The ongoing debate around sexism in beer branding hit new heights recently, when a pair of high-profile, much-loved, and well-hyped breweries were called out for their labels. But is the removal of labels like these real change? Is angry social media honestly making a difference? And why is there so often a failure by so many people in beer to see how sexist branding can deter women, and men, from working in beer or put them off from drinking it?
Taking a step back from the fray to look analytically at the recent J. Wakefield/Cloudwater collaboration fall out, I wanted to ask some of the hard questions about how the situation spiralled so quickly. I also wondered if we could use this as a powerful lesson for more widespread and permanent change.
Speaking of change, did you know there’s an actual formula for it?
Here’s how it reads when it’s broken down:
D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now
V = Vision of what is possible
F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision
If the product of these three factors is greater than R (Resistance), then change happens.
Simple, huh? Ah, but if only humans were so straightforward.
I’ve recently started taking a harder look at how I—and others—are encouraging change within the industry. Are we on the right track, or at risk of alienating the very people that we need to influence the most? Are we playing our parts as allies? Should we change our approach? Obviously, I’m coming up with as many—if not more—questions than answers, but I think it’s important to stop and do this now, at what feels like a very pivotal point.
In the context of the wider world, it’s been an extraordinary year for women’s voices. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns—textbook examples of the above formula, you could say—have seen acts of tremendous bravery by women (and men) to stand up to sexual abusers both past and present, to work towards ending the culture of sexual harassment and oppression.
And there’s no doubt that the beer industry, and the leisure and hospitality trade, needs to take a long, hard look at itself. This includes not only its duty to care for its employees but also, what I believe is, a wider duty of care for its consumers with its messaging.
But why should brewers, in particular, be held to such a standard? Well, if you look again at that formula, it could easily have been written about the craft beer industry. And if you’re going to be part of a change movement, and ask people to come with you on that journey, then you better be willing to be part of something wider, too, which is all very simple to say but much harder to do.
Cloudwater is one of the coolest kids on the beer block right now. They’re in demand all over the world for collaborations and revered in the UK by FOMO drinkers all over. And thanks to the brewery’s artistic labels and bohemian frontman Paul Jones (who’s been vocal about equality and diversity), it’s a business that’s been relatively immune to criticism, apart from stuff like pricing, ditching cask, real estate, and, well, OK, maybe they get their fair share of criticism from the beer community.
But on the topic of sexism and inclusion, they’ve been a leading voice. So it came as somewhat of a shock, that Jones and Cloudwater would tacitly condone the use of overtly sexist branding—like that of J. Wakefield’s seasonal specials—by collaborating with the brewery.
So I called out Jones on Twitter, asking why he was collaborating with a brewery that has a long history of sexist branding. For what it’s worth, the question seemed like a revelation to him. He went back to the brewery and, in his words, had a conversation about why images like the one on Dreamsicle aren’t appropriate in today’s craft beer world. As a result, J. Wakefield quickly changed the branding to an old one.
But it was the next step, when they released the collaboration label, that led to further criticism and cynicism about motives and former statements emerging (which I’ll talk about later), that makes this such an interesting case study on the anatomy of institutionalized sexism within the industry. It’s also what prompted my train of thought around why it would serve me, and maybe others, well to take a step back from just making angry statements. After all, if we instead opt for calm dissection, perhaps we can more quickly and easily speed our way to >R.
Whilst I appreciate that cultural change takes time, there’s a strong case to be made that the thought process behind any immediate action after criticism and the reversal of a position, be it branding or otherwise, should be minutely examined before being executed. In this case, it seems that either the self-auditing step was totally skipped (which would signal a lack of genuine commitment), or that the change culture isn’t yet robust enough and needs strengthening.
