The Beer-Drinking Female: an Australian Anomaly

Beer consumption in Australia has strong links to perceptions of masculinity. This paper explores the increasing phenomenon of the beer-drinking female, placing this trend in the context of a cultural environment in which the norms relating to appropriate beverage consumption according to gender are widely held. The results of an ethnographic study into alcohol consumption are discussed in terms of their contribution to an understanding of gender segregation in beer consumption. The social impediments confronting the female wishing to consume beer are discussed, and the potential implications of non-conformance are outlined.



Citation:

Simone Pettigrew (2001) ,"The Beer-Drinking Female: an Australian Anomaly", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: .

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001

THE BEER-DRINKING FEMALE: AN AUSTRALIAN ANOMALY

Simone Pettigrew

Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia

ABSTRACT -

Beer consumption in Australia has strong links to perceptions of masculinity. This paper explores the increasing phenomenon of the beer-drinking female, placing this trend in the context of a cultural environment in which the norms relating to appropriate beverage consumption according to gender are widely held. The results of an ethnographic study into alcohol consumption are discussed in terms of their contribution to an understanding of gender segregation in beer consumption. The social impediments confronting the female wishing to consume beer are discussed, and the potential implications of non-conformance are outlined.

INTRODUCTION

Beer is the most popular form of alcohol in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 1995), and according to most beer drinkers, alcohol is beer (Mackay 1989). The beer gut is considered by some to be a status symbol (Wannan 1982), and according to King (1978), drinking prowess among Australian males is of greater importance than sexual competence. Beer drinking also constitutes an on-going rite of passage, as Australian males are required to repeatedly demonstrate their manhood through heavy beer consumption in order to fend off accusations of being a bore (Murray 1997), or even a "bloody poofta" (King 1978, p. 175).

While it is not possible to condense a culture into a single object (Rowse and Moran 1990), the Australian literature suggests that beer is the product that enjoys the strongest bond with Australian culture. Beer is often used in the process of self-definition (Mackay 1989; Fiske, Hodge, and Turner 1987), and as such it is very important to the Australian psyche. Beer in Australia is a consumer good that has a vital role in communicating and reflecting the social categories of gender (Horne 1988; Conway 1985), age (Fiske et al. 1987), and social class (Horne 1988). Beer is thus an important social text, one that is highly symbolic of Australian culture (Fiske et al. 1987).

The relative consumption levels between the sexes illustrate that beer plays a much more important role in the lives of Australian men than in the lives of Australian women. Male drinkers exhibit a strong preference for beer, with 65% of adult males drinking beer in the week prior to the 1989/90 National Health Survey (ABS 1990, n=16,999). By comparison, only 22% of male respondents to the survey drank wine in the preceding week. The incidence of beer consumption among Australian females is relatively low at 14.3% (ABS 1990). The 18-24 age group has the highest incidence rate at 19.4% (ABS 1990), and university students have been found to be among the heavier female consumers of beer (Donovan Research 1995). Of those females who do drink beer, full-strength is the most popular variety (ABS 1995). The preferred alcoholic beverage in all adult female age categories except the youngest is wine, with an average incidence rate of 30.5% across all age groups (AB! S 1990). Spirits were the next most popular alcoholic beverage for these age groups (18.2%). The order is reversed for female drinkers between the ages of 18 and 24, who firstly prefer spirits (32.8%), followed by wine (25.9%) (ABS 1990).

METHODOLOGY

Participant observations, non-participant observations, and interviews were employed in this study to gather data relating to beer consumption. The objective was to generate a thick description of the ways in which beer is consumed in Australian culture. Over the course of three years, 115 people were interviewed and observed in over 23 pubs and clubs in three Australian states (Western Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria). These interviews comprised the ethnographic component of the research, and were most critical to the emerging interpretation. Other interviews were also conducted to obtain information pertaining to Australian culture in general. These interviews provided background information to enhance the researcher’s understanding of Australian culture as perceived by its members. These interviews were conducted in schools and retirement villages, as these locations provided a degree of access to informants that was not available in less s! tructured environments. Approximately 300 children and seniors were interviewed in these contexts. This number is large primarily due to the need to interview students in class contexts.

