How does a night on the town change how feminine or masculine our behaviour is?
A University of Portsmouth researcher has been studying the relationships, practices and identities of women in social situations.
In the latest episode of our podcast Life Solved, Dr Emily Nicholls talks to us about what contemporary social behaviour tells us about femininity in the modern day and explores the role of both the ‘Girls’ Night Out’ and sobriety in the lives of women.
As a PhD student, Dr Nicholls was living the party life in Newcastle – enjoying nights out with friends in the city and drinking alcohol. This informed her PhD on the ‘girls’ night out’, and she later published a book on the subject. A few years later, after stopping drinking herself, she turned to the experiences of women in ‘early sobriety’ to inform her more recent research, and she has also been doing research on the experiences of UK drinkers during ‘lockdown’ and the global pandemic.
Girls’ Night Out: pleasure or policing?
With an interest in femininity and gendered social structures, Emily recruited 26 women in Newcastle to interview and find out how they constructed ‘appropriately’ feminine identities on nights out with female friends. She began to reflect in her PhD upon gendered expectations around drinking for women in social situations. For example, many of the young women she spoke to felt pressure to consume ‘girly’ drinks such as wine or cocktails when out with female friends, even if they preferred, say, cider or beer.
Her findings didn’t just highlight socially-constructed gender archetypes around alcohol consumption, but also themes of risk, escapism, liberation and ‘policing’. She even observed how women complied with unspoken codes by ‘policing’ each other’s clothes or behaviour:
Some of my participants would say, ‘I'll come down with a pair of jeans and I'll get pointed right back up the stairs by my mates. Or I'll get forced into a dress in a pair of heels’, for example. And there was a certain amount of policing by mates. There was also a certain level of more subtle policing, often by other women on a night out itself. So looking someone up and down whispering in the toilets, for example.
Sobriety: new gendered identities?
More recently, Dr Nicholls has turned her research attention from alcohol to sobriety, exploring how alcohol, drinking and non-drinking connect with issues of gendered identity for women. She teamed up with the organisation ichange21 to speak to women of different ages from a range of backgrounds who had all stopped drinking in the last 6-12 months. Her findings show that just as drinking can play a role in identity construction, those who stop drinking may also weave this choice into a positive narrative around their identity as someone who is ‘alcohol free’:
Sobriety is being seen as a more positive lifestyle choice. So there's a huge movement on social media, in blogs, Instagram accounts, often led by women. It's kind of celebrating sobriety.
Dr Nicholls was able to consider how we might use an evolved narrative around sobriety to challenge unhelpful or outmoded social ideas and remove stigma - including stigma around ‘alcoholism’ and the ‘alcoholic’ - through new conversations.
Perhaps the Girls’ Night Out of the future could be something very different indeed.
Dr Nicholls’ book, “Negotiating Femininities in the Neoliberal Night-Time Economy: Too much of a Girl?” is out now.
Listen to the Life Solved podcast
Life Solved shares stories of research taking place in Portsmouth that looks set to change our world. You can listen to Dr Nicholls talk about her work from Tuesday 19th of January. Search for 'Life Solved' on any app or online to listen or go to podfollow.com/uoplifesolved.