In an email correspondence with owner Jonathan Wakefield, after the initial decision to rebrand Dreamsicle, it was clear that introspection was, in my opinion, still sorely needed at the top of his company. When asked why his beers were branded in a way that exploits women, he answered:
“The inspiration for all of our labels is classic comic book art which, as you know, exaggerates the human form and is, at times, sexualized. I grew up collecting comic books and am a huge fan of the art form, so it’s a big part of our branding, as are quirky pop cultural references. Some of our labels do have subtle sexual overtones, both male and female, which I think is fine, given that they are for a product that is made for and consumed by adults only. It’s not fine, however, if they portray women or men in a degrading way.
“The thinking behind each individual design was to illustrate the theme of that particular beer, often playing off of the name. Hops 4 Teacher, for example, pays homage to the Van Halen song and video from the ’80’s, which is why the teacher on the label looks sexy. It wouldn’t make much sense if she didn’t.”
I’d like to stop and unpack this for a moment, because I think it’s a really valuable lesson on the degradations that women face on a day-to-day basis by men in positions of relative privilege because they simply cannot see them. Because it doesn’t affect them, there is a level of blindness as to why seemingly small things like this even matter.
On the one hand, the stated intent is not to portray anyone in a degrading way. In the next breath, he says it wouldn’t make much sense to call a beer Hops 4 Teacher without depicting a woman being objectified whilst merely fulfilling her professional role. Anyone else seeing the contradiction here?
Not to mention that the name and label reference what can only be described as one of the most creepy and inappropriate music videos ever made. Pre-pubescent youths clamor for a bikini-clad “teacher” as she parades around the classroom desks. And the less that’s said about the weird Oedipal opening, the better—it makes me want to bleach my eyeballs.
There were other common refrains in our correspondence as well, refrains to which women are all to familiar with in these moments: “Our head brewer is a woman,” “As the father of daughters,” and so on. I want to be clear here: I have no reason to doubt that he meant every word he said and, in all likelihood, believes he’s saying the right things. But the fact remains that he’s saying them while utterly failing to recognize the inherent misogyny in his answers.
Some—perhaps some reading this piece, even—will argue, “Why do you want to remove a pair of tits from a pump clip? Women don’t have to buy that beer.” My response is, “Why the hell do you want to keep them there?” If your answer is that you need a 2-D cartoon depiction of a pair of knockers on a label to enjoy your beer, you’ve probably got bigger problems than an essay on sexism can fix.
But returning to the issue at hand, there was a real sense of jubilation around the alteration of the Dreamsicle artwork, a feeling that a corner had been turned. This wasn’t some tiny brewer who was afraid of some Twitter pushback. This was a high-profile beer maker with a lot at stake for making a decision like this, as the comments in his Instagram clearly show. As I sat that evening with a beer from Rooster’s, the brewery that first inspired my love of great brews, I allowed myself to relax a little, believing for the first time in a long time that the allies in the fight against sexist branding were reaching the point of >R.
That jubilation came crashing back down to earth when I saw the final collaboration artwork, signed off on by both parties.
It was a such relief to see that a calm, rational, peer-to-peer conversation between Jones and Wakefield had achieved what hundreds of angry online comments from beer writers, bloggers, and consumers had failed to do. Which is why I was so very disappointed when patriarchal normalcy reasserted itself with the Cloudwater/J. Wakefield beer. Shelf Turds, as it’s called, includes an illustration of Wakefield and Jones cuddled up on shelves, faux-erotically, wearing nothing but Speedos and shoes. It’s artwork that is, at best, tone deaf and, at worst, a massive up-yours to those who had criticized both J. Wakefield’s artwork and Cloudwater’s decision to brew with them.
With so much to dissect here, I barely know where to start. So let’s go with the tone deafness, and use it as a lesson instead of a take down. I can sort of understand where these guys are coming from. The artwork can be seen as these two men trying to be self-deprecating in the light of an online kerfuffle. It can be seen as a joke for insiders, goofing around about beers that sit too long on shelves, and comparing themselves to those beers. And by depicting themselves in this Borat-in-a-mankini moment, they're encouraging everyone to laugh at them and with them.
The problem, though, is that there’s a lack of robust message auditing. The joke, as it were, completely fails to acknowledge that there is absolutely no equation in which the portrayal of men in less clothing equals the level of objectification and degradation that women receive, nor was it an appropriate response to the criticisms leveled.