The ethnographic interviews and observations conducted in drinking venues provided direct insight into the cultural process of beer consumption, while the interviews in schools and retirement villages provided a more general understanding of Australian culture and the role of beer in this culture. The interviews with secondary school students were especially useful, as many were experimenting with alcohol. Due to their "amateur" status, these drinkers were more conscious of their decision-making processes relating to beer consumption, and the socialisation effects at work in their attitudes towards beer were more apparent.

RESULTS

Australia as a Nation of Beer Drinkers

Early in interviews with informants, it was rarely mentioned that the consumption of beer is segmented according to demographic characteristics. Instead, the overwhelming impression is of a nation of beer drinkers, with few distinctions made between the consumption patterns of different groups within the Australian culture:

A typical Australian is someone who sits down and drinks beer (adult female, WA).

I would say that most Australians drink beer (adult male, WA).

Researcher: What things that you buy do you associate with being Australian?
Female: Beer (female child, WA)

By attributing beer consumption to Australians in general, informants were creating a common bond in the form of a consumption good. The assumption that the typical Australian is a white male provides one explanation for the existence of the myth that all Australians drink beer. When asked to describe a typical Australian, the responses of many informants indicated that they hold quite consistent stereotypes that fail to reflect the diversity of the Australian population. Even females appeared comfortable describing the typical Australian as a male.

Beer as a Gendered Construction

Rather than a popular pastime that is available to everyone, beer consumption can be interpreted as a gendered construction. Once informants moved past general discussions of Australians and started describing the drinking habits of males and females, the strong bias against female beer consumption became apparent. The role of beer in Australian society is so completely linked to males that females and beer appear to be polar opposites. This association of masculinity and beer is apparent even among younger Australians, who have become somewhat accustomed to the presence of beer-drinking females (BDFs) in pubs. The all-but-complete separation between females and beer consumption in the minds of Australians provides interesting insights when coupled with the powerful association between beer and Australian culture. This association is clearly mythical, serving to generate a sense of uniformity that does not exist. Rather than all Australians being devot! ed beer drinkers, it is Australian males who primarily exhibit this behaviour. Australian females share in the myth, also stating that most Australians drink beer. Through this common belief females can feel part of the Australian culture, despite their general aversion to the consumption of the product itself.

One of the most important symbolic functions of beer in Australian culture is to communicate the differences between males and females. Australians are exposed early to the male symbolism of beer, and they come to know unquestioningly that beer is a male beverage. They have obtained this "knowledge" through a variety of sources, including their families, their peers, and the media:

Female: Beer is a man’s drink.
Researcher: Why do men drink beer?
Female: I think it is something that - it is probably the advertising when they are young or the old sip of dad’s beer when you are young (adult female, NSW).

Researcher: Why is there a difference between what males and females drink?
Female: Probably the trends. Like most girls and most boys have got like separate things, like what they should be drinking. That is what society says and what their friends think (adolescent female, VIC).

Researcher: Why is there that differentiation between who drinks what?
Male: Society. I mean you know ever since you have been a little kid, you know, you see men drink beer and women drink wine or scotch and Coke, or whatever. When you are little it is all over the place. Your dad has a beer and your mum has a wine (male adult, NSW).

While they are often confronted with contradictions to the rule that states that beer is a male beverage (such as in the case of those females who do drink beer), most are usually able to gloss over such variations and retain their belief in the gender-specific symbolism of beer. They reduce the cognitive dissonance resulting from observed female beer consumption by stereotyping BDFs in such a way as to disassociate their behaviour from that of a "proper" Australian female. It is apparent when speaking to both younger and older Australians that BDFs are often perceived to be an "ugly" minority. Given this stereotyping, it is not surprising that females largely conform to the requirement to avoid beer. Instead, wine is the form of alcohol most strongly associated with females, and it is also perceived as appropriate for both males and females belonging to higher socio-economic groupings. Australians of all ages and backgrounds volunteered wine as a favoured! beverage of Australian females. Where males were mentioned as wine drinkers, it was usually in conjunction with a reference to red wine and relative wealth. Red wine is perceived as more masculine than white wine, and therefore more appropriate for male consumption. It is also considered to be more expensive, and therefore more appropriate for males and females of the upper classes.

