Drinking whisky is still an activity dominated by men. And the deeper you delve into the world of whisky, the more men will dominate the debate and discussions. Let’s look at the social forum Malt maniacs & friends. 9356 members in that Facebook group at the time I am translating and re-writing this post into English. I can’t be bothered to check all 9356 to confirm what I already know – that there are way more men than women in that group – so let’s just look at the last 100 added members, and count how many of them are women. The answer? 13. That’s not a whole lot, so say the least, although it’s actually better than I thought it would be.
When it comes to the consumption of whisky, though, the trend is unmistakable. Women are turning to whisky in a major way in all markets. Whisky is obviously becoming less and less of a man’s activity. The number of articles focussing on the theme ”women are now beginning to enjoy whisky” (as if they haven’t at all before) are too many to mention (for an example, see here). The numbers, too, are clear. In America, 37% of consumers of whisky are women.
Even so, the whisky business and the world of whisky in general is weighed down with sexism. It’s not always easy to be a feminist in the whisky community, which is dominated both by men and by an almost absolute blindness when it comes to issues of gender. I wouldn’t say that outright sexism is ubiquotuous or always in-your-face, but here are a few examples of what I see on a more or less weekly basis in different social media:
- Women who know loads about whisky are not taken quite as seriously as is warranted, no matter if they are master blenders for major companies or successful bloggers with decades of experience;
- The at-times stated notion that a given whisky consumer’s wife or girlfriend has no understanding for the fact that at least £400 must be spent each month on whisky;
- The strange complaint from some men when their partners are beginning to enjoy whisky. Instead of rejoicing at the opportunity to be able to share the whisky passion, some whisky-drinking men apparently regard such changes as unwelcome attacks on their whisky collections.
The same tiresome sexist pattern can be seen in this Buzzfeed video on youtube, focussing on women who drink whiskey for the first time and who are clearly not enjoying the experience of it. The video actively makes whisky (or, in this case, whiskey) a man’s drink. Just shift perspective for a second. Wouldn’t it be easy-peasy to make a similar film using men? As if every man who has tried whisky for the first time in their life reacted like this: ”mmmmm, really nice. I particularly appreciate how the peat and the smoke interact with the dried fruits of the oloroso casks.”
And then there’s the whisky business, and the guys who work with creating commercials for the whisky business. My God, this issue is annoying. Now, if consumers are actually mostly men but with ever-increasing numbers of women, the (m)ad men of our time seem to be stuck in a world in which the only people who ever enjoy a dram have penises attached to their bodies. And, what’s more, these men are real men because they drink whisky. Now, as a feminist scholar, I have had about twenty years’ experience of analysing representations of men, women, masculinities and femininities. However, it really doesn’t take that much analytic skills to be able to see that something is just terribly off about how whisky ads reproduce and actively produce some pretty awful gender stereotypes.
Let’s google ”whisky man” for images. When I last did this on August 13, these were the first 47 pictures:
I did the same for ”whisky woman”. I give you the first 45 pictures:
Do you really need for me to spell it out for you? OK, well, welcome to the course ”gender representations, 101”. The men wear clothes. They look serious. All but one are white, and they are all well-dressed, enjoying their whisky. One legendary expert (Richard Paterson) pops up twice; you have your James Bond and your Don Draper, and a bunch of guys whose profession it is to work with whisky. These men are absolutely portrayed as masculine. The women, on the other hand, are sexier, there’s more nudity and quite a few flirtatous smiles. They are their for you and your male gaze to enjoy, not as experts in their own right. Not so much tits and ass as thighs and eyes. Sure, a couple of women in warehouses, but they are drowned in eyes of seduction.
It is tiresome, it is ridiculous, it has got to stop. So let me be absolutely clear so that everybody out there understands:
- Whisky is not a drink for men – for ”real men”, whatever that may be – it’s a drink.
- If you’ve turned eighteen (in my own country; it varies), it’s legal for you to drink it. Drinking whisky does not require a penis, it requires a certain age.
- You will not become more masculine, or indeed emasculated, more feminine or un-feminine, by drinking whisky. In fact, you are precisely the same person with or without a glass of whisky in your hand.
Back in the 1920s, many educated white men in the Western world were panicking because of a minority of radical women who cut their hair short, smoked cigarettes, wore jeans instead of dresses, and studied at university. These activities have since become gender-neutral. If you were to pass a random geezer at a street corner who is screaming ”the world is going to shit, I saw a woman the other day wearing a pair of jeans!!! And get this, she was smoking! Even worse, she had a book by Bertrand Russell on the theory of relativity in her hands!! It’s the end of the world!”, you would probably say to yourself, ”wow, that guy really is off-the-charts insane”. However, contemporary representations of whisky and whisky drinking are about as conservative as our imaginary howling bloke.
Now, if only whisky were allowed to go through the same transformation as has things like, say, casting a vote or smoking, we would be rid of this stinking pile of dung. But that’s not where we are today. Let’s look at some whisky ads, shall we? I googled ”whisky ad”, with no gender specification, and examined commercials which had representations of either men, women, or both in them. I ignored very dated ads, since the focus is on our own time, rather than what gender representations concerning whisky can be found in say the 1950s. The result? Unbelievably depressing. Let’s look at some whisky ads with some really manly men in them:
I could go on like this forever. Men in masculine clothing, doing manly things, alone or together, ad after ad after ad after ad. To state that whisky ads link whisky to masculinity is not just stating the obvious, it’s making a huge understatement.