Allowing themselves to be portrayed in such a manner demonstrates the pair’s inability to understand the more complex nature of the initial offense, and it reiterates the fact that there’s no female equivalent of the “male gaze.” And this is because men simply haven’t been subject to centuries of oppression, whether socially, physically, or professionally, to anything approaching the level that women have.
The problem with attempting these sorts of parallels is that at no point would it be likely that either Wakefield or Jones would suffer professionally if they were pictured hanging out in skimpy Speedos with a bunch of their colleagues. Now, if a picture of me or a female brewer in a skimpy bikini surfaced online, the comments would abound about how we looked, what our motives were, and so on—we’d be immediately diminished in the eyes of many of the beholders.
It’s also worth wondering how many people outside of beer have actually heard of the phrase “shelf turds.” How unprofessional and juvenile does this industry look to newbies when two of its most loved and hyped brewers are putting that out there? But it’s ok, because, in his own words to me, Wakefield “cracks up” every time he looks at it. And as Jones admitted in multiple tweets responding to people criticizing the label, he didn’t see the problem until it was pointed out. There’s that echo chamber again.
For his part, Jones acknowledges this somewhat. “I think we both missed seeing how objectifying ourselves normalizes objectification full stop at the time of planning the original sour beer collab label. That all came about at the spur of the moment on our first collaboration day, and with the emergency situation the next day responding to JW’s new release artwork, a break-in at the brewery back home, security improvements and computer replacements, quality issues, and all the day to day of running a brewery took our attention here to the point where we just didn’t see how that label would come across. I guess it goes to show that even when we are totally trying to do the right thing, we still make mistakes along the way.”
The fact that neither party seems able to see the issue with the imagery or make the decision to pull back from releasing this artwork is still somewhat baffling. And the backlash has been pretty brutal, leading them to withdraw it straight away.
And here’s where I thought about stepping back from anger to see whether there was a better way to deal with this issue. My thoughts moved to the build-them-up-knock-them-down culture that women know all to well—especially when it comes to critiques of their physical form. You only have to see the pages of gossip magazines or the “columns of shame” that a lot of news outlets carry online, to see that there is nothing women in the spotlight can do or wear that isn’t one week feted and the next week slated.
In the same way many women must be confused as to how their legs can go from fabulous to flabulous from one week to another, it must be an odd place to be for Jones. Suddenly, he’s under attack on an issue that invites far more scrutiny and anger than beer itself ever would.
“We have a good track record, and have worked to show that openness, honesty, and discussing our values and aims aren’t a risk to our business,” he says. “I can definitely say it came as a shock to be accused of being dishonest in making a statement against lad culture and harm in beer. We might be one of the most vocal and visible brewery allies for change and progression away from harm-causing branding and behavior in the UK right now, but we are only human, and will most certainly make more mistakes along the way. We are trying to to take the pain we feel and hear from our community and use that as energy to work directly and indirectly on progressing the global industry.”
And it would be a really positive move if Wakefield, and—even more importantly—others, can take what happened here and put themselves outside of the echo chamber to actually listen to concerns around matters that might not affect them personally.
Before we go on, I'd like to add a quick note of caution here for the men who want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with women in the fight against sexism. You need to know there’s a strong and fast-growing feeling of ill-will among a lot of the women who have been fighting this fight a long time. There’s a sense that our historic efforts and successes are being co-opted.
While there are a lot of—albeit, well-meaning—guys out there declaring war on sexism, unfortunately, there are a number of vocal and high-profile ones doing so from an all-too-familiar, egocentric stance. They’re not consulting with the women who have been at the front lines for a long time, instead merely building on the huge amount of emotionally-draining groundwork those women have laid over decades. They then declare personal victories as a result of a moment’s action, instead of realizing the irony that it’s just because their male voice said the same thing that women have been for decades and that this was what finally made another man listen.