The implicit assumptions concerning gender attributions became readily apparent in the course of interviews:

Alcohol is more of a male drink, it is an attitude. For a female it is not sort of socially acceptable (adolescent male, WA).

This interview extract is particularly telling in the phrase "it is an attitude". The informant is describing societal assumptions concerning gender roles in alcohol consumption as accepted, in-built attitudes. These attitudes are widely held and consistent, providing very clear directives to consumers in their consumption decisions. As such, the power of individuals over their own consumption activities is largely confined to conformance within the range of socially-sanctioned alternatives. The apparent preference of females for wine over beer is contrived by the social environment in which they live and consume, as from an early age Australians learn of the social relationship between females and wine. Similarly, they learn that beer is inherently masculine, and thus females tend to avoid its consumption.

While Australian males are perceived as more earthy and rugged, Australian females are thought to be refined and genteel. In line with these interpretations, certain beverages are allocated to each gender on the basis of their perceived "fit". Beer is regarded as a high volume, quickly consumed beverage. It is therefore appropriate for replenishing fluids lost after hard physical labour, such as that associated with traditional male employment. Wine is a concentrated beverage that is consumed in smaller quantities and at a slower pace. It is thus considered appropriate for the more restrained consumption that is associated with females. When comparing beer and wine without considering the symbolic meaning contained in both, it is difficult to understand why beer is innately more masculine and wine more feminine. Beer is larger in volume than wine, and it usually has a lower alcohol content. If anything, this makes beer closer in physical characteristics to! soft drink, which has both male and female connotations. There is nothing inherently masculine about beer, other than the symbolism with which it has been endowed. Similarly, the physical characteristics of wine as a concentrated, more alcoholic beverage do not necessarily provide evidence for a female association. These associations have been taught through the process of consumer socialisation, and in Australian culture these associations are an important means of communicating cultural values relating to the appropriate role of each sex.

While this polarisation of consumption between the sexes also occurs across many other types of consumer goods, the extent of segregation is remarkable for a product that has the same utilitarian function for both males and females. The masculine association of beer is based more on deep-rooted cultural beliefs than any physical or functional explanations. The extent of this conditioning is evident in the attitudes held towards female beer consumption:

Male: I don’t really like girls drinking beer (adult male, NSW).

Researcher: Tell me about how Australian women and beer fit together.
Male 1: They don’t fit at all.
Male 2: Women shouldn’t drink beer.
Researcher: So you object to women drinking beer?
Male 1: No, I don’t object. But I don’t think it matches (adult males, WA).

The pervasiveness of this male association is complete. Even those females who drink beer acknowledge that it is a male’s beverage, as is apparent from the following extract from a drinking situation in which both the males and females present were consuming beer:

Male: In Australia I think males tend to think that beer is a male drink.
Female 1: Yes. Traditionally I think that beer is associated with males.
Female 2: I tend to agree with that (adult males and females, WA).

Although many male informants gave lip service to the acceptability of female beer consumption, further discussion usually revealed that although it is "okay" for females to drink beer, it is not ideal. Other beverages are seen to be more appropriate for females, such as wine, sherry, and soft drinks. While wine is deemed appropriate for males in certain contexts (such as with meals), it is not acceptable in the pub environment. Spirits and liqueurs are appropriate for consumption by both genders, but according to cultural "rules", females tend to "prefer" some spirits (such as gin, Baileys, Cointreau, and vodka), while other types of spirits are classified as being in the male domain (such as scotch, bourbon, and cognac).

Rather than refraining from beer consumption because it is inappropriate for females to engage in such behaviour, females are perceived to avoid beer because of a uniform dislike of the taste. The incidences of females disliking the taste of beer and males liking the taste are too high to be a realistic reason for gender differences in consumption. It is improbable that such a high ratio of females would dislike a particular taste, while their male counterparts find it extremely pleasant. The myth of beer being "unfeminine" in taste has evolved to justify females’ evasive behaviour towards beer and to guide them in their consumption choices.

