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Dr Emily Nicholls explores performing gender through drinking and sobriety

  • 18 January 2021
  • 24 min listen

How does a night on the town change how feminine or masculine our behaviour is? Dr Emily Nicholls takes us through her research on how gender is performed through drinking and sobriety in British culture.

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The thrill or the unpredictability or the letting one's hair down is really important, but comes with those risks. I think the whole point of femininity is that it's full of contradictions.

Dr Emily Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in Sociology

Episode transcript:

Narrator: You're listening to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. In this series, we hear about world-changing research from the brilliant minds at work here in Portsmouth. I'm John Worsey, a writer, and my colleagues and I are seizing the chance to talk to these brilliant minds.

Narrator: Today, we're hearing about some of the deep-seated ideas that change the way we behave in everyday situations. Take a night out with friends, how different is your experience just based on your gender and class? And how does your awareness of that change the way you behave?

Emily Nicholls: We know that's women's problem drinking is seen as doubly deviant in a way. So we know that historically excessive drinking was seen as unfeminine. And today, the women who do identify as having a problem or want to access support services have a gendered experience.

Narrator: Emily Nicholls is going to explain how a complicated relationship with the feminine plays out in our cultural attitudes to drinking. From the girls night out to celebrating the joys of sobriety on Instagram.

Emily Nicholls: I think the whole point of femininity is that it's full of contradictions and it's really difficult to embody.

Narrator: I caught up with Emily about her latest research.

Narrator: Dr Emily Nicholls is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology here at Portsmouth.

Emily Nicholls: So I'm a sociologist and I'm particularly interested in issues around kind of gender and femininity. So how do we kind of perform or do our gender in everyday settings? And in the last few years, I got really interested in the role alcohol plays in this, whether it's through drinking or not drinking. So how do our practises, when we're sharing a glass of wine with our female friends, shape the way that we do our gender? And how does avoiding drinking or going sober kind of clash with ideas on how we do gender as well.

Narrator: The idea of performing gender, that is, behaving in line with cultural ideas of what being masculine or feminine is, might not be something we consider that much when we're letting our hair down and enjoying a night out with friends. This is exactly what Emily was intrigued by. As her relationship with drinking changed, Emily started to reflect upon how alcohol can alter the structure of a social occasion and even define it.

Emily Nicholls: I think subconsciously, part of the reason I did my PhD about the girls night out was because I was living in Newcastle, I was a student and I was going out and drinking a lot. You know, I didn't identify this at the time, but I think that alcohol was a really important part of my life. And then it just happened to feed into what I did my PhD. And then about two years ago, I stopped drinking and I felt like – it sounds a bit cheesy – but my life was this huge social experiment all of a sudden, you know, how do I manage it? How do people react? How do I go out? What do I do in social settings? How do I change myself from this kind of party girl student who's been living up in Newcastle for 4/5 years to suddenly being a non-drinker? And I just thought, god, this is really, really interesting and it kind of still aligns with what I've been doing about alcohol.

Narrator: But what does it mean to perform gender? Emily explained a little more.

Emily Nicholls: Yeah. So I guess where I would start in talking to someone about this is making a distinction between our sex and our gender. So I would start by saying to them, we widely recognise our sex as something that's kind of natural or biological, we're assigned male or female. Gender is something that sociologists have thought about as what we call 'socially constructed'. So our gender is more fluid and it's something that's kind of overlaid on top of our sex through the things that we do. So I can kind of do or perform being a woman, right, by the way that I sit on the bus, the way that I talk to other people, the way that I dress, present, move myself. So as sociologists, one of the things that a lot of us are quite interested in is how do we kind of do or perform those genders in everyday situations? It's about me wanting other people to read me as a certain gender. So I perform or act in certain ways and I get recognised as feminine or female.

Narrator: By starting with an interest in gender, Emily began to consider how cultures and subcultures can influence our understanding of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and how this can define how the same person can behave differently depending on the place, space and company.

