I was recently reading one of the Thirsty Wench’s articles on women in beer and it got me thinking. As a feminist who happens to be a man, it quite often irks me to see how women are treated within the craft beer scene. Understanding up front that I can only offer a certain perspective, here are my thoughts on what we should be doing better to encourage more equal participation and make the craft scene the fully open market of ideas we all want it to be.
1. It’s not ‘female brewer’, it’s just ‘brewer’
This is something that many others have pointed out, but it bares mentioning again. There is an ‘othering’ which women who want to take an active role in the beer community face. I’ll admit I’m sometimes guilty of it too. When a brewery features a female brewer or CEO, her gender is suddenly an issue up for discussion. Part of this is just down to the novelty. For the more well-meaning, it is just plain interesting to see a woman actively involved in the scene.
However, it can quickly turn more insidious with people associating the brewers femininity with the direction of the beer, I’ve seen taster’s attempt to put into their tasting notes the idea that the beer is inherently more ‘delicate’ or has had an obvious ‘woman’s touch’. On the other hand I’ve yet to see anyone look for particularly ‘male’ notes in a brewery that does not feature women prominently.
Indeed, even at its most basic level, the tendency to view women in beer as something unusual hints at a bigger problem. At some level it recognizes that women are not as welcomed in the scene and ultimately it strikes us as unusual that someone would go into a field that is set against them.
2. The Hawkeye Problem
Some who are into comics might remember the Hawkeye Initiative which sought to raise awareness of the representation of female comic characters. For those who may not click on the link, the project challenged artists to replace female characters on comic covers with the male character Hawkeye to demonstrate the ridiculous, contorted positions female characters were drawn in. The initiative helped to shut down the well-worn excuse that overly-sexualized female characters were actually just ’empowered’ and that the feminist interpretation was simply an oversensitive misreading.
Unfortunately, I see parallels in the marketing of beer and no, its not a problem that’s exclusive to the big companies. As craft drinkers we often like to bring up the fact that large-scale marketing campaigns of big beer objectify women and make them seem like little more than brand-conscious targets for male attention. While that is a real issue, the argument tends to get undermined when we view the representation of women on craft labels.
While I generally avoid calling out specific breweries. I will, in this instance point to Nickel Brook which features women only on their “Naughty Neighbour” APA and “Immodest” DIPA. Both labels simultaneously place women as sexual objects and paradoxically send the message that female sexuality is deviant (not an uncommon combination, unfortunately). None of their male characters (which include a Luchador and Joseph Stalin) are presented in a sexual manner. This is just one example, but one can see it repeated in a number of other brewer’s marketing.
The problem is not just that it is accepted, its that people are seen as prudish or overly sensitive for pointing it out. The same audience who would be somewhat shocked to see a women as a brewer paradoxically tend to claim that this is simply jovial marketing and that it is essentially a ‘post-feminism’ issue.
To nip a potential counter argument in the bud, it is not an excuse to show me a label which features, say a muscle bound barbarian figure to try to prove that representations of men and women are at least ‘equally bad’. This is an argument which frequently comes up in the aforementioned field of comics. This argument fails on a number of levels. The first is that such figures are clearly not meant to evoke sexual feelings in the target market. They are fantasized ideals of male prowess. Indeed, most male drinkers would likely avoid a beer with a male figure they felt was purposefully ‘sexy’. However, even if one could find an obvious example of a hyper-sexualized male figure it would be in the extreme minority. Men on beer labels feature a great variety from the mustached figure on Birra Moretti to the wizened figure on Backwoods Bastard to the axe-swinging Dark Lord himself (who this year seemed to be joined by a sort of Zulu-esque male figure). That variety is not paralleled in the representation of women on beer. In many ways that is the heart of the issue. I could more readily accept that a brewery was simply being playful with its marketing by having a scantily-clad woman on the label if it also featured ANY other representation. But when we see nothing else, one can’t really fight the argument that only one facet of women is being represented through beer media and through a male lens at that.
Beer as a test of strength
In the North American craft scene, it is often hard to find a fruit beer or a heavily-flavoured beer at the top of any ‘best of’ lists. I feel this is partially down to the fear male drinkers often have with being seen sipping pink beer. Indeed, even at beer festivals I’ll be confronted by brand promoters telling me their latest lambic is something ‘women can enjoy too’ as if to imply they would be naturally incapable of appreciating more robust styles.
This behaviour is particularly troubling because it impacts the enjoyment level of all involved. I’ve seen plenty of male drinkers force themselves through some 120+ IBU / 12% monster beer that they clearly hate just to be able to prove they can hang with the other guys drinking. While there is a natural interest in extreme beers, the problem arises when one’s social status (particularly their macho pride) is suddenly tied up in the enjoyment of particular styles. Will my friends and I try beers like Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker or BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin? Yes. Will anyone be ridiculed for ‘not being able to take it?’ No (although one might be ridiculed for having paid for the latter in such an instance). I am fortunate enough to have a friend circle of craft drinkers who know their own palates and are not swayed by this sort of taste-masochism, but not all are.
So long as we keep tying taste preferences to gender norms, we are going to keep discouraging women to participate and see that some portion of male drinkers are embarrassed into following the trends set by the craft community.
I honestly do believe that gender equality is one of the biggest hurdles craft beer will have to face. If indeed craft beer is to be taken seriously we will have to shake off outdated practices which ultimately tie us to the image big beer has set for beer drinkers. Just as we have had to fight to prove that not all beer drinkers are out of control frat boys, we will have to demonstrate that not all craft beer enthusiasts are bearded heavy set males. It is my firm belief that once these norms are challenged we will see better beer and people more free to enjoy them.