“Things are different today,’
I hear ev’ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day.”
—Mother’s Little Helpers, 1966 by The Rolling Stones
When asked to explain this hit song, Mick Jagger said he was writing about a major phenomenon at the time. “It’s about drug dependence, but in a sort of like spoofy way,” he described. But there was a reality behind the lines too; in the 1960s and 1970s, doctors wrote millions of prescriptions for Meprobamate, otherwise known as “Miltown” or “Mother’s Little Helper.”
It’s been forty years since that song was at the top of the charts and in that time the image of women and mothers has changed dramatically. We’ve had the Equal Rights Amendment fight, the Pill, the sexual revolution, women entering the workforce en masse as well as female college graduates outnumbering males.
Strangely enough, all of this empowerment and equality for women seems not to have made a dent in the quaint Victorian notion that women still need special protection. Take a recent Washington Post story about women and heavy drinking. The problem, according to writers Kimberly Kindy and Dan Keating, isn’t that women are abusing alcohol; it’s the advertisers.
Many ads for alcohol—particularly on social media—appear to promote excessive drinking, which is universally recognized as “potentially deadly,” the authors scold. “These ads also appear to violate the industry’s code of ethics, according to a Post analysis of alcohol marketing.” So marketing to women that they should drink alcohol is morally wrong because, well, women.
The authors’ evidence for this morally reprehensible behavior by advertisers is actually so convoluted as to be funny. They explain how when “girl-power heroine Amy Schumer” imbibed copious amounts of Bandit boxed wine in her blockbuster film Trainwreck, the boxed-vino vultures pounced; Trinchero Family Estates promoted the movie and especially that scene on social media. “Young women responded with photos of themselves chugging Bandit. Within months, Trinchero said, sales of boxed wines—sometimes called ‘binge in a box’—jumped 22 percent,” lament Kindy and Keating.
Rather than explore the “empowerment” of women engaging in bad behavior and asking whether we ought to even view Amy Schumer as a heroine, the logic behind these complaints is that women aren’t capable of making their own (bad) decisions; when they do, it must be fault of the bad, bad marketing folks capitalizing on product placement.
Of course, it was easy enough for the two scolds to find an “expert” who would endorse their hyperbole. “We saw it first with tobacco, marketing it to women as their right to smoke. Then we saw lung cancer deaths surpass deaths from breast cancer,” says Rear Adm. Susan Blumenthal, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general and an expert on women’s health issues. “Now it’s happening with alcohol, and it’s become an equal rights tragedy.”
Binge drinking is dangerous and it is a terrible idea for anyone to engage in it. But is it an “equal-rights tragedy”? Only if you don’t think women can make their own decisions. As Walter Olson neatly chronicled, this kind of last-century thinking about women should have died a long time ago. He shared some Twitter reactions on his blog Overlawyered:
“In all fairness, the advertisers have been strapping them down w/ duct tape and pouring the booze down their throats.’ [@jeffsiegel]
‘PSA: (Most) Grown women have the mental faculties to make their own choices, and that’s a good thing.’ [@katmurti]
And if women weren’t targeted, WaPo’s OpEd: ‘Can we talk about the fact alcohol is primarily marketed to men?’ [@alex_amurillo]”
At least Mick Jagger, who is no feminist hero to be sure, put the blame for pill-popping squarely on the shoulders of the mothers taking them. If his song were written today it would likely blame Big Pharma.