On Gender and Beer: Changing Our Expectations of Women

Remember that? In 2003, this was the apex of  advertising for Miller Lite, who aired the ad during that year’s Super Bowl. The cause of the argument – “great taste” or “less filling” – doesn’t really focus on the beer, does it?

But that’s the point.

Until the recent surge of craft, we haven’t truly lived in a world where beer itself could handle the focus of a consumer. When product choices consist of various American light lagers that offer the same drinking experience, it’s important to use some smoke and mirrors to make a sale.

In this case, it’s the idea that female sexuality is more adept at capturing an audience than the otherwise boring product itself. This not only devalues women, but the product trying to be sold. That is, if you can look past the scantily-clad game that’s being played in front of you.

Which leads to this question: what happens to the role of females when the product does start selling itself in a culture built to the male ego?

bud adGoing back to the mainstream ads of the 1960s, breweries like Budweiser were reliant on propping up the male ego. It was all about making the drinker (naturally, a man) feel powerful. They were about showing American males who were fit, professionally dressed, happy and being served:

Servers are always pleased to serve in the Budweiser advertisements, and are often attractive women … not one of the women shown was wearing a wedding band.

But that was a long time ago. As we’ve moved away from needing women as objects to sell beer, why is it so hard to include them elsewhere? As the industry provides us more styles and flavors to choose from, women should be acknowledged as an important demographic to the success of the beer industry.

We’ve reached a point where it’s no longer viable to hide behind the veil of sexualized marketing, but I wonder if we’re able to shake that male-centric approach so built into the history of the industry and consumers. Not just in a marketing sense, but in our own expectations borne from that.

It used to be if we drank a certain product, women would be beautiful, buxom and plentiful. We’d be fit, happy and among friends.

We’ve always placed masculine value on the act of drinking, but there was a narrowly-focused role for women until the last 10 years or so. As we begin to realize women can have other roles in beer culture – as they should – is the act of accepting them as peers a problem?

One area that may be of disservice to us is the method of drinking as a man-making act. Based on cultural expectations, we would expect men to drink more, women to drink less. As a means to prove male dominance, drinking becomes a game to prove worth:

External physical threats are supplemented and can be replaced by symbolic tests of strength, skill, and self-control. And some of these tests revolve around drinking. The challenge is to hold your liquor, to be able to drink without showing any ill effects, at least relative to your peers. Drinking can serve as a symbolic re-enactment of overcoming a challenge because in itself it is a challenge.

In addition, we are taught from an early age to accept these kinds of roles as a narrative started in our youth:

…environmental factors counteract anxious tendencies among boys but support them among girls … there is a shift toward greater negative affectivity among girls during the developmental period at which gender socialization becomes evident. Thus, gender differences … are likely moderated by socialization processes that prescribe gender-specific expectations regarding the expression of anxiety and the acceptable means of coping with anxiety.

In the context of a male-dominated industry, women are starting from a place where they’ve been more or less conditioned to not rock the boat. Society may accept the foolishness of men, but sets expectations for women to be more timid or focus on a goal of perfection.

Girls Pint Out is a great addition to the beer community to encourage more female involvement.

Girls Pint Out is a great addition to the beer community to encourage more female involvement.

Seeing women enjoy beer or working with beer or talking about beer shouldn’t have to be a novelty, it’s just that as men, I feel we’ve been taught that it should be. Even worse, we’ve created a situation where we don’t expect women to feel as comfortable as we do.

Men have always been told they are the focus of beer and the lifestyle beer offers. But as the narrative changes thanks to the rise of craft beer and the community it creates, we as men have a responsibility to change our expectations. Even if we suffer from a collective hangover built on decades of messaging.

Which brings us back to the problem at hand: if women aren’t objects in the context of beer, why can’t we just let them be a part of the club?

It’s with that question that I’ll bring in voices of women in the next post to further discuss the topic.

