A whole new crop of 18-year-olds has started university this week and I imagine most of them have the same insecurities that I had, almost a decade ago. How do you budget, now that your books are the price of a three-course lunch? How do you fend off the creeping dread that you’re only in uni because it’s what is expected of you, not what you want? How do you navigate a house where some things appear to be shared – tea bags, milk – but other things (shampoo, apparently) are not?
These are the problems I remember from my first days of university. If the papers are anything to go by though, freshers have one problem and one problem only: freshers’ week.
The debauchery of the young women photographed partying at freshers’ week is proof, according to the Daily Mail, that drunken behaviour is not “something that the middle classes can look down on. These Freshers’ Week scenes prove that.” This partying, encouraged by “the appalling Russell Brand” and “well-regarded woman journalists”, is apparently a recipe for a future filled with “addiction, depression, infections and infertility”. To be clear, someone actually typed these words and someone else published them. I know. Sometimes even my wildest, nuttiest ideas of what the Daily Mail publishes fall short of the actual reality.
Christmas-party season is filled with similar headlines and a cynical hen-party headline is a great way for the Mail to stir up site traffic during the slow summer months. What is surprising, however, is Dawn French’s role in all of this.
“I am shocked by how they behave,” says French, speaking about the many reality shows depicting lasses on the lash in Ibiza. “These girls are preloading with vodka, primping, helping each other get ready. You reckon they want to meet someone who would love, cherish and respect them. But instead they go out and get utterly hammered and are shagging in a bush and coming out and going ‘Yes!’, like men. Like the men we hoped we wouldn’t ever be like, and certainly not mimic as women — being champions of the shag machine and going home covered in sperm on their legs, and throwing up.”
I’m not really sure that anyone has ever emerged from a bush, declaring themselves “champions of the shag machine”, but I enjoy the imagery regardless.
The whole argument presumes that there is one set of behaviour we are willing to accept when men do it, and that the same behaviour is sad, deranged or morally reprehensible when a woman does it
“Is that what women threw themselves in front of horses for? For this?” continues French, in what feels like a pretty random allusion to the suffragettes. “For girls to be as low as those awful boys. What have we done? How did we go wrong? They have mothers who love them. What’s happened that they don’t value their body or that they don’t mind any of this? Am I totally out of step? Is it really OK to be as sexually free as you like and as drunk as you like? I don’t buy it. It feels wrong to me.”
It’s a little disappointing, frankly. French seems like a broadly cool person and maybe she didn’t realise that her comments were going to be used to support a gross media trend that demonises women for daring to enjoy themselves, but the whole thing reminds me of conversations I have with conservative acquaintances. There’s always that moment where they say they’re “all for” female equality, but are “not into this women-acting-like-men stuff”.
When you ask for clarification on the “women-acting-like-men stuff”, it's never that too many women are being accepted into medical school or are on TV or are in charge of their own finances. It usually comes back to drinking. And, as an extension of drinking, sex. Women drink like men, have sex like men and that, according to comments that are repeatedly given airtime in the mainstream media, puts women in danger of sexual violence.
The whole argument presumes that there is one set of behaviour we are willing to accept when men do it, and that the same behaviour is sad, deranged or morally reprehensible when a woman does it. That 18-year-old boys roaming the streets of Ibiza or Magaluf looking for someone to shag (or somewhere to be sick) is normal, while the girls – the ones roaming the exact same streets, hair done, eyes sparkling, condoms in their pockets – are depraved. It reminds me of that old, gross analogy about female virtue: “A key that can open many locks is called a master key, but a lock that can be opened by many keys is a shitty lock.” Translation: men having casual sex is evidence of a talent; women having casual sex is evidence of a design fault. More importantly, this is a question of framing. We’ve been conditioned, through years of “master key/shitty lock”-style teachings, to see male and female drunkenness differently. We are given endless films, songs and TV shows that portray male drinking as borderline wholesome – it’s sunny, harmless and if someone gets punched, then hey, it’s just a sign that it was a good night. Men getting wasted together is essential to male bonding, and male bonding is essential to society itself. Otherwise, how would the army work?!
When women drink, however, it becomes seedier, darker, more frightening. Grainy black-and-white photographs, blurred-out faces, girls shivering in pools of their own vomit – these are the photos that journalists are sent to find specifically. These are the pictures that are used, again and again, to prove that any advancements in female freedom is yet another grotesque show of “women-acting-like-men stuff”. And we accept it – we accept that there are moral differences between male and female drunkenness, and this is perhaps why we rarely see mixed-gender groups splashed across the Daily Mail. The idea that everyone is young, everyone is stupid, everyone is drinking too much and having sex with strangers, is just too radical.
You don’t have to approve of any of it, if you don’t want to. Binge drinking can be dangerous but, ultimately, you have to consider that if you’re watching reality shows about girls in Ibiza, there’s an agenda at work – and one you might even be playing into.