One final example. Here’s a commercial for Tullamore DEW:
In this ad, the companinship of men is so preferrable to being with women, that even just before getting married, it’s best to sit in the rain outside the church and drink whisky. With men. I mean, that behaviour of totally slagging off your future wife just before that leap into marriage is taken, rather than being used as a great example of how to enjoy our whisky, is both sad and pathetic.
But you’re getting tired of my rant. Aren’t there are commercials for whisky with women in them, then, you’re asking? Sure! Let’s take a look:
What to say? The men in these ads are men with power, enjoying their whisky; the women are the whisky you as a consumer are expected to enjoy. While in the real world, women are drinking more and more whisky, whisky ads are so terrifyingly gender conservative that an historian like myself feels like I have been thrown back to the 1860s. So, please, all ad men doing whisky ads: just stop, will you? Give the job to that other ad firm, you know, the one that doesn’t live in the nineteenth century, with the people employed who have some kind of clue about things such as gender stereotypes and feminist perspectives. Please, just do that. (And, for you industry people: with the number of women consumers increasing in the world, do not create a pink whisky bottled in something which is supposed to look like it holds perfume rather than whisky. Just don’t.)
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel, then, or are all whisky ads this stunningly stupid? you ask. Well, there are a few rays of hope. The first example: a whisky ad with a woman who actually stands up:
What’s more, looking at whisky ads I find one picture which has both men and women in it. This one is definitely OK from a gender perspective. It’s amazing, men and women can drink whisky! And have fun, together! With the women still having their clothes on! Without the men checking the women out! And one of the guys isn’t white! Indeed, even the number of skirts is equally distributed between the genders! (Did I just insult the entire male Scottish population by calling the kilt a skirt? Sorry.) So, a very special thank you for this picture, Haig club:
However, it would be misleading to end this long blog post on such a positive note, since these last few representations constitute but a whisper in what truly is a roaring hurricane of blatantly sexist stereotypes. Instead, let’s finish off with a few exreme examples. Agreed, these examples are extreme, but even so, they shine a light on what could be called the blind spot of the world of whisky when it comes to gender.
As it turns out, no less that two different independent bottlers (if they deserve to be called that) have come up with the brilliant idea of bottling whisky which has first been poured over naked women. Yes, you did not misread that last sentence. I’m not going to put up links to their websites; those of you who feel like it, feel free to google this sexist bullshit. First, there’s G-spirits who use sexy models, with ad pictures of their models pouring whisky over their naked breasts. So, the idea is that as a customer, you’re supposed to purchase a bottle and go ”wow, these drops in my mouth have really been on those boobs”. As if this was not enough, Whisky by X used the same idea, but took it one step further, using well-known hard-core pornstars instead. (I would mention their names if all I wanted was to have loads of traffic to this blog.) In this case, it’s a little unclear if the whisky really has touched their bodies; the whisky is said to be ”body-blended”, whatever that means.
You’re not convinced. You’re saying ”but hey, Gordon & MacPhail would never do that”. True, they wouldn’t. But consider any other business; any other product. For what product other than whisky would these ineptitudes even be conceivable? Is there such a thing as white wine which has been poured over pornstars? Breasted sherry? Special premium sushi which has been rolled on the butts of naked women? Naaaaaw. It kind of takes whisky for this nonsense to exist. Maybe something along these lines could be done for selling really expensive cars. Maybe. Possibly. Feasibly.
To conclude, do not think that representations do not matter, or that the sexism of the world of whisky somehow is just in the world of ads. If you who are reading this happens to be both male and a person who enjoys whisky, here’s your guide to being a better person – a few pointers, if you will, to make you more feminist, and less of a walking cliché:
- Do not for one second think that there is a connection between masculinity and whisky. Yes, the world of whisky is a wonderful and oftentimes loving community, but it’s a community worth nothing if the sense of belonging is grounded in an exclusion of women.
- Take the women in the whisky industry just as seriously as you do the men.
- Take every woman who drinks whisky everywhere as seriously as you do the men.
- The next time you’re at a whisky fair and the person pouring you a dram at the counter happens be a woman, do not start lecturing her about worm tubs, the Wee witchie at Mortlach, or the difference between French and American oak. That is,
- Do not presuppose that because she’s a woman, you know more than she does. (In fact, the probability for that being the case is about one in a thousand, you being a mere customer at a stand and she being employed by the whisky industry.) Instead,
- Listen. Don’t interrupt. Ask questions. And, crucially,
- DON’T FLIRT. Just don’t. In fact, the whole encounter should be based on the strangely radical notion that women are people.
- When women around you start drinking whisky, be they your wife or your best friend’s girlfriend, rejoice, rather than perceiving their behaviour as some kind of intrusion into your (masculine) territory.
- If you’re at a whisky tasting and there’s you, seven more men, and one woman attending, do not approach that one woman with questions like ”so, why do you like whisky, then?” or ”so, you’re a woman drinking whisky, that’s unusual, isn’t it?”
It really isn’t harder than that.