Attributions

Australians of all ages and backgrounds are accustomed to attributing certain characteristics to drinkers according to the beverages they consume. They adjust these attributions according to the gender of the drinker. This is largely a subconscious and unacknowledged process, with few giving thought to the reasons behind the attributions they have been taught to perform. The following quotes illustrate the attributions that are commonly allocated to BDFs. In the main, stereotypes of BDFs are consistent among age groups and locations, indicating that these stereotypes are well-formed and widely disseminated:

Researcher: What sort of girls drink beer?
Male: Tough girls (adult male, NSW).

Researcher: What do you think about women drinking beer?
Male 1: You look for the tats (tattoos).
Male 2: I must say, yes I do react (adult males, NSW).

The BDF is assumed to be less feminine, possessing instead masculine behavioural and physical characteristics. This is not surprising given the strong association between beer and males. The stereotyped masculine characteristics of beer accrue to those females who choose to consume this product.

Beer is recognised as the working class beverage, although males of all classes can consume beer, albeit in different quantities and contexts. The working class association is exaggerated in the case of BDFs. A BDF unknown to the observer is usually categorised as belonging to a lower socio-economic classification than a female drinking more acceptable alcoholic beverages:

You would be tempted to think a girl drinking wine is a slightly higher class than one drinking beer (adolescent male, NSW).

Researcher: If you came in and saw a woman drinking beer versus a woman drinking wine, would you assume different things about them, or not?
Male: I would probably assume there is a different social background (adult male, VIC).

The girl who drinks the beer would drive the panel van (adolescent female, WA).

The last quote provides evidence of product constellations that indicate gender and social class. In this instance, the informant has mentally associated a female who drinks beer with the type of person who would own a panel van. The ownership of such a vehicle brings forth connotations of tradesmen and blue-collar workers. The BDF is thus automatically categorised in a less socially favourable light compared to females who conform to societal consumption expectations. Of course, the attributions assigned to the BDF are only unfavourable and socially costly in the event that associations with members of the lower classes are perceived to be negative. There appeared to be no doubt in the minds of most informants, however, that such associations are best avoided. However, the increasing consumption of beer among females suggests that some favourable attributions must accrue to the BDF. According to BDFs interviewed, these positive outcomes can include a grea! ter perceived equality with males and the ability to stimulate reactions from those observing their beer consumption. A female considering choosing beer must weigh up the social costs with the perceived benefits to be obtained.

As well as being masculine and lower class, the BDF is also perceived to have psychological differences from the average female. She is considered unpleasant to be around, and can be assumed incapable of maintaining the fatade of happiness that society requires. Outsiders may conclude that she has deep-rooted social problems that are made apparent by her consumption choices:

Women who drink beer are more obnoxious. Women who drink beer are more loud. That is my gut reaction (adult male, WA).

The question pops up in your head, "Why is this chick drinking beer? Has she got some kind of social problem, she is trying to drown her sorrows quick smart, or what?" It is not a good image, I suppose, as far as women are concerned. I know it is stereotypical, but that is just the way you are brought up to look at it. You get this beer image which just isn’t female (adult male, NSW).

In addition, the BDF is perceived to have a physical appearance that fails to conform to societal standards of beauty. There is something inherently unattractive about female beer consumption, or so common understanding dictates:

Researcher: Are the women who drink beer different from women who don’t drink beer?
Female 1: Some are.
Male 1: Yes.
Researcher: In what way?
Male 1: Daggier.
Female 2: Fatter (adolescent males and females, WA).

Researcher: Are there any differences between women who drink beer and women who don’t?
Male: I think so, yes. They are usually a little bit fatter, a bit more butch, and they don’t carry themselves very well. Beer sort of makes them a bit untidier quicker (adult male, NSW).

The perception of the BDF is that she lacks self-control. Although many other alcoholic beverages consumed by females have higher alcohol contents than beer, there is a perception that females who drink beer are more likely to lose control, or become "messy". At this point it is important to note that this discussion is centred around informants’ impressions of BDFs. Those BDFs observed drinking beer in pub environments were not notably different from other female pub patrons. It is therefore likely that the perceptions of BDFs described by informants are interpretations based more upon social expectations of product usage than unbiased observations.

The perceived potency of beer means that in the minds of consumers there would logically have to be repercussions if females attempt to consume this powerful beverage:

The girls that drink beer appear to get drunk (adult male, NSW).

Researcher: Do you think there is any difference between women who drink beer and women who don’t?
Male: I don’t know. I don’t like women drinking too much beer. I don’t like drunk women. It is all right saying that, being a male. Would you like your man falling over every woman around the place? I don’t like women doing that (adult male, WA).

This second quote brings to light the assumption that the BDF will be drunk and flirtatious. These behaviours are thought to be brought about by the mind-altering effects of beer that cannot be adequately controlled by the physically weaker female. The potency myth thus introduces a custodial role for males, who are perceived to have a greater ability to remain in control of their behaviour when intoxicated. There is a related assumption that the BDF can be marked as a sexual conquest:

Researcher: Can women at barbecues stand there with a tin?
Male 1: Oh, probably yes. If she has one or two that’s okay. If she has more than that, well you would probably say "you beauty".
Male 2: All this bullshit about the women. They can’t. If you really like someone, you are pretty glad they can’t. Their body can’t take it anyhow. Can’t take the same things (adult males, NSW).

This assumption that beer makes females more susceptible to sexual advances from strangers is based on the perception that beer is a powerful beverage that renders its female drinkers incapable of maintaining usual behavioural standards. Such an assumption is interesting in the light of the significantly higher alcohol content of most wines compared to most beers. Also suggested in the quote is that a female in whom a male is romantically interested (as opposed to sexually interested) should not be a beer drinker. This statement is justified by the stated belief that it is not possible for females to excessively consume beer anyway.

In Search of Equality

More Australian females drink full-strength beer than low-alcohol beer (ABS 1995). The consumption of full-strength beer by females suggests that the association with a male drinking habit is exactly what BDFs seek. If they are flouting social norms by drinking beer in the first place, it is through the consumption of full-strength beers that they can best communicate their desire to be perceived as equal in social standing to their male peers:

Researcher: Would you drink beer if no other female you knew did?
Female: I would always drink beer, be one of the fellas (adult female, NSW).

But BDFs can be thwarted in their attempts to convey their equality, as they are often judged instead to be pitiful. Even self-confessed BDFs can be disparaging of other BDFs. They can use a variety of characteristics, such as age and social class, to differentiate themselves from those BDFs whom they judge to be less acceptable. The female quoted below endows younger BDFs with positive attributes, but is less kind to their predecessors. Some BDFs are apparently more equal than others:

Researcher: Tell me about Australian women who drink beer.
Female: You have still got your sort of late 40s, early 50s women who have never been married and prop up a bar every night and are the object of ridicule from the men at the bar. Then you get women like us who are just sitting here having a good time, having a good chat. Women have realised that there is room for equality, and they have got just as much right as men these days, and they are not going to be outdone (adult female, NSW).

Despite discussing equality among males and females, the informant above reverts back to gender stereotypes when referring to older BDFs. She views them through the eyes of male drinkers, unconsciously allocating males the authority to judge the propriety of beer drinking by females. The term "prop up the bar" brings connotations of heavy drinking and lack of physical control, both of which appeared to be distasteful to the informant. Such behaviours by males of the same age in the same bar remained unremarked upon, indicating that these behaviours have a legitimacy in the male domain that has yet to be achieved in the female domain. The specific mention of the spinster status of the older BDF is particularly interesting. The way this was expressed by the informant indicated that there is something pathetic and undesirable about these females. They lack status because they lack husbands, their worth thus undermined by their perceived inability to attract t! he opposite sex.

In line with social changes, beer consumption patterns are changing towards more female consumption, although the majority of females continue to avoid beer. Australian pubs are experiencing a distinct change in clientele as more females partake of their attractions. The daytime male retirees are a constant presence in the suburban pub, but the after-hours and weekend crowds have changed to include more females. Some females are thus choosing to accept the social risks of beer consumption in order to take advantage of the symbolic meaning on offer:

I think a lot of women will drink beer to make a statement (brewery representative).