Emily Nicholls: So it's not saying that femininity is fixed across time or space, it's saying it's something that's embedded and decided within our own culture. So within the UK, you know, ideas around being kind of looking and presenting our bodies in a certain way are tied up with what it means to be feminine in that particular culture. So, yeah, definitely they're very culturally and socially specific and also shaped by other aspects of identity, such as our age or class or our race, for example. So all my research to date has looked within the UK context, but I tend to extrapolate a little bit and say that generally we could apply to other Western drinking cultures as well. So there's a lot of similar work being done in Australia. They're kind of the closest to us, perhaps in terms of their drinking culture, similar patterns and trends around drinking. So whilst I just look within a UK context, there's definitely kind of wider applicability to kind of Europe and Australia as well. I think America is a little bit different. I think they have a slightly different relationship with alcohol to the UK. But yeah, there's certainly I've just looked at the kind of small scale where I tend to not have huge sample sizes and not do things across a kind of global context, it's much more local.

Narrator: Emily's PhD looked at the girls night out. She spoke to groups of women in Newcastle where she was living and studying at the time.

Emily Nicholls: I wanted to kind of understand how we kind of embody our gender and our femininity through these girls nights out. So I recruited 26 young women who were living in Newcastle and went on girls nights out. And I kind of ask them what a girls night out means, but they all had the same definition, you know, the idea that it's about you going out with your female friends, partners aren't invited. It's kind of about the core friendship group, it's not about going out and mingling and this kind of getting ready or pre-drinking or getting ready around someone's house is a really important aspect of the night. In fact, some of them said the getting ready and the drinking and the glamming yourself up at home is really important. And they're going out is almost like the afterthought because you've made that much effort you might as well. So I interviewed women from a kind of range of backgrounds all between the ages of 18 and 25. So I was interested in kind of young women in particular, but a range of women. So I was doing my PhD in Newcastle, so I spoke to local Geordie women about how they kind of embody or do their femininity on a night out and then students from a range of different backgrounds as well. And I kind of got them to tell me a story, if you like, of the traditional girls night out for them and what it looks like. And then we focussed on more in-depth questions around three different areas. So around drinking, around dress and appearance, and around risk management. And then through that, I kind of got at ideas about femininity and kind of appropriate and inappropriate femininity in those contexts.

Narrator: When she began to look more deeply at these themes, Emily found that whilst there were norms to fit in with when drinking in this context, some women were also liberated by the role.

Emily Nicholls: I think there was a certain degree of policing from female friends. So some of my participants would say, I'll come down in a pair of jeans and I'll get pointed right back up the stairs by my mates to get changed into or, you know, I'll get forced into a dress in the pair of heels, for example. So there was a certain amount of policing by mates. There was also a certain level of more subtle policing, often by other women on a night out itself. So looking someone up and down, whispering in the toilets, for example. So a lot of my Geordie participants who did like to get a bit more glammed up and dressed up for a night out would talk about other women kind of giving the snide look in the toilets or, you know, whispering about them. And they and they knew that women were commenting on their overdone, as they called it, appearance and dress. So a lot of it, I think, interestingly, came from policing by other women.

Emily Nicholls: Yeah, and I guess a lot of sociologists that have written about the night out, have written about this kind of pleasure danger dichotomy. Where that's part of the thrill and the pleasure of the night out, right. It's this kind of in-between kind of space away from the drudgery of every day 9 to 5, it's about letting one's hair down. And, you know, for loads of my participants, that was hugely important and actually having time just with their girlfriends was really important. That might be the only way they got to hang out with their female friends. So, you know, not to belittle that kind of night out in any way and actually that kind of sense of the thrill or the unpredictability or the letting one's hair down, the release from the kind of mundane everyday life is really important but came with those risks as you talk about that idea that it was the kind of pleasures and dangers kind of mixed into one at the same time. I think the whole point of femininity is that it's full of contradictions and it's really difficult to embody.

Narrator: Compounding these hidden codes of behaviour, Emily also noticed how the marketing and language around specific kinds of alcohol played into cultural mores.

Emily Nicholls: The people often want to talk about from the PhD work was around the kind of gendering of drinks as well and how, and often I talk to my students about this, they're like, no, we're students we just drink whatever's cheap. So maybe it's because this was a few years ago, or maybe it's because they're students so kind of eliminate some of those issues around gender, but certainly for my participants, particularly the working class Geordie women, there was a real sense that beer is still a manly, masculine drink and you wouldn't go and have a pint of beer. And they talked about, you know, the glass of wine. And actually, it wasn't always necessary that they even liked the wine that much, they liked the way it felt, they liked holding the glass, they liked the elegance one of them said that came with drinking wine and cocktails as well. So and a couple of my participants said, you know, I'd rather actually have a cider. But when I go on the girls night out, I feel like I have to change what I'm drinking...

John Worsey: Right.

Emily Nicholls: ...To fit in with the girly groups. So if they're getting a bottle of wine, I can't push them away by saying, oh, I'm going to get a pint of Becks or whatever.

Narrator: There were also themes of danger, threat and personal responsibility that came to the fore. How much personal power can be found in exercising decisions in riskier scenarios?

Emily Nicholls: The participants talked a lot about managing their drinking and they kind of taken a ball, this kind of narrative about taking responsibility and again, then this idea of getting drunk but not too drunk because you still need to be a responsible drinker. So for women, female respectability is bound up with kind of risk management, not taking risks. You know, we think of masculinity, we think of the kind of hero, risk-taking stereotypes. But for femininity, it's about being risk-averse. So they definitely talked about drinking enough to be kind of fun and sociable and one of the girls, but not drinking so much that you'd put yourself at risk. And they also talked about harassment from men. So another thing to say about the girls night out, it's about mainstream spaces in the night time economy, as we call it, so bars and clubs. So it's not about going on the gay scene, for example. It's about getting to those, kind of, those bars and clubs where that kind of heterosexual, slightly aggressive pattern of dating or seducing someone is kind of normalised. So, again, aspect around dress came in here. So they talked about wanting to look sexy, but not too sexy because you don't want to give someone the green light.

John Worsey: Yep.

Emily Nicholls: So one of them said, you know, so again, it's that fine line. You've got to manage appearance where you want to be noticed, you want to be visible, that's part of the girls night out. But you don't want to be too visible that you are seen to put your make yourself vulnerable to unwanted sexual attention. So what was really interesting through all of that was that, you know, kind of putting responsibility on the self rather than having a wider conversation about, you know, why are we experiencing sexual harassment in these venues? Why aren't we speaking to perpetrators, for example? So they kind of really internalise that into individual responsibility narrative.

Narrator: Toeing this line between ideas of being in control and out of control seems to offer a means of experimenting with the fluidity of what it means to be feminine. This was something that Emily picked up on when she chose a name for her thesis.

Emily Nicholls: So I think I called my thesis something like 'running the tight rope', which was a quote from one of my participants. So this idea that you need to, with dress and appearance, for example, make a certain amount of effort to look girly, to dress in the right kind of way, but that it's very much possible to do too much and be labelled kind of too much of a girl. So there was this real balancing act and the same with drinking as well. You want it to be kind of fun and tipsy and girly, but you could be too much or too excessive. So there was this weird ambivalence around, kind of, wanting to be girly to a certain extent, but not crossing that line into being too girly. And that was shaped as well by class in some interesting ways.

Narrator: These findings were just the beginning of Emily's study into our cultural relationship with alcohol.

Emily Nicholls: So the dress and appearance stuff is really interesting. But if we're talking about alcohol and sobriety, I think there's some really interesting implications there for thinking about the stories that we tell about alcohol more widely, for thinking about policy and thinking about, you know, how, for example, would we have a conversation with young people about moderate drinking, for example? We can't do that without knowing this huge cultural backdrop where alcohol is a really important part of their lives.

Narrator: When Emily came to Portsmouth, she began to work with a research organisation called 'I Change 21', gathering data by working with women who were looking to change their relationship with alcohol.

Emily Nicholls: Was about interviewing women who are relatively, recently sober, and kind of understanding the journey that they've been on. So the interviews talked about the sober partner, the drinking past, so their history of drinking, their relationship with alcohol, the process building up to stopping the sober present. The kind of authenticity thing is a huge theme, that idea around agency, so around not having kind of control, but then sobriety representing a return to control came through as a really strong theme as well.

Narrator: The project was called Sobriety Stories, and this time looked at another side of the alcohol gender relationship. Emily spoke to women from a range of backgrounds and ages.

