Pop Culture

People on Television Should Probably Be Drinking Less

Skipping high school classes to drink is the sort of thing CPS should get called for
Skipping high school classes to drink is the sort of thing CPS should get called for Screengrab from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Blackwood

I used to think it was just mommy wine culture that had gotten out of hand. You can’t even go into a Hallmark or pet store without seeing hyper-marketed allegiance to wine as the ultimate expression of suburban bliss, something I think Amy Schumer parodied perfectly. In her skit, “Football Town Lights,” she serves as the support system of a high school coach, all the while drinking chardonnay from an increasingly massive glass that is eventually as tall as her. The joke is subtle because it happens in the background. It’s an extreme form of normal.

You can laugh it off because, of course, most people who drink regularly only have a “few” at the end of a hard day. Personally, I can remember the ridiculous lengths I went to in order to convince myself I had only had one glass of wine. Did you know the grocery store sells wine glasses that will hold an entire bottle? I do.

There is serious question about how much we drink, even those who may not have a clinical diagnosis of substance use disorder. The Centers for Disease Control have found that alcohol-related deaths have gone up significantly since 2006. In 2014 alone, 31,000 people died from alcohol-related diseases. That’s not even accounting for drunk driving or the fact that half of all homicides involve booze. If you do so the number spikes to 88,000, or more than annual deaths from opioids, which is considered a major health crisis.

I truly believe that part of the reason is because media goes to great lengths to make drinking something everyone does, and maybe there should be a concerted effort to curtail that if we want to have fewer dead people.

Once upon a time, there was some progress. Alcohol use in movies and video games is now clearly marked in ratings and considered by the various boards when assigning those ratings. We are more careful about letting kids see alcohol consumption, and that’s good.

I’d argue it’s not enough, though. Take The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which just debuted a new season on Netflix. It’s up for a Kids Choice Award this year. It’s also a show where teenage drinking is accepted and encouraged. Sabrina’s aunt Zelda says absolutely nothing about the teenage witch drinking absinthe in the afternoon on a school day except that it makes her doubt whether she really saw a ghost. Zelda just accepts that her niece was probably drunk in a bar endorsed by her school officials, and no one mentions how messed up that is. Sabrina, otherwise the show’s moral center, certainly treats it as no big deal.

Most shows treat drinking as normal and desirable because of its ability to be used as a prop for a scene. Drinking is a big part of The Good Place, of Game of Thrones, of GLOW, of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and so on. YouTubers get in on it, too. Natalie Wyn (Contra Points) and Davis Aurini may be on exact opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they both drink in their videos. And, they do it for the same reason, too: so they can appear cultured and libertine. Even as a punch line, it becomes an intrinsic part of an interesting character.

After I got sober I started listening to Houston performer Kiki Maroon’s podcast Clown Interrupted, and so should you because a stripping clown and first-rate comedian does a very deep dive into what it’s like to swear off drinking in a world full of artistic personalities known for excess. In burlesque especially, the image of a glamorous person with a glass of something strong in their hands is the height of refined decadence, but Maroon has learned to get past that for the sake of her health and future. She realized that alcohol was not actually necessary for a good time, even in places where debauchery is part of the brand.

Drinking doesn’t have to be a lazy go-to for socialization in media, and with deaths from alcohol on the rise maybe it shouldn’t be. The ratings are a good step in keeping alcohol use off the screen for kids, but adults see these acts as well and internalize their normalcy.

My suggestion is very simple: a tax break for productions that have no alcohol appear on screen in any form. If no one drinks, or has wine bottles casually placed in a kitchen, or goes to a bar, then productions receive a federal tax cut of $1 million or ten percent of production costs, whichever is lower.

It’s not censorship. It’s a very simple incentive for movies and television shows to try harder. Expanding it to YouTubers over a certain subscriber count would reach an even further audience. There’s no particular reason for most of the drinking we see on the screen. It’s just something that ends up there because all normalcy is self-perpetuating unless consciously stopped.

How much of an impact would it have on drinking? I don’t know. For comparison, the disappearances of cigarettes from a lot of mainstream movies coincides with a drop in smoking, and now that smoking is on the rise in cinema again the CDC is concerned more people will also return to the habit. The link between media depictions and societal acceptance is well-established among social scientists. What we put on the screen us always factored into what we consider acceptable behavior.

Whether a legislative solution is ever attempted, I wish media producers would be more conscious of what they’re putting on the screen. Drinking is fun… until it’s not. Making it easier for people to lie to themselves about it is only digging more graves. And after all, if your characters can’t through an episode without alcohol, isn’t that kind of a sign of a problem?
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner