“Can I get a beer that you girls like?”
“I don’t want that glass. It looks like a wine glass, only women drink out of those.”
“Do you have something fruity? I’m a wuss, I like girly drinks.”
Any woman or femme-presenting person working on the service end of the beer industry can confirm they are all too familiar with these interactions. The association of a style of beer or glassware to one’s gender is odd but not infrequent. For men, this is an impudent way to converse with a server or bartender. For women, it’s a reminder that we are assigned a place in beer distinctly different from men. Women are thought to drink from a rounded glass, not unlike the curvatures of our hips and chest, that men so desperately want to devour. It’s not only a desire, but something men believe they are owed.
The emotional labor of being consumed by the male gaze is a requirement of the job for women and femme-presenting folks in service and hospitality. The beer industry has a long history of using the femme body as a sales tactic. For those in power (white cis-het men) both beer and women’s bodies are objects of consumption. Whether it’s conscious or not, using the femme body makes a beer more sellable.
Representation in the Industry
Those who aren’t white cis-het men have been trying to break their way into the industry in more meaningful and influential ways for a while now. The lack of representation of women in beer is not a new concept. The Covid-19 pandemic led to the unveiling of many injustices in our society, the beer industry included. Brewmaster and brewery owner Brienne Allen unearthed stories that brought oppressive experiences to light, displaying the mistreatment of brewery workers based on gender. And while representation, general access, and equity has increased over the past decade, the statistics are still grim.
According to the Brewers Association, 23.7% of breweries in the US have women co-founders but only 2.9% of breweries are founded solely by women. And for a position that’s more accessible than business ownership, women brewers represent only 4% of the industry. There can be several causes as to why this is the case. But as exemplified here, a lot of women and femme presenting people do not feel safe or welcome in brewery spaces. And why would we when we are constantly told through the media that we are the ones being consumed, not the ones consuming?
Historic Use of Women in Beer Ads
The Budweiser Girl that most Americans are familiar with was first used in advertising in 1883.
While it looks tame to the modern viewer, it did set up the expectation of using the femme body in beer advertising. Even when print ads weren’t using female sexuality to sell, they were using the female figure and the heteronormative expectation of what a woman represents to sell beer. This meant hosting a party, greeting her husband upon his arrival home from work, or generally functioning as the caretaker of the home and family.
And even more subliminal, images of women in virginal and submissive placements were often used. By using white clothing and the woman’s gaze looking up from her lower position, the advertiser is implying a woman’s place and purpose through simple staging.
The success of beer advertising exploded in the 1940s when television became more accessible. One of the most influential characters is Mabel of Carling Brewing Co. She made her first appearance in 1951 and was the reoccuring spokeswoman for twenty years. Mabel could “compel any man to leave home–to fetch a carton of Carling’s”. This proved to be true as in 1951 Carling’s was the 28th largest brewery in the States and by 1957 was the sixth largest.
The American concept of light beer was invented as a marketing tool targeting women and stay-at-home mothers in the 70s. The message is, you too can enjoy beer, but only if it is less caloric. This sexist take worked both to sell to women and to deter men. Men did not have an interest in counting calories and regarded light lagers as “sissy beer”. This target male audience soon gained back the interest of macro lager breweries when light lagers were spun as the beer to have while watching the game. Once again, women as beer drinkers were left in the dust.
Promoting Access to the Femme Body
With the 80s and 90s came exceeding sexualization of the femme body. No longer were women just acting in roles of service, but were becoming the product themselves. In a famous Budweiser advertisement, they continued the use of the Bud Girl by advertising their bodies as actual bottles of beer. The same went into the design concept of Bud Girl outfits worn at sponsored events. Old Milwaukee ran ads in 1991 of the Swedish Bikini Team, displaying stereotypical Scandinavian women “saving” men from boredom and thirst with their lager. This resulted in a lawsuit spurred by female employees of the parent company, Pabst.
Perhaps the most troubling concept in hyper-sexulaized beer marketing is the correlation between becoming intoxicated and having access to women’s bodies, with or without consent. In 2015, Bud Light was accused of promoting rape culture with their slogan “the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” and “the perfect beer for whatever happens”. The Vice President of the company released a statement saying while they regret this slogan, it also “has inspired millions of consumers to engage with our brand in a positive and light-hearted way.” Apologies can be made but it does not affect the way the patriarchy operates.