Emily Nicholls: One of the things I'm looking at at the moment is around the kind of ways that women use these ideas around authenticity to talk about their sobriety. So they frame the kind of drinking self as this kind of person who wasn't really them, not the true selves. So a lot of them use language like, a mask or it's hiding the true self or, you know, one of them said, I lost myself in that bottle. So they talked about alcohol kind of smothering or covering up who they really were. What this allowed them to do then is to talk about sobriety as this kind of revealing of the real self. You know, this kind of one of them even use that language, you know, I'm authentic, I'm real, for example. So it's really interesting because we often think about, you know, we think about dry January, for example, we think about New Year, new you. This kind of new sober you that's going to come out for a month. But for my participants, it was not about a new year, it was kind of this return to the real you that had been there all along but was being covered up by the alcohol. So lots of interesting stuff going on around authenticity and around identity and how the kind of this like I say, return to the true self.

John Worsey: Yes.

Emily Nicholls: Which I think as well, in today's kind of society, there's a lot of pressure to kind of present ourselves as who we really are and as these kind of, you know, productive, successful, entrepreneurial individuals who are responsible for our life choices and who live these kind of successful lives. So they were kind of building on that to say, you know, the real me, back to who I always was and to talk about agency as well and say, you know, when I was drinking, I was kind of powerless, ineffectual, I didn't really make changes in my life. But now in sobriety on this kind of good moral person, I'm this productive, sober citizen. So we're kind of drawing on these narratives that we see more widely in society as a way to talk about sobriety. And I think through that a way to try and avoid stigma as well, because we know that actually if you say you don't drink, there's a potential for stigma and judgement there. So they were trying to pre-empt that by talking about the kind of positive changes that come with sobriety.

Narrator: Noticing the way sobriety was talked about and communicated in social media, intrigued Emily. She wanted to know how women were making this a lifestyle choice and the feelings that were driving it.

Emily Nicholls: I kind of wanted to move away from that idea of the kind of addiction recovery narrative. You know, if we, the kind of there has to be links between sobriety and alcoholism, that that alcoholism is this is a disease and some people just have to stop drinking for medical reasons. So I wanted to sort of capture what I think at the moment is this kind of movement that we're seeing more widely in society where sobriety is being seen as a more positive lifestyle choice. Right. So we've got Dry January, we've got Club Soda or big movement in the UK called the Mindful Drinking Movement, and they're all about getting everyday folk to rethink their relationships with alcohol. And there's a huge movements on social media, so blogs, Instagram accounts, often led by women, which is partly why I was interested in speaking to women around celebrating sobriety about it being this positive desire life choice. There's a hashtag trending on Instagram called 'we are the luckiest', which is often used by sober women to kind of tweet on Instagram, you know, look at this beautiful sunset or this picture of my kids. You know, it's all about kind of celebrating sobriety. So as a woman who got sober myself and also did not identify in any way with the kind of alcoholism addiction recovery narrative, I particularly want to speak to other women who didn't identify with that. So I recruited my participants from a Facebook group, largely for women who don't drink. And one of the kind of requirements, if you like, was that they hadn't been through kind of rehab or full treatment. That was partly also because ethically, I do not have the training or the ability to support people who might need that. So part of my criteria was not been through formal treatment or rehab, could identify at least one positive thing about sobriety and had been sober for at least six months and felt fairly confident in their sobriety. So a couple of my participants did identify as alcoholics, but always kind of tends to be like they were very aware of the stigma of that. But I'd say 80% of them would sort of maybe flirt around problem drinker and say, mm, maybe, but they often preferred to say, no, I'm alcohol free. You know, that was that was the narrative, it was about being free of drinking and alcohol. It was not about saying I had a problem or an issue or life threatening health condition.

Emily Nicholls: Some really interesting stuff around disclosure as well. So how do you manage that kind of the way that you talk to or tell other people about your sobriety?

John Worsey: Right.

Emily Nicholls: So that was quite a prominent theme. And that links to, again, that idea around their being kind of stigma and judgement. So how do you kind of practically manage the way that you talk about your sobriety in real world situations? And then they talked a lot about the kind of strategies that they use in sobriety, as well. The advice that they'd give to other women in this situation. And then, like I said, looking towards the future what held as well.

Narrator: But underlying the empowering personal narratives around sobriety, are ideas and cultural concepts that Emily thinks women are reacting to.

