university culture in Britain, going along with men’s behaviour because they’re weak-willed and they think it will make them look cool. The fact that they are forced into this sort of horrific drinking charade is a sad indictment of society today. If you left them in a cultural vacuum rather than forcing them into the outside world, they’d quite happily continue sewing lace patterns on dresses and delicately nibbling on strawberries. Instead, they’re mainlining quad vods and twerking to “Too Drunk To Fuck” by Peaches. Oh, the humanity!
This sort of thinking might be laughable, but the inherent lack of agency ascribed to young girls is a serious issue. It’s part of the reason why we’re now seeing a raft of depictions of female drunkenness across television, film, and literature. From M J Delaney’s “The Powder Room” to Lena Dunham’s Girls, to novels such as Zoe Pilger’s furious “Eat My Heart Out” and the upcoming “Animals” by Emma Jane Unsworth (described by Caitlin Moran as “like Withnail and I but for girls”), authentic depictions of female drunkenness are elbowing and staggering their way into our consciousness, and not a moment too soon.
Binge drinking isn’t by any means a jewel of British culture, the virtues of which either of us would proudly extol to visiting tourists, but gendering it isn’t going to make the problem go away. Wringing our hands about why girls suddenly “feel the need” to “act like boys” on their university nights out get us nowhere. The explanation is, in fact, very simple: women and girls are human beings who experience human pleasures and urges, just like their male counterparts. Asking why they get drunk when they’re faced with the same temptations as the drunken lads down the road is like asking why they insist on “acting like men” by wearing suit jackets to interviews, or eating questionable “economy burgers”.
Should girls have to be in a constant state of bodily defence, limiting themselves to a half glass of Babycham and a neck-to-ankle flesh covering boiler suit because of rapists crawling the streets, aware that their actions may be considered “unladylike” by a passing tabloid photographer? Of course not. Clinging on to these beliefs ignores the reality of crime, vulnerability, and alcohol abuse. But then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the backbone of these ideas is completely, infuriatingly, ridiculously illogical: it is sexism, after all, and, if we’re ever to be able to enjoy a night out in peace, it needs to be told where to get off. Bottoms up, ladies: we’ll drink to that.