SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 - Page 30

GENDER: FEMININITY GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT ON THE FEMININITY TIGHTROPE The girls’ night out is projected as fun – but navigating the rules of engagement can challenge even the most socially savvy. Heading to the pub after work to catch up with friends and colleagues and vent about the more curious spectacles that may have taken place in the day is an activity familiar to millions of workers around the world. But for Dr Emily Nicholls it’s not an after-work excursion, it’s her laboratory. Not surprisingly, the research can be quite discombobulating. That’s a good word for what Dr Nicholls studies – Western drinking culture. Dr Nicholls is a senior lecturer in sociology and has a particular interest in dissecting the complex mix of perceptions, interactions and behaviours that collectively constitute femininity as performed inebriated versus sober, including when in the setting of a ‘girls’ night out’. “I wanted to understand how we reflect our gender and femininity through the lens of alcohol consumption or – for some of us – sobriety,” Dr Nicholls says. It’s important to note that she is not referring to biological sex, describing gender instead as an identity that is socially constructed and something that we ‘do’ or ‘perform’. She says this is a “fluid trait” that is laid over the sex assigned at birth. Gender is a hot research topic precisely because of this fluidity, which has allowed cultural norms to encode rules and roles into the feminine and the masculine. An example is risk aversion being associated with femininity and risk-taking with masculinity. To analyse this coding, Dr Nicholls focuses her research lens onto drinking and sobriety cultures in the UK. Her findings are summarised in a book titled Negotiating Femininities in the Neoliberal Night-time Economy: Too Much of a Girl?, which was published in 2019 by Palgrave Macmillan. Based on interviews with 18 to 25-yearolds, the study involved recruiting 26 young women to share their experiences of a typical girls’ night out in an interview with the researcher, a methodology that attracted willing volunteers. The balancing act Dr Nicholls found that the projection of femininity in these scenarios had three particular traits: glammed up ‘girliness’, alcohol consumption, and risk management. The latter related primarily to dangerous levels of alcohol consumption and concerns over sexual harassment. Each trait was found to exist on a ‘too little, just enough and too much’ Goldilocks spectrum. For example, when it comes to drinking, risk management was based on consumption being enough to be fun, sociable and ‘one of the girls’ but not enough to become ill, to be perceived to put oneself ‘at risk’ or to appear unladylike through, for example, losing control and vomiting in public. Similarly, glamming up is a prerequisite, but only to a level sufficient to be noticed without courting unwanted sexual attention and without looking too ‘overdone’ or like someone who has ‘tried too hard’. Peers and other women on the night out were found to participate in enforcing and policing the ‘just right’ standards, which can vary in ways that are also influenced by social backgrounds. “That points to femininity being full of contradictions, making it difficult to embody and it results in women feeling like they 30 ISSUE 1 / 2020