A day or two after Spring Break this year, as I sat studying in the JavaBlu cafe in East Quad, I heard a girl say: “Well it isn’t Spring Break if someone doesn’t throw up.” She was referring to something her friend had said about someone on a Spring Break trip who’d vomited after drinking too much alcohol. Immediately, the casual way she responded struck me as odd. The way they both agreed with her statement and laughed. The normalcy with which they treated this. Unfortunately, it makes sense; this is nothing new, nothing unheard of — to drink with the intent of getting drunk and maybe getting sick. But sitting there, digesting what I’d heard, it really hit me how problematic this exchange was.
I’m not here to shame anyone for drinking. Rather, it is the narrative about drinking that must change. Too often individuals don’t contemplate how what we say — that it’s OK, even normal, to drink in excess — will affect others. What’s more, television shows, movies, books and more, also help create a culture around drinking that sends the wrong message. They often reaffirm statements like the one I overheard in Java Blu and even validate them. More importantly, they also precipitate them.
Though I didn’t used to admit it, one of my favorite shows was “Gossip Girl.” (I still rewatch random episodes every once in a while, but shhh, that’s a secret.) While I wouldn’t consider the show fine art by any means, I’m still a sucker for almost any show with a lot of drama. I was also fascinated by the glamorous aesthetic of “Gossip Girl”: the ball gowns, the themed parties, the sleepovers with French pastries and expensive art. But the one thing that always struck me was the abundance of alcohol in each episode, and all the times the characters would pop champagne in the back of a limo or drink at weddings until they found themselves too drunk to stand.
“Gossip Girl” isn’t the only show that glamorizes teenagers drinking. Shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “Pretty Little Liars” do similar things. And in each show, while they do portray some consequences, it’s only to make the show more dramatic until there’s something else going on, and are issues that are almost never fully addressed, made light of even.
When America’s most well-known television and movie characters are downing drink after drink, it encourages an already significant problem of binge drinking. Binge drinking is especially alarming on college campuses, where rates of binge drinking are much higher in comparison to non-college settings. While some articles, such as one in the New York Times, pinpoint the heightened problems on lax enforcement of laws and easy access to alcohol, what gets students there is a society that is full of messages OK-ing it. Though these issues of law enforcement and access may help fuel the problem, without real changes in the way we talk about and disseminate images of drinking and party culture, tougher policing and more limited access to alcohol won’t do much. Even the Times piece cites that many students already have access to and have used substances before coming to college — so it is not college in and of itself that creates this problem.
This must be addressed, as drinking is a significant part of American society and can pose risks if it’s done in excess. For instance, 26.9 percent of people 18 and older reported binge drinking in the past month. Since the legal drinking age is 21 in the United States, it is likely there are people who are not reporting their alcohol consumption truthfully, though the surveys were likely anonymous. Drinking has also been linked to creating various health problems, such as damage to one’s liver, an organ that is crucial to aid digestion and get important nutrients in your body. It can also, in some cases, affect one’s brain and has been linked to problems controlling diabetes. Arguably even more alarming, is that about 88,000 people die from “alcohol-related causes” each year.
And while the health risks associated with excessive drinking are more apparent, binge drinking does have other consequences. In 2010, binge drinking cost the United States $191 billion, which included “losses in productivity,” highlighting how it affects one’s day-to-day functions and how they can affect people in ways of which we may not even be aware.
I know drinking will stay a part of our culture for a long time, seep into movies, television and songs, and I am not saying that the solution is to outlaw drinking. But if scholars, health officials and people nationwide want to combat increasing rates of binge drinking on college campuses and other unhealthy alcohol-related habits, they need to take a good long look at the media.
And for those who publish books, create our shows, produce our songs, they must think about the messages they are sending. The narrative so widely disseminated that glamorizes drugs and alcohol consumption or makes fun of two drunk people making out, must change to reflect realistic effects of drinking in this nature. If not, these mediums, with so much power, play a significant role in preserving a culture that promotes, and even encourages, dangerous drug and alcohol use. Getting powerful actors to step up is vitally important to help effectively change the way individuals talk about drinking.
Yet, while it is nearly impossible for individuals to force larger changes in the way the media portrays drinking and party culture, we can still all do something to change the narrative. On a more individual level, it is important to think about how we have talk about drinking. As long as we normalize excessive drinking, pass it off as a “typical” Spring Break when someone pukes from alcohol poisoning, or post that picture making fun of the fact we don’t remember what they did after a night of drinking, we will continue to perpetuate this larger problem.