While popular in big beer, this sexualization is not exclusive to macro breweries. While it might not be as pervasive as the bikini models of Budweiser, it is pertinent. Small craft breweries have to be able to stand out on the shelves of a market and the scroll of social feeds which can lead to lewd use of label art. This can be blamed on desperation, misogyny, or simple deftness. No matter the reason, it exists as a banal and lazy way to market a product.
While the marketing budget doesn’t exist for craft breweries to run bikini babe TV commercials, the need for that isn’t even necessary. Not only can smaller breweries blast their product by sexualizing the femme body, they can do so on little to no budget. And when there is a budget, their marketing can be done through social media branded content. By paying an influencer of a certain look, the message received by audiences isn’t “this woman is being sexually exploited for sales”, it’s “this woman is choosing to create sponsored content”.
Now, the company isn’t at fault for selling a product by using the femme body, they were instead taken up on an offer by a creator who would make that content otherwise. To be clear, any person is allowed to pose with, sell, or consume beer as they please no matter the gender and as long as it doesn’t harm others. The issue here is how breweries and beer companies use these influencers to push their often misogynistic agenda.
Blantant sex-driven advertising has clearly caused backlash in the industry. So why do breweries continue to sell sex and the femme body? Sex sells because it is palpable and primal. The first rule in marketing is to catch the attention of your audience. The second most important aspect is to make your audience remember your product.
According to a study by Wirtz, Sparks, and Zimbres (2017), using sexual imagery was incredibly successfull getting an audience to remember the actual advertisement, but not the product itself. But when the product is as ubiquitous as beer, or even more specifically, maco lager, the audience will have no problem remembering the product. So if beer with a name as big as Budweiser can use the femme body to successfully gain the attention of an audience and sell the product, why would they stray from such a tactic?
Ethics has no value in the capitalistic cycle of production and profits. But by continuing this form of advertising, the industry is actively ignoring half of their consumers. Even when macro beer advertising has shifted from bikini clad women to outdoorsy rock climbers in their 20s, this still excludes women from feeling like we belong in beer spaces. The sexualization of women in beer advertising is not inclusion, it is asserting dominance. The continuation of sexualizing women in beer sends a very clear message: Femme people are not welcome here unless you are presenting the product with a smile. This continues the dialogue and social atmosphere that women are to be submissive and a service to the male-dominated industry workers and consumers.
This is not to say that women or femme-presenting individuals are not allowed to project their sexuality in relation to beer. The difference is when it’s a man directing this message versus a woman making that choice for herself. Women are often put into one of three categories: the vixen, the mother, and the crone. She is the vixen when she shows her body in the way that men want her to. She is the mother when she is the caretaker. But step outside those roles and she becomes unruly and undesirable.
The patriarchy has decided that she’s a prude until she shows more of her body without their permission in which she becomes a slut. And once she’s fulfilled the duty of giving birth, she is no longer of service: a crone. This is all, of course, untrue. But it is what the patriarchy has woven so deeply into our society that so many do see it as truth. And what a more effective way to sell six packs of beer than to exploit the human subconscious.
Hospitality and Sex
The consumption of sex is a massive industry in our society. It’s most often thought of in the form of porn, sex workers, and strippers. But there is an unspoken form of it as well in hospitality and service. Women and femme individuals working as cocktail waitresses or bartenders are often treated as sex objects in a more public and socially acceptable setting.
Sommelier and Hospitality Advocate Ashtin Berry explains, “cocktail waitresses are often groomed to operate with the notion that sexual harrassment is part of their job…. I’m specifically calling it harassment because in none of their training manuals do they discuss boundaries, or ask staff for complicit consent to be touched or told sexually explicit comments.” Women in these positions are expected to dress and talk a certain way that is adjacent to sex work without the direct compensation for it. Sex is being sold at these establishments in a way that allows for coercion and harrassment. The worst part is that it’s socially accepted and expected.
The difference between how those positions are viewed and the way the femme body is consumed in a job like stripping is based on consent. Stereotypical sex work is often the individual’s choice. Working as a bottle girl or bartender has an underlying expectation from customers that is put upon service workers without consent. They are not working in a space where sex consumption is the goal. Ideally, customers are there for the drinks and platonic service. And yet, those occupying the femme body are treated as a sex object no matter what.
