Thursday, August 27, 2009

Normalization of maleness and whiteness in beer packaging [Tasty Thursday]

I love beer. I also love wine and liquor, but beer’s what I come back to. Beer is plain ol’ delicious: every brand has a distinct flavor and it goes well with food or alone. It’s just intoxicating enough: if I don’t feel like getting wasted, one or two will do me, but steady drinking will get the job done fine if I’m in a partying mood.

My fella and I get tired of the same old, same old beer selection at our local Kroger, so when we travel out of state, we often pick up a lot of regional beers – up to 12 six packs when we have the cash! The beer boxes are my second favorite part of buying the beer after drinking it. Beer packaging is colorful and diverse, and often beautiful*:

The boxes serve as a runner around our walls. They’re a fascinating and unique decorative element of which I’m quite proud and which get a lot of comments from our friends. It’s a good record of our travels and our life together. They are not meant and usually are not read as endorsements of every beer we drink, but are in the context of over a hundred other examples of packaging. Pedestrian PBR is next to regional Yuengling, and obscure Backfin is next to a sampler pack. Every box that we (or occasionally a friend who works at a beer store) consume goes up on our wall, regardless of aesthetic or political merit: they are meant to provoke critique and examination of the relative merits and values in different packages of different beer.

This is why I continue to hang even packaging that is distasteful to me politically: with dozens of other examples of beautiful and ugly beer packaging to compare with, the viewer should examine what appeals to them and why. Decoration is not necessarily without critique; I also hang a Britney Spears posters, maps of Kansas and Virginia, and memorabilia from my alma mater, but it's not an unqualified recommendation of any of those institution. What's on my walls reflects my history: where I went to school, the concerts I went to, where I was born and where I live, what I drank. I lead a life that's not above questioning and which is not averse to critique. Taking down objectionable ads would be erasing my own questionable consumption.

Since I’m surrounded by the boxes all day, I begin to pick up on elements of their design. Namely, that males and whiteness are constantly normalized within the design of the boxes**:

Excepting the daguerreotype-esque Southern Ale, all of the men above are shown enjoying the beer, usually while engaging in their daily duties or in making the beer. The cottonwood man is not actively engaged, but he is holding the wheat that will make the beer, thus conferring involvement in the beer on him. The Highlands man is somewhat othered by the bagpipes, and I’m not sure how the man in the Rogue ale is constructed, but both are drinking and enjoying the beer they’re intended to represent. They are active and involved – not passive, not just drinking the beer, not just there. They are constructed as dynamic and effectual as they drink the beer. And they are all white: men of color are erased in beer packaging as far as I've seen.

Now, let’s look at the women that show up on the wall:

Women love to drink. Women love beer. But you would never know it from their scarce representation in beer packaging.

In the beer packages I’ve got up, women are not engaged in the act of drinking the beer that they represent. In fact, they’re not engaged in anything. Except opening their mouths, or, um, being on fire. They’re…objects. More specifically, sexual objects that have in most cases been disembodied. They’re floating heads, with their mouths open.

It gets worse when you look at how, specifically, the women of color are constructed. Look at the "Bad Penny" packaging above, and this one that I recently saw at a music festival:

The black women are constructed as reductive, exotic others, black women whose sexuality exists for the inebriated male gaze. It is not a coincidence that both have afros. Natural hair beautiful and laudatory, but there is only one kind of natural hair here: the style that is often problematized as dangerous and exotic, as another element that makes them an exotic experience for the male drinker.

Their sexuality is especially lacking in agency: the naked woman in the sexual chocolate ads is literally presented as an offering to the male gaze. She’s not engaged with the viewer by drinking, or by making eye contact. She is passive, and coded as naked: she is wearing a tube top, but it’s obscured by lettering of the same color as the top. A cartoon figure, she is not active; she is just there, waiting to be debased.

The “Bad Penny” character is making eye contact, but her eyes are heavily lidded, unlike the white women above. I took the “bad” in the name of the beer to be capitalization on blaxploitation by an alcohol company that aligns itself with kyriarchical forces: it’s the “Big Boss”. If the producer of this beer is the boss, where does that leave the women who hawk it?

Speaking of othering, let’s look at another one I found online:

Note again the heavily lidded eyes, the more explicit nudity. Though she is at least shown to be holding liquid, she’s not drinking it or enjoying it; she’s pandering to the male gaze with an oh-so-subtle finger in her mouth.

