How did we let wine become the third wheel in our friendships?

Written by Millie Gooch

If we are to believe pop culture depictions, a gathering of women just isn’t complete without a bottle of wine or two. Here, Millie Gooch interrogates whether alcohol is necessary to forming and cementing female friendships.

If you’ve ever read a think piece on Sex and the City then you’ll know that New York is often cited as the series’ fifth character. It’s an observation that I would beg to differ with though. For me, pictured more than the Big Apple skyline and referenced more than Manolo Blahnik, the fifth character is, very obviously, booze. 

Whether it’s Carrie ordering a drive-thru Cosmopolitan or Samantha bringing a bottle of scotch to a baby shower, alcohol is the real scene-stealer throughout the US sitcom. In fact, the booze does such a good job that very few people know that it’s not even real. On the SATC set, Cosmopolitans were substituted for cranberry juice, Champagne for ginger ale and Kristin Davis who plays Charlotte York is actually now over 30 years sober. Still, that didn’t stop me gobbling up the narrative that all good friendships come with a side of cocktails.

It’s not just SATC though, drinking has long been symbolised as the ultimate marker of female companionship. Sticking to on-screen examples we have the likes of Ab Fab’s Patsy and Edina, quaffing overpriced champers at every opportunity and there’s no shortage of boozy gal-pal films like Wine Country or How to be Single which, let’s be frank, should probably just be renamed ‘How to Get Drunk When You’re Single’.

Next, moving on to the sickly-sweet realm of motivational Pinterest quotes. You don’t need to scroll too far to find musings that are all slightly unimaginative variations of “You’re the gin to my tonic.” 

The music industry isn’t exempt either. While Lizzo is offering up bottles of tequila in her empowering anthem Good as Hell, Little Mix have their wine and make-up wipes at the ready in their ode to female friendship ballad Told You So

Even during lockdown while clubs and bars have been closed, many have been lamenting those instant friendships you make with drunken girls in the club toilets, and often the only demarcation between a work Zoom meeting and one with your girlfriends is the presence of a couple of bottles of Merlot and a “Wine o’clock?” text to the group chat.

Basically, the message that alcohol is the glue bonding all women together is relentless and it’s everywhere.Alcohol isn’t just the fifth character in Sex and the City – it’s the fifth character in all of our lives. Or the sixth, seventh, whatever number you want to use depending how many friends you have. No need to brag about how popular you are.

There are two feminist hats you can wear when it comes to talking about alcohol and women. The first makes you want to say that women, quite rightly, should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want – and that includes sinking three bottles of wine in the name of friendship. 

Then there’s the second hat. It’s the one that makes you want to protect women from the dangers of drinking. The one that knows women experience more harms from alcohol than men simply because of our genetic makeup, the one that’s read the reports about female alcohol death rates increasing by 23% since 2001 and the one that knows the concept of alcohol as a BFF bonding elixir is a very clever marketing technique from an industry who have packaged the authentic magic of female friendship and sold it back to us as a £7 bottle of rosé. 

Millie Gooch, founder of Sober Girls Society

In 2018, after years of excessive binge-drinking, embarrassing/bordering-on-dangerous antics and more bottomless brunches than I care to remember (read: can’t remember) I decided to quit alcohol in a bid to rescue my rapidly declining mental health. 

Seven months into my sobriety, I set up Sober Girl Society which is now the largest platform online for sober and sober curious women.

Yet, despite an 8,000 strong jump in followers to the SGS Instagram page during Dry January alone (taking us to over 125K) and recent reports showing that more and more millennials than ever are giving up booze, we still can’t shake the idea that our friendships won’t be the same without it.

My most frequently asked questions still include: how will I tell my friends I don’t want to drink? Will they think I’m boring? Will they still like/want to be friends with me? And ultimately – will our friendships still be the same? The short answer is no – it will be better. Because after three years of attending everything from hen parties to festivals sober, I can categorically attest to the fact that the absence of booze has only helped to strengthen my sisterly bonds.

Firstly, my friends can revel in the fact that they never have to try and locate me after I’ve made mysterious new pals in the smoking area. Secondly, they also never have to convince our Uber driver that I’m actually not vomiting all over the back seat of their Toyota Prius. Thirdly though, and most importantly, I am a much better friend in general.

The first question I ask at baby showers is “How can I help?” rather than “Will there be any Prosecco?”. I never cancel plans from being too hungover and I am always present in both attendance and conversation. Once a great instigator of allegedly profound drunken chats, I now realise actually listening to friends is a much better way to help them than just talking over them in what can only be described as an inebriated garble.

I am still fun, I still go out, I still laugh, I still get silly and I still tell my friends I love them at 2am. So, with the world more sober curious than ever, I am determined to change the narrative that good friendships are only good because they are built on a solid foundation of drunken antics and limitless Bellinis. 

We have to start giving ourselves more credit. Alcohol isn’t what makes our friendships special, they just are.

When it comes to tips on navigating friendships, please know that the world reopening doesn’t have to equate to getting bladdered. Despite the slew of boozy memes that come with every positive BoJo announcement, you won’t be missing out on some sort of UK-wide female bonding experience by not drinking. You will however miss out on hangovers which means you’ll be able to fully enjoy everything else with your friends. 

Hugs, coffee shop dates, picnics, breakfast, sitting on their sofa with a cuppa, going to the cinema, just BEING with them. I can’t wait to embrace every single second of post-lockdown life with my girlfriends and couldn’t possibly imagine being hungover, hammered or not really there for any of it.

The main thing I believe to be helpful is transparency. The more context you can give your friends the better so they understand why this decision is important to you and why you’d appreciate it if they got behind it. Trust me, real friends will support you with anything – dodgy dating dilemmas, listening to you rant about your work colleagues and yes, even with not drinking. 

The Sober Girl Society Handbook by Millie Gooch is available now, £12.99, Bantam Press. 

Images: Unsplash/Photo of Mille Gooch by Emily Metcalfe/Book cover courtesy of Bantum Press 

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