“Wine O’ Clock:” Alcohol and Gender Norms

Samantha Brennan critiques the ‘feminist-friendly’ framing of wine consumption and suggests that not all rejections of gender norms are good for women.

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“I don’t know about you but my watch says it’s wine o’clock.” “It’s wine o’clock somewhere.” “In my house the children go to bed at wine o’clock.”

I see wine o’clock memes a lot in my social media news feeds. Wine o’clock is that moment when after a long day of work and a second shift of childcare and housework, women finally get a moment for themselves. It is also when women friends get together at the end of a long work week.

It is interesting to me that wine often gets linked to feminism and to putting ourselves first. Indeed, I often hear women who are usually critical cultural consumers sharing the message that wine is positively feminist.

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It’s never “wine o’clock” in my house. I’m a non-drinker.

At the Feminist Approaches to Bioethics Congress in Edinburgh this year, Professor Kate Hunt spoke about gender and public health. She began her talk by inviting the audience to think about gendered roles and the differential rates of tobacco use and alcohol consumption between men and women. She then spoke about the gender gap in all-cause mortality and how this could be attributed to smoking and drinking. All-cause mortality is the total number of death in a year for any reason.

Hunt presented data showing that in pretty much all countries men out smoke and out drink women and the gap between these behaviors tracks the gender gap in all-cause mortality. In countries where women drink alcohol, the gender gap in all-cause mortality is closer. In countries that forbid women from drinking, the gap is greatest.

Gender is interesting stuff. While sex refers to biological differences, gender refers to behaviors and lots of behaviors are health related. I talked about this recently in an Impact Ethics post on men and sunscreen noting how social roles for men are not conducive to the proper and regular use of sunscreen which, in turn, increases men’s risk of skin cancer. The same gendered connection to health is true in the case of women and wine. In this case, however, the gender socialization of women as non- or light-drinkers might be good for our health.

The alcohol industry increasingly views women as an untapped market and the wine industry, in particular, has set out to appeal to women. First, the wine industry sets itself apart from the broad category of alcohol. It’s not like rum or beer or other manly drinks. Second, it associates itself with rest, time for oneself, and friends. Third, there’s the link between wine and fitness activities. People who care about their health drink wine, do yoga, and run marathons. Think about all the wine sponsored running races cropping up everywhere. And, the rise in the numbers of people running in these events is fueled largely by the increase in running by women.

Hence, the supposed empowering message behind “wine o’clock” jokes might not be so empowering after all. Not all rebellion against gender norms is good for women. I think feminists see this in the case of smoking which was also tied to career women, fun, and feminism in its marketing, but not so much when it comes to alcohol.

I just ask that before you lift your glass, and feel like a good feminist for taking the time for yourself, just remember the old tobacco ads aimed at the modern woman, “You’ve Come A Long Way Baby.”

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Samantha Brennan is a Professor in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University. @SamJaneB

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