Related “Gender and Beer” posts:

Note: This is the 14th version I’ve written of this post, which perhaps lends itself to emphasize the depth and difficulty of this subject. I by no means expect my thoughts to be an end-all, but rather just a small part of the discussion. Certainly different people have different experiences, which is why I’m trying to approach this topic broadly. Another related series of posts that may be of interest come from a past Session topic on women and beer.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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21 thoughts on “On Gender and Beer: Changing Our Expectations of Women

  1. Your trip back to the 1960s made me, probably for the first time, associate beer with cigarettes. I think with the advances in medical science, we’ve discovered (and put cultural emphasis on the fact) that glorifying stuff that isn’t very good for us isn’t the best idea. The idea of saying that drinking will make you a strong, fit, successful man is dying, if not dead, under the harsh realities of beer bellies and cirrhosis.

    Couple that with the ever-evolving role of women in our culture, and you’ve got a marketing model that just looks Triassic. I think the open, accepting nature of small brewing is the perfect time for men to raise themselves up out of the trenches of gender segregation. We’ve finally got a product that’s worth promoting on its own merit, which means we can hopefully depart from the need to gender-target in advertising.

    But the onus is on men. We hold the reins, and as such control the direction. We have to be willing to stop trying to defend gender-less products with our masculinity, and accept that women aren’t trying to “steal” anything from us, just share the joy of it.

    • In the context of a marketing “bait-and-switch,” cigarettes were also one of the key products I thought of in my notes. Something that’s not terribly unique compared to competitors, but can’t just be sold on the merits of “buy our cancer sticks!” So we get the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel as a distraction and make us focus on anything but the product.

      The same thing happened with Old Spice and its “man your man could smell like” campaign – one of the best examples of modern marketing, in my opinion. You take an indistinguishable product, throw in a man doing and saying silly things and all of a sudden it’s no longer about that product and sales go up 107 percent in a month. (more to it than that but I boil it down here)

      I’ve actually been prepping another post about all of this (aren’t I always) and dovetails off this discussion perfectly. I hope that works its way through my brain in the next week or two.

      • I like this reply a lot, but I can’t get over the way you’ve included the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel “as a distraction and make us focus on anything but the product.” The Old Spice part is gold.

        Unless I’m mistaken, cigarettes were selling well, back in the day (although today the tobacco industry isn’t poor either). It wasn’t so much that they were distracting people from the product, more that they were adding character to the product. The product itself has a utility (producing smoke, providing nicotine) that could be easily replicated, and so competing tobacco companies needed to add value to their product. They created the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel for this.

        The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel then seem to be constructions to set the products apart, rather than distract people from the products themselves; Old Spice creates the manly man to increase the product’s value, but the manly man does not distract consumers so that they fail to assess the utility of Old Spice products.

        Then again, I could be wrong. Meh.

      • Good points. I think where I’m coming from is each character’s ability to separate the product from others. Like beer, if you’ve essentially got the same thing being sold in different packages, you’ve got to differentiate somehow.

        In the case of cigarettes, the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel offered the idea of “cool” directly associated with each product. In the eyes of a new consumer – or just an uneducated one – that’s the edge necessary to make them brand advocates.

        The Old Spice Man campaign was interesting, because Old Spice found that women were doing the shopping for body wash products, which is why the marketing company created the character and phrase in that fashion. Women shopping for men might not have known the difference between products, but they knew they had a connection to that humorous, attractive man.

        There are lots of angles to this, so you’re not wrong, just addressing another way to look at it!

  2. This is an excellent and insightful post, and it reminds me of something that happened to me a few months ago while I was out to dinner with my dad and his friends. I asked our waitress about the beers on special, and we got into a conversation about our shared beer tastes. It went on for a while, and I eventually settled on one of the waitress’s favorites (a fantastic IPA whose name I sadly don’t remember.) My dad, looking a little dumbfounded, remarked on the strangeness of watching two women engaged in an in-depth discussion about beer. It just wasn’t something he was used to.

    It made me think about the ways that we see beer and beer drinkers as a culture, and I came to a lot of the same conclusions as the ones you detail above: when women are present in beer advertisements, they’re rarely portrayed as consumers, and almost never as connoisseurs. Maybe in a few years, we’ll see beer ads catch up with reality, featuring women talkin’ ’bout how much they like their beers. And really this whole comment is an excuse to use the phrase “Beerchdel Test.” 🙂

    • Thanks, Emma! I kind of love the beerified version of the Bechdel test.