I go out and I sit down, and it is like "what do you want?" and it is like a beer, and everyone else is having wine or something like that, and you are sort of one of the boys. That is it, you know what I mean? (adult female, WA).

While acknowledging that beer is a male drink, this second informant enjoys aligning herself with her male friends, almost "against" her female friends. Beer can thus be used by BDFs as a form of rebellion. It provides shock value, possibly giving them the upper hand over non-BDFs and conservative males who struggle with the concept of a female choosing to drink beer in a social environment where she has the choice to do otherwise.

It became readily apparent that the process of cultural change leaves some consumers behaving in ways that do not correspond with their held beliefs:

My mum does drink beer at home, but she wouldn’t do it in public. My mum says women aren’t supposed to drink beer. I don’t think that personally, but I just think because my mum always says if you drink in a pub then all the people will look down on you (female adult, NSW).

This teenage informant is in a "do as I say, not as I do" quandary. Her mother exhibits one pattern of behaviour, at the same time warning her daughter from doing the same for fear of derisory responses from peers. For the mother there is an ongoing battle between the social "knowledge" that females shouldn’t drink beer, and the fact that she herself likes to consume the beverage on occasion. The fact that beer consumption is hidden and cautioned among female drinkers says much its role in Australian culture. The effects of consumer socialisation are apparent, with females perpetuating the gender roles assigned to them in the ways they socialise their children. They do so in the belief that they are protecting their daughters from potential social dangers. The message is that drinkers need to be careful in their consumption choices, as poor decisions may have implications that are considered socially unpleasant.

CONCLUSIONS

While there exists a myth of unity in Australian beer consumption, perhaps a better interpretation is that beer as a product category achieves universality in terms of its perceived coverage of the Australian population, rather than in its actual coverage. The ABS statistics illustrate that the assumed universality of beer consumption ignores the gender demarcation in consumption that occurs. Beer consumption is a heavily male-dominated activity in Australia. Despite this segmentation, the myth that all Australians drink beer permits a sense of national bonding on the basis of a consumption behaviour. At a superficial level it enables Australians to conceive of themselves as a uniform population, engendering a feeling of belonging and of commonality. A close analysis, however, also suggests that beer plays a very important function in the demarcation between the sexes.

The extent of the demarcation in beer consumption between the sexes is decreasing over time. Females are increasingly able to join males in their beer consumption activities in their younger years, but they are still expected to conform to wife and mother roles in due course. These roles do not include beer consumption, or at least not in the pub environment. The in-roads into the male bastion of the pub are thus limited, being currently confined to younger age categories. Females have yet to earn full entry rights into the world of beer consumption in Australian culture.

 

REFERENCES

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1990). National Health Survey: Health Risk Factors. Catalogue No. 4380.0. Canberra.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995). National Health Survey: Summary of Results. Catalogue No. 4364.0. Canberra.

Conway, R. (1985). The Great Australian Stupor. Melbourne, The Macmillan Company of Australia Pty Ltd.

Cox, E. (1997). "When Drunkenness Means Disorderly Law". The Australian, 28 October 28 October: 15.

Donovan Research (1995). Qualitative Research into 1995 Respect Yourself Campaign. Perth. 31 July.

Fiske, J., B. Hodge, and G. Turner (1987). Myths of Oz. Sydney, Allen and Unwin.

Horne, D. (1988). The Lucky Country. Melbourne, Penguin Books Australia Limited.

King, J. (1978). Waltzing Materialism. Sydney, Harper and Row.

Mackay, H. (1989). The Hugh Mackay 1989 Beer Report. Appendix 4. Perth, Australia.

Rowse, T. and A. Moran (1990). "'Peculiarly Australian' - The Political Construction of Cultural Identity." In Australian Society. Eds. E. S. and B. L., Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd.

Wannan, B. (1982). Great Aussie Quotes. Victoria, Penguin Books Australia.

Authors

Simone Pettigrew



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001



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