Sexism, Beer and the Growing Pains of Social Change
Tuesday was one of those days of convergence when the universe seemed to be telling us something. In Baltimore, anger bubbled over from protest to riot following the death of yet another black man at the hands of police. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court listened to a case that could potentially legalize gay marriage across the U.S. For those of us who take solace in frivolities like beer, there was no relief: Anheuser-Busch (AB) dominated the news with an incredibly boneheaded new slogan slapped on Bud Light bottles (AB released bottles with this tagline, not realizing the inadvertent pro-rape sentiment it endorsed, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”).
All of these incidents have something in common—they represent the friction that inevitably happens during social change. The disruption comes when the status quo is exposed for what it is. For decades, black Americans have been harassed by city police, but until the ubiquity of cell phones exposed it to white America, the status quo could carry on. In much the same way, for—well, forever—gays and lesbians were forced to live under a different set of rules than straight Americans. Until it began to dawn on us that our friends and relatives were gay, straight Americans never stopped to consider their plight (as recently as 1986, Supreme Court justices could claim with apparent sincerity that they’d never encountered a gay person).
It is a much, much smaller deal, but the beer world is confronting something similar as it makes the transition from a mid-century bro culture to something approaching equity. And while it may be a smaller fight, it nevertheless mirrors the contours of other social changes. Under the status quo, there is a group with control, a group that suffers and a group that passively acquiesces. The group that controls the status quo always fights very hard to keep it in place. We see this most clearly in the fight over gay rights. A fairly large group now support gay marriage, but a minority still bitterly oppose it with increasingly unpopular, ugly arguments.
The beer world was for a long time the refuge of active sexism, a place where men could be free from women. To the extent women were allowed into the world, it was via bikini, as accoutrements to men’s pleasure. Craft beer has been a great antidote to bro culture (with occasional notable exceptions) and men have discovered that drinking beer with women has its own pleasures. It’s that passive middle that makes social change possible. Most men, like that Supreme Court justice, weren’t really aware of the effect the bro culture had in alienating women. Once exposed, most of them have been willing to see the situation through women’s eyes and see how inhospitable that world must have seemed.
Still, there are the holdouts. After I posted news about the Bud Light debacle, I got this comment:
“Quelle surprise! The feminist internet outrage machine is at it again, fighting patriarchy one irrelevant ad campaign at a time. Good work, ladies and gynomales, you’ve really shown those bud-swilling bros this time.”
This kind of comment is always shocking to me because I forget that there are those who oppose the changes. The Bud Light tagline is so instructive because it stands as a perfect example of that passive cluelessness. I don’t doubt for a second that Bud completely missed the rape intimation it contained (no business would ever knowingly do something so stupid). But that’s just the point: No one who looked at this ad could see it through the eyes of half the country. When we fail to see situations through the eyes of others, we enable behavior we might otherwise strongly condemn.
Making the beer world a nonsexist place is not exactly like King marching on Selma, but it’s something many of us care about. It’s important for us—particularly us men—to acknowledge sexism when we see it and voice our displeasure. We become complicit in something dark, something we could help change, when we don’t speak up.