Why I can’t see one more female character holding a glass of wine

I have a pet peeve, that’s turned into a problem peeve, because every time I see it I want to flip a table or throw my television out into the street (or communal gardens, as is the reality.) My issue is this: female characters who are given a glass of wine (or likely gin) as a character trait. It’s used to illustrate stress, femininity, #relatable socialising, trendy socialising, being cultured, depression and often, which is far worse, a replacement for their personality entirely.

In fact, my peeve may also be that it’s just far too ubiquitous with female characters. My peak annoyance was a recent Australian drama called 600 Glasses of Wine. The thread running through the drama is that, unsurprisingly, she drinks a lot of wine. It’s a pleasant enough drama, so I’m not discrediting the entire series because of my gripe (the devil on my shoulder would burn it in a trash fire.) It does, however, magnify everything I hate about the glass of wine trope: it symbolises inane girly conversation, a crutch, a bonus member of your friendship group, and, the worst part, a stand-in replacement for good characterisation.

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Photograph: Helena Lopes

The thing that perhaps makes me itchy about having spirits or wine as a character aid is that it reminds me of an unhappy retro psychological aid. In the 60s Valium was seen as being ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ to being a bored, stay-at-home mum. It was used to dull down what was, realistically, anxiety and depression. I recently got my act together and started watching Mad Men; a superb drama that has a sad undertow of Betty Draper’s character submerging her anxiety with tumblers of booze and chain smoking. To me, plonking a glass of alcohol in the hands of a female lead says the same thing: to get through this, I’m going to need a little help. In fact, one of the few, promo pictures I could use for this post was of Better Draper, in her kitchen, with a glass of wine.

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When it comes to male characters, a tumbler of booze is more of a sexy character flaw (Don Draper), and it’s often a sophisticated alcohol that is assumed to need expert knowledge to drink it; whiskey, for instance. Something to get knowledgeable about, something women couldn’t possibly understand. I’ve lost count of the amount of times when I’ve talked to men, who have drunk less whisky and been to fewer distilleries, who will just talk over me when discussing a single malt. This is more or less a common theme if you ignore the pale, fag-puffing Bernard Black – which leads me onto my next point.

There’s a little exception to the rule: sitcom characters. I’ve often wondered if booze-swilling, female characters in sitcoms are a way to enjoy the trope and ridicule the idea that powerful females must have some form of problem to propel their power. I adore the character Malory Archer, who hardly ever talks without the sound of ice cubes clinking in the glass in her hand. Her acrid sense of humour just wouldn’t be the same without a sharp glass of clear spirit, and this isn’t too dissimilar from Lucille Bluthe from Arrested Development, which, as you may know, are played by the same actress and are at times interchangeable. Once again, Google search Lucille Bluthe and you’ll find that one of her promo pictures is her with a martini in-hand. And, of course, there’s Patsy from Ab Fab, where her Bolly drinking is more a symbol of the lucrative fashion world. Crucially, you always feel that Patsy is knocking back Champagne because she can, it’s fabulously pricey and she just wants to. If comedy is satirising it as a common feature, it’s a signal to start editing it out of scipts.

I, like many working people, love the feeling of a glass of wine at the end of the day. I’m also not particularly fussy, so will wince down a glass of sulfuric grape acid. However, I am bored, tired and irritated by seeing booze as a female personality trait. And even if it does represent a powerful aid, I’m sick of seeing it in the hands of women. Where are the beers, the joints, or perhaps even better, nothing at all. Imagine: replacing the glass of wine in a female character’s narrative with something interesting.

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