This is supposed to construct Aztec culture (which I am not well-versed in discussing). Please note the feathers, the background, and the jewelry as elements of othering and exoticization that I can’t fully articulate. Also not that this is not in a stein, as with most males shown with beer, but in some kind of “primitive”-looking stone goblet.

Women in the marketing of beer is a grim, grim field. Beer is a man’s drink, and women are excluded from independent enjoyment of it. They are not the drinkers of beer; they’re the sex that sells the beer, the static objects of intoxicated lust.

To end on a less grim note, I did come across one ad that struck me as positive:

This woman is not being objectified, or reduced to an othered sexual object. She is normalized by her whiteness, but also by her active enjoyment of beer. She’s drinking, which is what women do with beer.

ETA: meloukhia pointed out this label, which I'd seen before:

While the legs are somewhat sexual, and her eyes are closed, this woman is engaged and active - she is enjoying the beer, and life. Check out the comments for more beer packaging and discussion.

*It should be noted that while I appreciate the aesthetics of this example of packaging, this is an example of how voodoo is problematized and othered – especially when paired with a loaded word like “Dixie”.
**Many, though not all, of these packages repeat the imagery shown here in packaging of other varieties of beer.


  1. There's a whole lot to say about this post, which I will get to later, but I wanted to offer up another great beer label with a woman on it; North Coast Brewery's Acme Pale Ale has a pretty excellent (and physics-defying) label. Given that they brew a block away from my house, I see that label pretty much every day in their window on my walk downtown.

  2. Great post. I love it when popular culture gets deconstructed and analyzed like this; it's always interesting to see the oddly disembodied mass/dominant consciousness exposed and critiqued for content and context. Nice job. And with beer, too. ;) I've noticed that about beer packaging before--one highly sexualized/objectified use of the female image that comes to mind is St. Pauli's Girl (see )--but have never articulated it.

  3. Something else women do with beer: brew it. Yet, I can't think of a single beer depicting a woman brewer on the label, although there are plenty of male brewers adorning beer labels, and working female brewers in various corners of the world.

    This is especially interesting since food is often marketed with a motherly-looking woman on the label engaging in food preparation, and because women were the brewers historically; beer and bread are closely related and were very much female responsibilities until fairly recently.

  4. Yes, the Rogue brewing company does tend to stick to men on their labels... I think the guy most commonly on the label is actually the brewmaster. I did find these:
    I don't think it's just beer that's dominated by manly men. I notice on a lot of hot sauce bottles they enjoy reinforcing the masculinity of the person using the product... I think it's funny, like they're trying to remind me that i'm so manly to like spicy food or beer.

  5. Anon, I actually praised Rogue for putting a woman who was not sexualized on their advertising. Thanks for the further evidence that they do not erase women and treat them with respect in their advertising (though I'll note that all figures are white).

    Constructing things as manly is limiting and sexist. There is no one way to be a man, or a woman. My whole point is that beer (and spicy food) are not inherently manly or white - women and people of color love them and make them too. Normalizing their products as masculine is limiting and erasing of the people who enjoy and make beer.

  6. OH PS - Leftunder, thanks so much for the contribution! That is exactly the point I'm trying to make. :)

  7. Have you seen St. Pauli Girl packaging? The logo is a white woman with large breasts in German barmaid clothes serving beer:
    It could offer some good analysis. She's not involved in the making of the beer or enjoying it herself, she's just serving it...probably to men.

    But then we also get to this St. Pauli Girl ad:
    Where to woman actually is the beer to be consumed.

    Beer is "supposed" to be the manly drink, you want to be the guys making or enjoying the beer on the box. Women aren't supposed to like beer...Based on my experiences growing up, I have definitely come to associate beer with men and wine with women, even though I know several people who disprove that stereotype, including myself (I do like both, though). It's just something that I has stuck with me through societal programming and personal experiences.

  8. Aside from the fact that they make tasty brews, I always thought the Rogue beers with women on them were especially nice (in that they're such a refreshing departure from the typical gendered marketing tactics, though as has been pointed out, Rogue capitulates to the same racial norms). I don't think I've hardly ever seen a brewery use non-white racialized imagery in any way that was anything other than exoticizing/fetishistic. For what it's worth, Sugar Hill brewing invokes the legacy of the neighborhood in their marketing, though interestingly I don't think any of their products have images of people (black or otherwise) on them -- but they do have a saxophone on their labels, presumably to evoke jazz/Harlem/African American culture in such a way that's meant to both valorize and normalize blackness as a presence in the brewing industry.

