I don’t make a habit of bar-crawling on weekday nights the way I did when I was in my 20s and working in D.C. Now I live in Los Angeles, where I’m a freelancer whose meetings mostly take place over coffee and whose friends are more likely to suggest we go for a hike than a cocktail. And so when I do end up having more than a single glass of wine with dinner, I don’t beat myself up about it.
But this morning was different. When I felt the twinge of a hangover, I immediately thought of an essay that I — and, judging by Facebook and Twitter, almost every woman I know — read recently. In it, writer Kristi Coulter makes a deft and passionate argument that modern women drink to excess to escape the realities of living in a still-too-sexist world. “I see that booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other kinds of noise,” writes Coulter, who is now sober.
Coulter describes blowing off steam after serving on a sexist panel at work by drinking Manhattans and eating some expensive tapas with her female friends. She calls out women she knows for inserting alcohol into every social scenario, from a morning walk through the farmers market to a trip to the waxing salon. “Maybe all that wine is an Instagram filter for our own lives, so we don’t see how sallow and cracked they’ve become,” she writes.
Her essay is getting a lot of attention because it’s incredibly well-written and because it does what all compelling trend stories do: It helps us notice something that is ubiquitous in our lives and draws some firm conclusions about the deeper significance. Naturally, Coulter’s firm conclusion — that women drink to cope with the pressures of living in a sexist society — has attracted some critics. In Slate, Nora Caplan-Bricker counters that “many men also spend their free time floating away from their problems on a river of booze. They don’t strike me as participants in an unrelated phenomenon.” We are all depleted by the demands of our lives, she writes. In other words, blame capitalism, perhaps, but not the patriarchy.
I don’t think Coulter is entirely wrong. But it’s also impossible to prove that she’s right. Like most women who call themselves feminists, I know that living in a sexist world shapes my life and choices. It’s probably why I feel “cleaner” with shaved legs and like to wear bright lipstick. In one specific instance, I’m pretty sure it’s why I was denied a promotion. In most cases, though, when it comes to decisions I make, it’s difficult to separate what is and isn’t related to the patriarchy. Do I feel more powerful with short hair because of the patriarchy? Do I pick my cuticles when I get nervous because of the patriarchy? Do I have a distant relationship with my mom because of the patriarchy? Did I get drunk last night because of the patriarchy? Who knows.
Women are also shaped by the culture we consume, which muddies the waters even more. Think Olivia Pope, the “Scandal” protagonist who self-medicates with red wine. (And always while wearing a white sweater, sitting on a white couch, never spilling a drop. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for Olivia’s need to be perfect in order to counter the twin demons of sexism and racism.) And Coulter mentions the women of “Sex and the City,” whose “f— it, let’s get cosmos” attitude is ancient pop culture history by this point. Women have a lot of models for booze as both a coping mechanism and a bonding tool. Are these shows merely reflecting real women’s propensity to drink to cope with patriarchy? Or, in drinking so much, are real women reflecting what we’ve seen so often in movies and on TV? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I don’t share Coulter’s experience of having my female friends insist that all social interactions be lubricated with alcohol — again, I live in Los Angeles, where there are always at least a few drivers in the group who aren’t drinking. But she did make me sit up and take note of the way wine is coded as part of bonding among women of my socioeconomic status. On the podcast I co-host with my friend Aminatou Sow, we are often drinking wine as we record. Some episodes even feature the “glug, glug” noise of us refilling our glasses. In our online store, we sell a portable wine tumbler branded with our podcast logo. We also discuss the patriarchy a lot. I’d never considered that the two things might be related.
Even if they are, I’m not sure that’s such a terrible thing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never had a drug or alcohol problem, but for me, drinking with other women isn’t just coping or complacency. It’s often about plotting. Sometimes, a few glasses of wine with friends is what helps me connect my outrage with a plan of action. Under the influence of alcohol, I’ve decided to dump a dude who wasn’t treating me right, committed to revamping my career and, honestly, had a lot of fun. Perhaps some women who drink together are victims of groupthink and ignoring their problems. But I associate it with forming deep bonds. And maybe alcohol keeps some women silent. For others — myself included — it can embolden us to say what we were too afraid to say when we were sober. Drinking together does not always mean screeching and splashing in the shallow end of the hotel pool.
Maybe patriarchy does drive us to drink, just as patriarchy drives us to shave our legs and wear bright lipstick. Or maybe it doesn’t, and we get drunk for the same reasons that men do. Either way, I’m less concerned about what draws women together over a bottle of wine, and more interested in what we do once we get there. Coulter writes, “Work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that.”
I have a good idea about where to start. Let’s plot a revolution together. I’ll bring the wine — but don’t worry, you don’t need to drink if that’s not your thing.
Correction: This piece initially stated that writer Kristi Coulter described drinking half a dozen Manhattans with her friends. In fact, Coulter merely described drinking an unspecified number of “rye Manhattans.”