      One of the things I appreciate most about bars/restaurants/breweries is the shifting culture of approaching women. I’m biased because of my normal hangout spots, but I like to hope it’s a change occurring all over the map. Especially as establishments put more emphasis on beer and beer knowledge, I feel that can only be good for the consumer in interactions, let alone their beverage selection.

      There are certainly lots of sides to this and I’m happy you chimed in with your own experience!

  3. Really great, thoughtful post. Some of my favourite micro breweries and craft beer blogs are run by women. This isn’t to say that gender segregation in the beer community doesn’t exist – just that within the small “beer-appreciation-niche” the gender divide isn’t as big. But certainly there is a long way to go with mainstream beer advertising. But the question is: Do women avoid mainstream lagers because it isn’t marketed at them? Or do they avoid mainstream lagers because they are boring, weak, and uninspiring? Maybe the fact that women aren’t targeted by the likes of VB, Carlton,etc, is a positive fact – they are escaping marketing for a product that isn’t even very good. 😛

    • Thanks for the kind words. There are all sorts of sides to this issue, but I’m glad (as you mention) I often find myself within the niche community where interaction and engagement with women isn’t just the norm, it’s expected.

      You raise a great question in relation to mainstream lagers. From a marketing perspective, I suppose it’s very specific to each company. If they know the vast majority of consumers are male, they have to structure their brand accordingly. However, I’ve seen a shift in that tactic here in the States. (a forthcoming post, actually) But all that means is more good beer for women who are “left out” to drink all the well-cared for brew…

    • Ha! Thanks, Chris. I thought this wasn’t the kind of conversation that would be appropriate for that venue. Although I’d love to see if any women chimed in or if it’d just be the “I don’t hate on women and beer, I drink with women!” crowd.

      • More than likely it would be the “screw you, some of my best friends are women” crowd. Although the women of reddit beer have been chiming up more lately, which is great.

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  6. First off, I want to say that I really like your post. I agree that in the U.S., society definitely believes that women are less likely to drink beer.

    But that doesn’t mean that Americans exclude women who are passionate about beer, does it?

    From my experience, people talk about how women are excluded from certain hobbies or activities, but the problem can often be less institutional, and more societal (I’m not sure if I’m using the right words here.)

    Corporations would be ecstatic if women decided to purchase beer more often. If it was profitable, and I’m sure that there are very complicated calculations to ascertain profitability in today’s competitive markets, corporations would probably run more ads encouraging women to buy beer.

    Whether or not women purchase more beer depends on taste, and societal pressure. One could argue that women don’t like beer because society tells them not to, but from my personal experience, if a woman likes beer, and is passionate about knowing more about it, people generally respond positively. Hobbies are great, and passionate people make life more interesting. When my female friends tell me that they’re into a hobby that is predominantly male-oriented, generally my reaction is one of pleasant surprise. If a woman is good at computer games, hockey, snowboarding, driving etc. I feel that society’s response is generally far more positive than anything else.

    So if beer companies want women to like beers, and society appreciates women who like beers, all we need is for women to be passionate about beers for everything to work out, no?

    • It’s all very cyclical, just a matter of who wants to take the first steps, for sure. As consumers, I think we have the ability to really drive company expectations, which is why I think women involved within the craft community have found it easier and more welcoming. You may be interested in checking out this previous post as well about the importance of women as a growing beer-loving demographic.

  7. Another great post. I think part of the problem is that many people’s first experience with beer is through the cheap, poor quality stuff they get at parties (not that all cheap beer = poor quality, but you get my point). Between the lackluster first experience and ads that aren’t targeted toward them, many women probably don’t explore the beer market too in depth. And like some women pointed out in another one of your posts, the women that do really learn about beer are often marginalized or at least, not acknowledged.

    • Thank you for the nice words. I think you’re on-point. One of the disappointing aspects of the situation is the difficulty across the board, especially from the get-go.

      There have been a few comments from people outside the US who mention they don’t have this kind of problem, but that can partially be attributed to having an older (and more mature) beer culture.

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