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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

April 24, 2012



Widdecombe, Bench Girl and the fear of the hoyden

Apart, perhaps, from her something-of-the-night speech, which raised a brief chuckle, Ann Widdecombe, former MP and fulltime virgin, has never appealed to me. Even her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing left me unmoved. And a little bit sick. So despite the subject matter I didn’t tune into Radio 5 Live the other night for Drunk Again: Ann Widdecombe Investigates

It sounds like the last thing we need, to be honest. I was intrigued, though, by one aspect that came through in the PR build-up to the programme – Widdecombe’s special interest in the drinking habits of ‘young professional women’.

Why women? You could also ask why professional. Or why young, for that matter. But women will do for now. Because women have had a special place in the ideology and iconography of temperance for a long time.

These days it’s summed up, to a large degree, in the image of Bench Girl. Here she is, illustrating the Daily Mail’s take on the Widdecombe story.

Bench Girl is remarkable not just for her ubiquity across the national media – she pops up online in just about any kind of negative story relating to alcohol, it doesn’t have to be about women drinking – but for her carefully styled and sexualised pose, draped so elegantly, so vulnerably on that bench in her little black dress. There’s enough going on there to keep a feminist semiotician in discourses for yonks.

But Bench Girl does not, strictly speaking, exist. She is, most probably, a model. James Nicholls recognises the picture as one of a set taken in Bath in 2005, the year the all-day drinking media scare broke.

She has her forerunners. At last month’s excellent British Sociological Association Alcohol Study Group conference Rachel MacLean of Anglia Ruskin University followed Nicholls’ introduction of Bench Girl with Stretcher Woman, flattened by excess gin and captured in a mid-19th century temperance etching.

And before that there was the central figure in Hogarth’s Gin Lane, wittily deconstructed by Gina Barreca in a recent interview with the Alcohol & Drugs History Society.

The editor of a collection of essays by women on, and in, drink, (which I must read) Barreca aims to celebrate women’s drinking, to de-stigmatise it. Or, as MacLean put it in her talk, to remove the shame – not, for women, the shame of being drunk, but of being visibly drunk, what she calls, nicely, a “regulatory ghost”.

The shame, the stigma, is a big deal. We know that it prevents illicit drug-users from seeking help with a problem, and that goes for drinkers too.

Yet it seems as though women, in particular, need to be shamed by Widdecombe’s attention and by the endless tittilating pictures in the media of girls having a night out and showing their pants.

That this has been going on for centuries (think of Hogarth’s woman flashing her breasts) suggests a deep-rooted fear. A fear for motherhood and the family, the structures that are supposed to underpin morality, and also I think a fear of the drunken woman, the disorderly hoyden in our midst.

She may be represented as vulnerable but what’s reflected there is the social order’s own vulnerability.

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