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Let Us Now Retire the Whiskey Woman

The latest in a lineage of "bro-girl" archetypes, the "whiskey-drinking woman" has become such a common trope in pop culture that she's now a cliché. But who is this woman? Courtney Balestier on her genesis, and why it's time to put the stereotype to rest.

There are several notable species of the bro-girl archetype: In the early 20th century, we called her the tomboy, she of gambling parlors and skeet shoots, personified by celebrities like Clara Bow and Carole Lombard. More recently, modern pop culture gave us the cool girl—bitingly articulated by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl—who loves dick jokes and fantasy football and downs beer and cheeseburgers without gaining weight. Both figures are beloved for their gleeful acquiescence to male norms. And both, as their names suggest, connote a certain immaturity.

Another modern member of this species has also emerged—an answer to the cool girl’s inchoate womanhood, with all of her gendered genuflection but a little more maturity and, when it comes to her drink of choice, a little less frat-party gusto: the whiskey woman.

Few drinks have inspired the fetishization of women that whiskey (and its brethren, bourbon and Scotch) has. In the pages of men’s magazines, where ladies appear with swollen busts and shrunken thighs, the woman who loves whiskey has become such a common trope (seriously, take your pick) that she’s already a cliché. In a recent GQ piece, Amy Schumer perfectly sums it up, saying in reference to the way men’s magazines profile women: “It’s always right on the precipice of, like, ‘We almost fucked.’ Like, ‘She walked in, and her nipples were just a little hard, and she ordered a whiskey because her throat hurt.’”

Mindy Kaling also mocks this kind of broad sexual politicking in a The Mindy Project episode in which her Mindy Lahiri tries to change her dating life by thinking like a man, which includes channeling the whiskey woman stereotype: When a guy she has her eye on (Max Greenfield) is flirting with another woman, Mindy saunters in between them at the bar and, with loud bravado, orders a whiskey neat. “God, I love the taste of whiskey!” she exclaims to no one in particular. Having shut down her competition, she then takes a sip and spits it out in disgust. Twice.

Who is this woman? Let’s start with who she is not: She is not a person who happens to possess both a whiskey collection and a vagina; she is not a person at all. Women who drink whiskey exist in reality; the whiskey woman is a fantasy. She is a feminine ideal squeezed through a jigger, emerging buxom but tight, able to execute a smoky eye and a shot of Wild Turkey, endowed with a husky rasp or a breathy whisper, a bro-in-a-bra with sensuality to spare. The whiskey woman is not tailgating in front of the stadium with you, but she also isn’t sipping a finger of Bulleit in sweatpants after a shitty day at work. She is eternally sitting in a bar with leather armchairs and flattering lighting, waiting for you to ask if she wants to get out of here. Or maybe she asks you, because she is drinking whiskey and therefore she is tough (but not too tough) and powerful (but not more powerful than you). She is always sexy, always game, always thirsty.

This is the seductive unicorn so often behind those “knowing nods” and “admiring looks” that actual women talk about receiving from male bartenders—at least one of whom took to the internet with his sociological findings—upon ordering whiskey drinks. (Absurd as his comments are, I had several friends, male and female, tell me in the course of writing this piece how many women brag about their whiskey preferences in online dating profiles.)

“Ordering whiskey as a woman is a statement. Or perhaps men read it as one,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner and head bartender of New York’s Leyenda and Tales of the Cocktail’s 2015 American Bartender of the Year. “Hopefully, though, she’s ordering it just ‘cause she wants it.” But the whiskey woman fantasy is predicated on one more expression of desire: that a man wants her for it.

Prominent as she is in pop culture now, this woman isn’t new. And she’s been trouble from the start: Though women have always drunk whiskey, the liquor became tied to prostitutes as far back as the Revolutionary War, when working women would sell it alongside their services, says Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women. Prostitutes were even featured in 19th-century whiskey advertising, galvanizing a connection that continued through to Prohibition. But after repeal, distillers decided not to market to women at all—a decision that stayed in effect until 1987, says Minnick.

Since then, modern whiskey advertising has only doubled down on misogynistic advertising, with efforts that trade heavily in female objectification, stage-whisper ignorance and thorough deference to men. A couple years back, Buffalo Trace had its “bourbunnies” contests, which engaged female fans of the brand in the Internet equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest. While just last year, Woodford Reserve ran a series of regressive ads—roundly mocked—that featured both a woman leaning hard into some old-school gender roles by swooning that a bourbon-swilling man is the kind who “could build me a bookshelf,” and a man opining that, when he sees a woman drinking bourbon, “I’m prepared to tolerate a lot of her business.” (He goes on to say, “She’s got that rare thing that makes her not just tolerate but enjoy my thorny mess,” which, Jesus.)

Even when two women became the faces of whiskey campaigns—which both Christina Hendricks (Johnnie Walker) and Mila Kunis (Jim Beam) have of late—the script was only slightly rewritten. Hendricks, in a body-con black dress, congratulates the (presumably male) viewer with the speech, “It’s classic. It’s bold. It’s Johnnie Walker. And you ordered it.” And Kunis—her cool-girl cred surely part of her spokeswoman appeal in the first place—delivers her lines in that predictable whiskey-woman rasp.

There is some small solace to be found, though: Hendricks cuts a confident, assertive figure, and Kunis expounds on Jim Beam’s distillation process instead of spouting breathy come-ons; she also spends one commercial in worker’s coveralls branding whiskey barrels, an act that, while performative, nonetheless obscures the body Esquire once crowned the sexiest alive. In a historically tawdry game, such are the crumbs of progress.

“In the past, [women] served more as an allure. Now they’re an active participant,” says Beth Egan, associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Egan points to a larger shift in whiskey marketing strategy, due in part to women’s larger economic impact. But there’s another place women are having more impact: the bar. As Shanna Farrell notes in PUNCH, there are more women bartenders now than ever before, a shift that has facilitated more discussion around issues of gender and drinking—and, one would imagine, has resulted in bartenders with little truck for contrivances and constructs. (As Mix says, “Hopefully she’s just ordering it ‘cause she wants it.”)

Though writer and bartender Rosie Schaap remembers what a novelty she was for ordering a pint of Guinness and a Jameson neat in a ‘90s New York bar—“It was funny to me how delighted [the bartender] was by my order”—there’s little judgment at the Brooklyn bar where she now works when a woman orders whiskey. Or, for that matter, anything. “What I see at bars, and I’m really happy to see, is more women coming in on our own and feeling more comfortable, like a bar belongs to them as well as to men, and drinking what they like,” she says.

Perhaps living, breathing, whiskey-drinking women might finally be able to outrun the whiskey woman, to replace her with—if one can imagine such a thing—a human person with a beverage preference. At the least, we’ve transitioned into a moment when, on both sides of the bar, there is a growing recognition that real women drink whiskey, and on their own terms. (Perhaps next there won’t even need to be any recognition at all.) Of course, this victory, as women’s victories so often are, is relative.

“Let’s face it, men are still threatened by women’s power,” Egan, the advertising expert, says. “I don’t think they’d have Hillary Clinton in these spots.” Though that would be one hell of a campaign.

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Courtney Balestier is a food and culture writer whose work has appeared in the likes of Lucky Peach, Oxford American and the New York Times and has been anthologized in Cornbread Nation 7: The Best of Southern Food Writing. You can find more of her work at courtneybalestier.com.