Emily Nicholls: We know that women's problem drinking is seen as doubly-deviant in a way, right. So we know that historically excessive drinking was seen as unfeminine. And today, women who do identify as having a problem or want to access support services, have a gendered experience different to that of men. We also know like I alluded to, but this kind of positive sobriety movement is massively spearheaded by women. So a lot of that stuff on Instagram around the kind of 'we are the luckiest' hashtag, a lot of the stuff and kind of social media support communities is led by women. And we know from other research that women access those online communities much more than men do and tend to make a much smaller demographic of people going to Alcoholics Anonymous, for example. So that's another reason.

Emily Nicholls: Some of the participants were kind of, used that as a way to disengage or distance themselves from this drinking self who they didn't like. And that was often very gendered. So the drinking self that they might say she was a slut – their words not mine – for example, or they might say, you know, she kind of went out and got loads of different men or cheated on her partner, for example. So participants used this way of talking about sobriety to distance themselves from these kind of unfeminine ways of behaving. So motherhood was really important as well. So some of them talked about being a much better mom in sobriety or being a bad mother when they were drinking. And I think the shame that some of them felt around their drinking is gendered. You know, the idea of being a bad mum, being a bad girlfriend, being a bad daughter, for example. So I'm not saying if you talk to men, you wouldn't get some interesting overlaps around the authenticity, but I think that there was definitely gender always under the surface there in terms of how they talked about the drinking self and then how they talked about the sober self. You know, a lot that would draw on these kind of domesticity narratives almost. You know, I'm house proud, I've learnt how to cook now, I'm a much better mum, I'm a much better friend, I'm loving and caring. So I think even if they wouldn't explicitly have identified in the interviews, I think gender was always there shaping the way they talked about drinking and the way they thought about sobriety. There were so many kind of tensions and contradictions in how they talked about motherhood and alcohol.

Narrator: Emily explained how she hopes research like hers can inform wider conversations around alcohol in our culture and also in how policy is made. Whether or not drinking is a problem for the individual, Emily thinks that awareness of our relationship to alcohol can reduce the risks that can be associated. And what's more, by challenging unhelpful ideas and removing stigma through conversation, she hopes we can develop a more empowering attitude to alcohol consumption from a gender perspective too.

Emily Nicholls: One of the huge things about the Sobriety Stories project is, and I'm not you know, I don't want to be too ambitious about what a piece of research can achieve, but I think it's about changing the dialogue, changing the dominant narrative around sobriety and what it looks like. So it's about moving away from that addiction recovery kind of limiting box, if you like, that like non-drinkers like me might feel, well, I don't fit into that space. That, that kind of narrative of AA or recovery or addiction doesn't tell my story. So I think one of the things I wanted to do with Sobriety Stories is kind of start to create that space for wider conversations, which I think is happening in movements like Club Soda, in social media. But it's about as researchers also tapping into that and kind of making spaces for those different kinds of stories that do have positive kind of aspects and that do, you know, celebrate sobriety. And loads of my participants talked about, you know, the mental and physical benefits that they felt from stopping drinking, the relationship improvements, the relationship with themselves and how that had improved in sobriety. So I think for me, it's just about like telling different stories and about making spaces to do that. And I guess on a wider level as well, the more we can understand about people that stop drinking, you know, that can teach us things about how we can kind of on a more kind of health population level, think about changing drinking habits more widely.

Narrator: Thanks to Emily for talking us through some of her research. Her book, Negotiating Femininities in the Neoliberal Night-Time Economy - Too much of a girl? Is out now.

Narrator: Next time on Life Solved.

John Williams: People switch off with water. It's something people have switched off and they have a disconnect. So it's quite interesting. In lower-income countries, people have a much greater connection with the environment because they're in contact with it more. And using resources more directly. Whereas in the UK, there's this barrier.

Narrator: Find out more next time. And if you have a curious mind and can't wait for the next episode, our new magazine, Solve, follows University of Portsmouth research when it's put into practice. It's full of news and stories on our world-leading advances and the changes these are making to lives and futures across the world. Get it at port.ac.uk/solve. Let us know what you think via social media using a hashtag life solved. Or maybe just share the big idea with a friend. Thanks for listening.

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