But we all need to be held accountable. All too often, the “cool kids” go unchallenged for shitty behavior simply because we don’t want to believe that our favorite brewer is behaving badly. That they can’t possibly be encouraging misogyny because they make great public statements and murky, delicious brews, or that their branding must be ok because they really are a really good guy. Or maybe even because they’re a woman! After all, life just isn’t that black and white.
I’ve always found this idea of flawless heroes to be a weak one. I’m not talking about excusing the big stuff, I’m talking about acknowledging the frailty of the human condition, and that we should be willing to engage with our heroes when they make this kind of blind mistake, just as we’d like to be engaged with ourselves in these situations.
So it’s important that we watch ourselves when we open our eyes to the very human flaws and faults in our idols. Because if we respond with fury and fire, our anger will lack both nuance and direction—it’ll burn itself out quickly without leaving a lasting effect. And this is why I think it’s time to change how we all—very much myself included—approach this debate.
As I touched on earlier, when I stepped back from being angry, I realized what we were lacking in this debate is empathy, sympathy, and emotions outside of anger. That’s a really hard place to get to when you’ve spent nearly 20 years experiencing sexism firsthand in an industry you love and are otherwise mostly proud of!
But if you look at the success of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, you’ll realize they’re first based on sympathy and empathy. (And to be perfectly clear: I’m not dismissing the fact that anger is a strong second emotion, as it should be to such injustices.) As women, a depressingly large portion of us empathize with those who have been sexually harassed or assaulted but have been brave enough to speak publicly about it. Yes, we are angry at the perpetrators and societal constructs that have allowed this to happen, too, but our first reaction is to have a positive emotion for the victim.
Of course, people don’t deserve sympathy for putting sexist branding out there. All I’m actually saying here is that perhaps we need to stop and think about what led these men, and sometimes women, to not being able to see how this artwork is unacceptable. Are these instances a chance to move the conversation on from merely calling out, and calling names, to a more genuine discourse about why sexist branding is damaging on so many levels? I hope so.
If we can encourage more empathy outside of privilege bubbles, encourage thought beyond what makes you laugh, seeking advice from groups that might be affected by your actions, if we can get acknowledgement that just our own life experiences are not the be all and end all, then that would be a huge start. And most importantly, hopefully, we could encourage brewers to remember that words have power, images make lasting impressions, and actions are everything.
There needs to be a clear acknowledgement that the male voice is still all-powerful in nearly every aspect of society. So perhaps it’s a good idea to think about using yours at a softer volume. Or to use it merely to amplify the vital messages women are sending about how we are frequently pushed aside or patronized or harassed in beer festivals, brewery taprooms, and bars—even if you think people really don’t want to hear it.
And shouldn’t the beer industry want everyone to have a good time? Shouldn’t women working behind bars be free of the harassment that this kind of artwork inevitably opens the door for? Why should so much of a booming industry consistently have the embarrassing specter of frat boy humor hanging over it? Shouldn’t staff be able to go to work without wondering what fresh hell they’ll have to read about, or face abuse for—online or in person—due to the ill-advised actions of the people at the top?
The answer to all that has to be an emphatic “yes” in order for us to really move forward on this front, but we need to do so while acknowledging that the formula for change still hasn’t been completed, that we still aren’t stronger than the resistance in many quarters, and that we still have a fight on our hands.
But perhaps it’s time we choose our weapons in that fight with a little more finesse. Perhaps we can employ empathy before anger, a more measured tone, encourage conversation before confrontation, hold our fire and fury in reserve for when it’s truly needed.
I say this because I fear that the constant outrage is starting to lose its efficacy, that it’s too easy to dismiss as coming from the “perpetually offended,” and that we, too, are in danger of getting trapped in our own echo chamber. After all, if we’re hearing only our opinions, then we’re lacking the nuance that’s needed to express our ideals to the rest of the world.
You only have to look at the polarization of recent world events to demonstrate that resistance only multiplies when people feel that they’re constantly under attack. If we truly want the formula for change to become complete around this (and the many other issues around equality in the beer industry), then perhaps we first need to acknowledge our need to intelligently modify how we fight. Then, just maybe, we can reach that >R moment.