(Warning, somewhat #longread)
Yep, another post on sexism in beer. Why? Because as a friend just said, “with a topic like this, the quantity of supportive voices matter.” (Maybe a slight paraphrase)
To recap: the Brewers Association popped the cap off the 32nd annual Craft Brewers Conference last week in the beer-mecca that is Portland, Oregon. Amidst the networking, brewing innovations, and heavy drinking, several breweries decided to host events in strip clubs. The collective beer subculture responded, mostly negatively, denouncing such behavior as juvenile, unprofessional, and sexist.
The inherent sexism of the white male-dominated beer world is obvious to anyone willing to open their eyes and actually see, but for some inspiring commentary on the situation, see Melissa Cole’s open letter calling out boorish behavior for being exactly that, Heather Vandenengel’s painful but important message about living (and working) through her own personal encounters with sexism in our industry, and Jeff Alworth’s context-placing piece that helps explain PDX culture, and how it ties into what went down at CBC15. Stan Hieronymus also pulled together a great round-up, in case you’re somehow looking for even more proof that unabashed sexists are still alive, sitting in bars, drinking beer all over the world.
Look, I get it: beer is an industry where hedonism to the point of embarrassment is built-in to the business model. But that doesn’t mean we get to shrug accountability because it’s an “industry thing.” In fact, because the product we support contains inhibition-loosing adjuncts, we have more responsibility than other industries to remain professional and poised. It should be our goal to act like good human beings at all times, social posturing and levels of consumption be damned. It’s 2015 and we’re part of a modern, inclusive groundswell. Act like it. Be progressive, not regressive.
Those social aspects noted and very temporarily put on one side, I’d like to acknowledge an often unmentioned side of sexist beer attitudes: how fundamentally stupid they are, especially from a business perspective.
I don’t mean to use “stupid” as an ad hominem playground insult; I mean the very classic definition: “lacking intelligence or common sense.”
Example: It was stupid of Oliver to stick his hand into the hornet’s nest.
The “Portland Strip Club Debacle of 2015” is a large, obvious, easy to unpack and understand, manifestation of sexist attitudes in beer. It’s easy for men to say, “well this sort of thing can be avoided in the future!” then move on, as if pulling the head off the weed does anything to kill the roots. The sexism that still prevails is smaller and less obvious: those millions of every day micro-aggressions towards women that range from lewd advances to condescending dismissals. There is no bigger culprit of casual sexism than breweries who use women as sexual caricatures as a basic part of their marketing model.
Whenever some brewer gets put to task on social media for sexist branding, or any time I see a bottle of beer with a buxom female stereotype, I’m distressed, not only as someone who supports equality, but as a person with a functioning brain. A label is a blank canvas. A clear, effective way to market to independent thinkers. To slap some lame female objectification on your product is to say, “we lack any awareness of our industry’s demographics” and “have creative ability tantamount to dick and fart jokes,” which then translates to “don’t buy this beer” as said messaging alienates 50% of potential drinkers before they’ve even tasted it.
I know brewing (as a profession) wears a collar that’s bluer than it is white, and I can’t expect every single brewery to be pushing the boundaries of art. There’s always going to be some repetition because of boundaries of beer style, and some simplicity for rusticity’s sake.
But even the quaintest, small town brewery should have a marketing and branding plan, if only as a reflection of their commitment to the product. If the summation of your marketing process is “MOAR T&A,” I’m going to be pretty concerned about the culmination of your brewing process. A sexist label suggests sexism in a brewery’s staff, and subconsciously promotes a sexist environment wherever your beer is sold and consumed.
Said branding need not be as highbrow oblique as Brian Strumke’s “beer as modern art” approach at Stillwater Artisanal; hell, one of my local favorites, Heavy Seas Brewing, uses a pirate theme, which many would argue is childish, cheesy. Yet, the branding is consistent and the brewery’s marketing team creates thematically appropriate and clever titles that tie into the style of beer, like Red Sky at Night, Siren Noire, and Blackbeard’s Breakfast. Their commitment to their brand, creativity, and willingness to invest thought and energy into their designs makes them stand out, at least in local markets.
No sexism required. It’s proof that success isn’t tied to tropes of flesh as a salesman; except for Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch, and Lagunita’s Lil’ Sumpin’, not a single brewery on the Brewers Association Top 50 for 2014 used female objectification or degradation to sell their beer. In fact, many didn’t use any baser appeals to human nature at all, instead opting for aesthetically adventurous fonts, colors, and layouts.*
To throw away the chance to win over new drinkers by using sexist messaging, especially in a market swollen with competition, is the manifestation of immature thinking. “Craft” beer is so fresh and wide open that you could choose any relatively popular theme and probably make it successful. A video game themed brewery? A board game themed brewery? A “pioneer” brewery with beers named after famous composers or artists or scientists? I could think of a million ideas that I’d consider long before I even came close to, “let’s put a chick with big bewbs on the label!”
Accidental or intentional sexism speaks louder than you ever could for yourself. I know some people argue it’s a part of that proverbially quoted but never quite defined “shock value,” or that is should be protected under freedom of speech. Some (usually male) people argue it’s empowering for women.
If you don’t get that it’s sexism: wake up; you’re being stupid (see above definition).
If you do get that it’s sexism, and still won’t change: you’re not stupid, but you’re also probably not a very nice human being to be around.
It can be hard to sway the minds of men who quickly shift the focus with chants of “not all of us” or minimize the situation with unfair comparisons to broader social problems. If they won’t accept that sexism is hurtful and degrading as a basic fact, perhaps they’ll listen if we tell them their designs have all the imagination of a horny 13 year old boy. If you’re a brewer or brewery considering (or already) using the image of an objectified or eroticized woman on your branding, take a moment to stop doing that, because what the hell? It makes you look bad, and women feel bad. The industry is guilty by association. Literally no one wins.
Remember: despite how easy it is to dismiss or derail the conversation about sexism in beer, because hey, after all, “it’s just beer,” sexism a real thing that really matters. It transcends beer, and is reflective of the attitudes of male-dominated cultures. If you’re not ready to face the idea of feminism yet, OK, but don’t try to defend sexist behavior as “no big deal” when our wives, sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, and daughters, can and are being marginalized by a male lack of awareness. If you can’t contextualize it when it happens to a stranger, imagine a picture of your mother, scantly clad on a beer label, being callously remarked upon by guys repeating “hey, it’s just a joke, man” whenever you tell them to stop.
Brew good beer and don’t be stupid.
The first should be the hard part, not the second.