NOTE: Today’s post is by Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
A recent piece in The New York Times about the wine-drinking habits of powerful female characters on television made me recall wine coolers, sweet blends of wine and fruit flavors that were packaged like soda and beer in bottles for individual consumption. Some readers may be too young to remember them—they were most popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Looking back now, I realize that for those of us of a certain age, they could serve as a gateway drug, and not just because of their sweet, almost Kool-Aid-like flavors. For young women who were too naïve and uncertain to know what wine or beer or cocktail to ask for, yet well beyond the era when we would expect or want a man to order for us, wine coolers were an easy and at that time at least, socially acceptable alternative—which is no doubt what the manufacturers intended. By all accounts, women’s drinking has gotten more serious since then, and in more ways than one.
In the piece in the Times, Eric Asimov describes the drinking habits of Olivia Pope, the glamorous political fixer on Scandal, and Alicia Florrick, the ambitious lawyer on The Good Wife. Both drink a lot—they “gulp” and “guzzle” according to Asimov, who looks at how wine functions as a character device in these programs as well as others. Tellingly, the piece appeared in the “Dining” section and part of Asimov’s point is that drinking to self-medicate as these women do is a waste of fine wine. “For me,” he writes, “the use of wine as a prop is not so much an issue of morals or health as it is of aesthetics.” He laments that the characters commit such faux pas as holding the glass the wrong way and failing to “swirl and sniff” before drinking. Yet he also notes that too much attention to the rituals of wine drinking would undermine the message of strength and action that their choice of red wine (rather than white) is meant to convey.
Asimov says that such attention to wine as a beverage specifically for women is rare in American popular culture, and the implication is that this is a new phenomenon. But in Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—And How They Can Regain Control, Gabrielle Glaser points out that the California wine industry used Lucille Ball as a pitchwoman soon after World War II and intensified their efforts to reach women as customers during the 1960s. Glaser’s lively account includes such tidbits as the “Anti-Tension Diet” that recommended “daily use” of wine, featured in the mainstream McCall’s magazine in 1977. (33-43, Ball on 33, diet on 38)
That alcoholic beverages have gendered connotations is not news—we recognize this intuitively even if not always consciously, and historians and other scholars have shown how this dynamic has operated in many settings. But what is especially interesting about wine right now is that the color of wine distinguishes between women who work outside the home and stay-at-home-moms. While red wine signals hard-driving career women (even if fictional), white is generally the marker of domestic drinking. Brands such as Mad Housewife capitalize on this association. Mommy’s Time Out Wines characterizes its products as “delicate and fruity,” while MommyJuice Wines are “made for Mommys by a Mommy.”
Both of these drinking patterns echo earlier concerns about women’s consumption: that entering the male world of work will cause women to drink like men, while domestic life allows hidden drinking. What seems to be new is that women at home are flaunting their drinking, as the brand names suggest. Drinking mothers are also claiming that alcohol is something they have earned at the end of a hard day, just like men and women who work for wages. “Moms everywhere deserve a break,” declares the maker of MommyJuice Wines. “So tuck your kids into bed, sit down and have a glass of MommyJuice — because you deserve it!” Whether your job is managing politicians or toddlers, whether the messes you clean up have to do with national security or Play-Doh, you too can take the edge off in the evening with a large glass of wine.
The claim that full-time parenting is work, and hard work at that, is important. But I do not think that these drinking patterns are seen as equivalent in our society today—drinking with children present, or when one is responsible for children even if they are not watching, makes many people uncomfortable. That many accounts of pinot grigio on play dates are accompanied by defensiveness or a kind of rueful giggling is an important acknowledgement of this ambivalence. It is also no coincidence that a recent spate of recovery memoirs by women are framed through their domestic lives, as evidenced by their very titles: Rachael Brownell, Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore (Conari Press, 2009), Brenda Wilhelmsom, Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife (Hazelden, 2011), Stephanie Wilder-Taylor, Sippy Cups are Not for Chardonnay (Gallery Books, 2006).
These women offer their stories of drinking and recovery not as women but as mothers, evoking all the cultural baggage that attaches to that association. I do not wish to minimize the pain these women and their families went through, nor the magnitude of the achievement represented by their sobriety. But I am struck by how the titles and framing of these books reinforce the idea that motherhood is the most important lens for understanding the relationship between women and alcohol. I also wonder about the connection between this genre and the problem of tone I mentioned earlier, that many women default to an apologetic stance in describing any kind of drinking. I want to emphasize that it is good news that women’s alcoholism is not as hidden as it once was and that the authors of these memoirs have been willing to step forward. But I do wonder whether the mode of full-fledged recovery narrative has reduced the space available for other kinds of discussion. Perhaps the notion of alcoholism as a progressive disease is so entrenched that women fear that articulating that they occasionally enjoy a glass of wine or a night out with friends will reveal them as incipient alcoholics. But are we really afraid that any woman who drinks will become alcoholic, or is this discomfort a sign of continuing ambivalence about women—especially mothers—occasionally putting themselves first?