Fun, Feminism and Real Ale

Posted on 18 February 2012 by

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CAMRA advert featuring women drinking beer

There are few rewards in being an Angry Woman.  The endless crusade against sex, humour and fun can be a hard slog, and until the day all men are crushed beneath my sensibly flat heels I expect little recognition for my endeavours.  So it was a pleasant surprise when I was informed that the Angry Women of Liverpool were invited by the women of CAMRA to an evening at the Liverpool Beer Festival.

This opportunity came at a fortuitous time, since there’s some topical tension around feminism and ale-drinking culture in the news.  With parliamentary drinkers aghast that a shadow Equalities Minister should be concerned about issues of equality, and have the gall to mention that such issues pertain to beers named “Top Totty” with labels that feature women in their underwear, it seemed there may even be a tentative reason to call this outing necessary activism.  We take our research very seriously.

CAMRA, of course, are aiming to challenge the notion that beer isn’t for women, by publishing polls that show the rise in women ale-drinkers, featuring ordinary ale-drinking women widely in their publicity and, of course, holding a women’s night at the Liverpool Beer Festival.  There’s no arguing with that strategy.

A brief look at the festival programme, however, shows that local brewers are not so progressive.  Blue Ball breweries in Runcorn have a naked woman as their logo, and invite female visitors to their website to apply for the position of real life “Blue Ball Girl” at promotional events (they don’t say whether nudity is expected), while Cains have gone for the subtler sexism in naming their new ale “Blonde Bird” (a “cheeky play on words” according the Cains website) [0].

Blue Ball website screen cap

Women: You can't drink beer, but you can sell it.

Complaints like this would no doubt have me branded by UKIP’s Mike Nattrass as a “humourless sort” and a “dour-faced, insult-searching misery”[1]  – and nice as it is to know you’re pissing off the right people, I’d like to take a closer look at his assertion that: “This sort of knee-jerk Puritanism does more to damage the cause of equality than a thousand beer labels.”

There’s an assumption here that this is about causes and their reputations – an abstract, ideological debate with no significant material consequences.  While Top Totty has been removed from the parliamentary strangers’ bar, the apologies have been about “causing offence” – the decision is purely to protect Parliament’s reputation and its guests’ sensibilities.  Do these beer labels have an impact beyond causing offence to shadow equalities ministers and internet feminists?  Or is this issue really just a storm in a pint glass?  Far be it from me to take issue with the idea that the only inequalities worth challenging are those immediately obvious to a right-wing, business-owning, middle-aged, able-bodied, white man, but I think this analysis needs to take into account some experiences that many ale-drinking women will find familiar, and that the likes of Nattrass probably haven’t considered. 

Imagine being out for a drink with your friends in a pretty ordinary city centre pub.  You go to get a round in and notice that there are some guest ales available.  In order to read the labels on the pumps, you have to shoulder your way through the cluster of seasoned ale-drinkers at the bar – all male, all older – and make your selection while they scrutinise you in much the same manner that you’re regarding the witty names and ABVs on the pumps.  Their obvious attention is unsettling, but there’s nothing you can say about that without seeming like some kind of – what was the phrase? – oh yes, “dour-faced, insult-searching misery”.  You make your order, and hope that none of them are going to use your selection as an excuse to make a comment about you.  You avoid the titles with obvious innuendos, but they’ll always find something.  Perhaps it’ll just be “And what’re you having, love?” or “Your boyfriend too cheap to buy you a glass of wine, is he?”  You smile over gritted teeth – you wouldn’t want to be a “humourless sort”.  They gather round with assurances that they’re “only joking” and you try to carry three pint glasses steadily through the leering, groping press who tell each other “she’s done this a few times” and suggest tripping you up or tickling you – “only joking, love”.  Some stare hard as you squeeze past them, some touch your waist in case you needed steadying, or perhaps their hand – “sorry love, accident” – brushes your bum.  There’s nothing you can do without dropping a pint and causing a scene.  You get back to your table feeling shaken, and hear raucous laughter behind you.  You feel like you’ve had a narrow escape – you won’t go back to the bar tonight, you’ll ask one of your male friends, and if you want to try another ale he’ll have to choose for you.  Your experience at the bar wasn’t friendly or even inappropriately flirtatious – it was intimidating.  They were putting you back in your place, this woman who thinks she has any right to be drinking pints.

What does any of this have to do with beer labels?  Are these men behaving this way because there’s a picture of a semi-naked woman on one of the pumps?  Would they behave differently if there weren’t?  No, probably not.  But it gives them ammunition.  More than that, it gives them a sense of vindication.  Women are identified with the product, not the consumer.  This reinforces their attitudes and seems to justify their behaviour.  She deserves everything she gets, doesn’t she?  She entered the ale-drinking arena, and that label makes the place of women in this arena abundantly clear.

This isn’t about being offended, it’s about being excluded.  If CAMRA wants to encourage women to drink Real Ale, it has to be prepared to challenge brewers about sexist language and imagery, and to think of this as a vital campaign rather than a useful marketing strategy.  Third pint measures and notes of fruitiness are all very well[2], but as long as breweries consider humorous labels more important than a drinking environment that isn’t actively hostile to women, most women won’t venture near the guest ale pumps at their local.

An evening of drinking real ales and ciders without having to worry about running the gauntlet at every bar stop was pure gold.  We’d like to thank the women of CAMRA for our invitation to the festival, and assure them we enjoyed it to the full.  We laughed, we tasted, we rated, we ranted and we drank a lot of good ales.  I’d especially recommend the Peerless Storr, which was hoppy yet rich and full-bodied, and refreshingly free of innuendo.

[0] It has a Liver Bird on the label, you see.  For the record, anybody giggling into his pint because he said “I fancy a Blonde Bird” to the bartender has no business accusing feminists of an underdeveloped sense of humour.

[1] To demonstrate how humourless us feminists are, I’ve written this entire article without once making a pun on the word “bitter”.  That shouldn’t even be possible, but I’m just about dour enough to pull it off.

[2] Though, while I’m on the subject, pink labels with flowers on them to indicate special light, weak, sweet woman-friendly ales are downright insulting.

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