It's hard to be a feminist when you're drunk. It's not that drinking isn't ladylike or that women shouldn't drink at all; my point is neither meant to be puritanical nor draconian. But how true to your own ideals, principles, and sense of self can you be if one is drowning that sense of self in booze?Whenever a woman hands her power to someone else--in this case, something else, alcohol--she is less than. "[A] woman exerting her power by making herself, to one degree or another, incapacitated," as a New York article by Alex Morris about young women and alcohol put it, is a disjunction, even if the women Morris interviewed did not want it to be so. And, once to the point of addiction, a woman is a slave to the bottle; what kind of feminist is a slave?
Still, in a pop landscape that turns drunk women into comedic icons, it’s easy to see why bingeing might at least appear empowering. Every swilled cosmopolitan on “Sex in the City” is fetishized; indeed, the pink martini has become a kind of symbol of female liberation. (Never mind that actress Kristin Davis, who plays Charlotte, is an alcoholic who has been sober 18 years.) Meanwhile, every booze-soaked character actress on television, from Karen on "Will & Grace" to the ladies of "Ab Fab," makes alcoholism seem downright fun--if anti-intellectual. The gals on “How I Met Your Mother” are constantly drinking beer but are rarely shown drunk--unlike the Woo Girls of a recent episode (so named for their penchant to scream, “Wooo!” every time a drink is poured or a great song comes on). Comics Cheslea Handler and Amy Sedaris have best-selling books that celebrate their inebriation: Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea and I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. But for every genuine laugh (these women are funny), there’s a more insidious message: Getting wasted is part of being a cool, fun chick. The good-time-Sallies of recent pop history may be hilarious caricatures, but they aren't strong women. And the real-life versions are far less funny.
A year and a half ago, the U.S. seemed to reach the apotheosis of a pop culture "celebutante"/"prosti-tot" mania; even Newsweek, in a slimy play for sales, featured a boozy Britney Spears and Paris Hilton on its cover. The sloshed reality wasn't an arch wit swilling a Manhattan and spewing one-liners: It looked like Paris Hilton, who headed off to jail after too many DWIs; like a rail-thin Nicole Richie, tottering under the weight of her Starbucks cup, and piling up arrests; and like Lindsay Lohan, who made two trips to "rehab" in as many months. It was around that time when I first heard the song "Stupid Girls," by the pop star Pink. The video lampooned the heavily accessorized waifs, the surgically enhanced bombshells, and the hyper-sexualized behavior of both. The lyrics asked, "What happened to the dream of a girl president? She's dancing in the video next to 50 Cent. ... Oh where, oh where have the smart people gone?"
This fall, Pink released her fifth album, Funhouse, in which she turns her wicked eye on herself. The comedic sensibility of "Stupid Girls" is reprised in the video for "So What," Pink's tongue-in-cheek look at her own divorce ("So what? I'm still a rock star!"). But the most significant track on Funhouse is the moving ballad "Sober," about the singer's struggle to define herself. Pink's video artfully juxtaposes the person she is when inebriated and the person she really is, capturing the drunk's double identity. The first bars of "Sober" will be familiar to any present or former party girl:
"I don't want to be the girl that laughs the loudest
Or the girl who never wants to be alone
I don't want to be that girl at 4 o'clock in the morning
Cause I'm the only one you know in the world that won't be home"
Pink's video portrays the hackneyed moments of any drunken evening: inexplicable laughter, drunk dialing, stumbling into the room, listing over the toilet bowl ("When it's good, then it's good, it's so good, til it goes bad"). But the song's true subject is more substantial. It's about her struggle to know her sober self, and to resist the siren song of evening: "Night is calling. It whispers to me softly, 'Come and play.'" Scared of the silence left in the absence of a party, but just as scared of staying up until dawn yet again, Pink is left tortured by these halves of herself. Finally, a special effects-aided Pink is seen throwing another Pink onto a bed and kissing her, twin alter-egos with an intense desire for what the other represents: free and fun Pink; smart and savvy Pink.
It is a vivid depiction of what happens when an addict has to mourn the person alcohol made her. "I'm looking for myself sober," Pink belts outs in the chorus. What else can she do? The drunk party-girl in the video is out of control, lost within the party, half-dressed, confused, sick, passed out. It turns out being a party girl isn’t all cosmos and snarky asides. Remarkably, Pink is perhaps the only pop-culture figure today who is actually struggling with the question of what it means to drink to excess and still be a powerful woman. Recognizing the impotency that comes with too much alcohol doesn’t make Pink no fun; it makes her smart. And in the current climate, it makes her brave, too.
Sacha Zimmerman is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.
By Sacha Zimmerman