Berry also notes how hospitality and service workers often shape how people expect the world to work around them.
“Consumers do not think of hospitality workers as skilled laborers, so how could repetitive interactions with them have any effect on their life? This repetition of seeing bodies…in very specific roles shapes the consumer to have predictable and established scripts for how they will behave in a plethora of hospitality spaces. And this starts before adulthood in spaces like school cafeterias and stadiums. It is in these spaces that we learn to value the people who feed us, care for us… but rarely do we know the hospitality professional beyond their ability to entertain us and make us feel as if we belong.”
We are trained how to treat hospitality workers long before sex is even an effective way to sell us an idea. And in this case, we are trained to expect women to be objects of consumption at the same level a beer is.
The Trickling Effects
“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? … Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” – The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood
It’s been established that by using the femme body, beer sells. It’s profitable albeit a lackadaisical way to capitalize on how our society functions. What is often overlooked with indifference is how it’s impacting the people these marketing tactics are targeting. The subjects of these hyper-sexualized beer advertisements have the unattainable bodies of male fantasies. This message has done irrevocable harm to young women. This beauty ideal has become so prevalent in American culture that 50% of three- to six-year-old girls worry about their weight.
These marketing tactics have not only contributed to how men expect the femme body to be presented, but also how women believe they are to be if they consume beer. This has led to the insufferable cool girl or the pick-me stereotype. In this role, women are expected to “hang with the boys”, watch football, and not have “dramatic” female friends. And while this ideal is on the opposite end of the gender binary compared to the hyper-feminine, this stereotype is still detrimental to how women believe they’re relationship to beer should be. The femme body is to either be displayed, or covered with shallow layers of masculinity.
It doesn’t matter how confident women feel in our bodies, gender, or sexuality. The truth is those in power have built society to make sure they remain in power; this means keeping people dissatisfied with the way they look and feel. This is not exclusive to women. However, the femme body has historically been targeted with advertising more frequently and intensely than any other gender. I am not alone in learning how to hate my body and gender at a very young age.
Feminism was a laughable ideology when I was growing up. Diet and exercise became a present issue in my psyche before I hit puberty. I was presented with 90s diet fads through my household and advertisements before I was forming positive rhetoric about my body. By the time I did hit puberty, I was inundated with images of how I should look as a woman. My own body became sexualized by my peers, older men, and even my mother’s coworkers. One concept was made clear: My body isn’t good enough, and I am not the one who gets to decide when it is good enough. What I consumed began to consume me, including how beer was advertised. I was told what a woman who drinks beer is supposed to look like and act like, and she didn’t look or act like me.
Even amongst the bleak realities of how women are treated in beer, there has been some progress. In 2019, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) banned the use of discriminates and imagery at the Great British Beer Fest in 2019. “The intention was to open beer drinking up to women who would otherwise feel alienated by sexist advertising. There is nothing inherently male about beer, and no reason why women shouldn’t drink it.” The Brewers Association (BA) has also taken the lead in fostering change and greater acceptance in beer. The BA formed a DEI committee in 2019 that creates educational curriculum and funds grants to promote craft beer in underrepresented communities. And in 2022 they funded three large-scale events focused on women leadership in craft beer.
Specific movements and organizations developed as a result of social movements like the one Brianne Allen incited, or the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Breweries and leaders in the industry have begun to come forward with statements on how they’ll enact change and more resources have been created for workers in the beer industry.
Crafted for All, an inclusionary program made by Dr. J Jackson-Beckham, is a platform to learn about and improve equity in the workplace. Women of the Bevolution was created by Ash Eliot as a way to unite women across beer and create resources for us. More space has been created to make room for those underrepresented in beer.
We see this with events like the International Women’s Beer Summit and the American Homebrewers Association electing its first female executive director. However, this sort of movement forward does require an ever-turning wheel, the work does not stop. Change is incredible to witness but it needs continuous support to remain existing.
Where do we go from here? Those who hold power are the ones who need to enact change. We can make Brave Noise and help lift up those under us. But there’s only so much we can do based on the social hierarchy. Keep talking. Keep asking. Keep sharing. Keep in mind what your role in this industry is and how what you say and how you act can positively impact women and those inhabiting the femme body. Real change begins with a change of mindset which is something everyone can achieve.