  9. Williamsburg Alewerks is actually quite a marvel, considering that VA is not home to many breweries with a strong product line. Their quality may be uneven and their special-run beers overdone but that is really the most glaring of their problems.

    You are picking only a middling selection of beers--where's the misogyny on Bell's Hopslam or Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid (do you find the Pin-Up offensive?) The individual beers I rate as top tier do not, as a rule, distract with any sort of imagery at all. Green Flash's Le Freak needs no such frippery as do the standouts from a dozen other breweries.

  10. AVN, this post is not claiming to present a comprehensive portrait of misogyny in beer packaging.

    To counter your off-topic, derailing accusation that I don't drink good enough beer, I actually have multiple instances of packaging from Lagunitas, Bell's, and Green Flash up on my walls (though not any of the specific beers you mention). The beers above represent a small fraction of the beer packages I have up on my walls - as I mentioned, a couple times.

    I hadn't registered that there was figurative imagery in Bell's packaging, but, looking at the porter, it fits in with my argument: the man in that instance is carrying wheat, involving him in the production of the beer. The other packaging from Bell's is of the sun; while the title of "Oberon" may be problematic, this is more about the imagery than the names given these beers.

  11. My neighborhood brewery makes "The Wise ESB" with a picture of a bad-ass woman on it. Her picture is here:

  12. Thanks for this awesome post. As a Wisconsin resident and avid beer fan, I am all too familiar with this trend. Have you ever seen this one?

    Of course, when I drink it, there is the inevitable comment about how I am a bitter woman, or some other bullshit. Ha fuckin' ha. Not.

  13. This is so awesome. Right on. I've never thought to look at beer packaging! You've identified a troubling trend. Now to look at beer commercials, but I think we know what we can expect since the only beer that makes it on TV are macrobrews that pander to the slobby, undiscerning male masses.

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  15. Just hitched a ride over from Sociological Images. Fantastic post. So informative. Well-written (you don't see "kyriarchal" in its proper context every day, that's for sure). Very eye-opening. I am now paying attention.

  16. the woman on the rogue label is an employee of rogue. you should contact her and let her know she is normalized and you find this triggering.

  17. I was at the Triangle Brewery in Durham last Sat. and a man told my friend who went with me that I looked just like the Bad Penny girl(I have a big afro). I had never heard of the beer or seen the logo. I'm sure he meant nothing by it though.

  18. "She’s drinking, which is what women do with beer."

    Ohhhhh! I thought we were supposed to stand next to it, after having extensive surgery to remove any part of our bodies below the breasts (possibly cutting the foreplay and leaving a disembodied vagina remaining).

    I thought I was supposed to dip my finger into my beer and lick it off ever-so-slowly, while being watched by lustful eyes.

    And, am I allowed to drink beer clothed? Because it looks like I have to strip down quite a bit before I can drink beer.

    But I guess that's not hard to do, seeing as my lower torso has been removed via that extensive surgery.

    :) I thoroughly enjoyed this post, but particularly the last two images you shared---a sign of hope?

  19. Oh nooooo, I think I just lost the entire comment I was working on. Oh well. Feel free to ignore this if the first one went through(if you ever get to it, this post is so old!)

    To summarize:
    Loved this article when I first read it, and upon rereading some of my favorite SI posts, I stumbled across it again.

    I conducted a survey of my own at a local shop, only found one other beer besides the ones you mentioned with a positive portrayal of women on the label. It's from Independence Brewing Co., a local brewery here in Austin, and I am of the opinion that the label is pretty badass. The woman is white, yes, but she's an actual person from Texas history so the decision wasn't arbitrary.

    I also applied the same criteria to wine bottles, and predictably found that they were more likely to feature positive or neutral portrayals of women than beer labels. Also, many wines had women's names. Undoubtedly it's because wine is assumed to be a Lady drink and is therefore marketed towards women.

    I did see one wine which is almost certainly trying to cater to women that really freaked me out:

    Anyway, sorry for the novel, just wanted to thank you for articulating something that's bugged me for years. If you're ever interested in revisiting this theme, let me know. I'd get a kick out of looking for interesting labels with a friend or two. Then I could excuse the resulting excessive beer drinking by saying it's for a good cause!

    Thanks for sharing,


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