Sober Women and the Fear of Becoming Boring
Recent pop culture—like Single Drunk Female and the courageous revelations by Cara Delevingne—is inspiring women to examine their hangups around sobriety.In Depth
Graphic: Vicky Leta; Images: Shutterstock
Fifteen years ago, I lived in a German village with a population of 659, including one town drunk. Herman wore a Tyrolean hat every day despite the fact that we were nowhere near the Alps. He was always smiling, drawing attention to his permanently pink nose and blushed cheeks, like a Hummel figurine. One day, Herman wasn’t around anymore. My family was saddened by it, but that was that. He was “Herman the town drunk,” until he wasn’t anything at all.
In many ways, a combination of ignorance, cruelty, and pop culture led me to see Herman as the true image of the alcoholic, and certainly by extension, the addict: a caricature and a man. It’s something Single Drunk Female creator Simone Finch calls “the stereotype of the white, older male addict, done over and over and over again.” (A woman drinking heavily, alone at the end of a hectic day? That’s just unwinding.) Reality is more complicated: Men are more likely than women to use, but women are just as likely as men to develop substance use disorder. In the last decade, much has been made about women “closing the gender gap” in terms of alcohol use disorder. One study found women with young children increased their drinking by more than 300% during the pandemic.
At the same time, women have become a central focus of cultural conversations surrounding sobriety. Following the 2015 release of Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, many of the popular memoirs on the topic have been written by women: Sarah Levy’s Drinking Games: A Memoir, Erica C. Barnett’s Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, and Clare Pooley’s The Sober Diaries. “More often, young women were going into rehab. Women are drinking more than they ever had in recorded history,” Hepola tells me. “It’s no coincidence that there are a rash of books about drinking too much and sleeping with the wrong men.”
Similarly, the aforementioned Freeform series Single Drunk Female may very well be the first major U.S. TV show to portray sobriety in this particular way for women—a foil to Rue Bennett’s battle with addiction on the dark, druggy high school drama Euphoria, where characters weave in and out of inebriation. Supermodel/actor/forever cool girl Cara Delevingne recently announced she was four months sober after unsettlingly disheveled photos of her at an airport surfaced. On her daytime talk show, Drew Barrymore unabashedly talks about sobriety with guests.
Women are no longer hiding their drinking (pre-Prohibition), no longer drinking simply to mirror men’s power (the Mad Men era), or drinking as a form of feminism (in the ‘70s, when bars permitted unescorted women to order, and in the 2010s, when “just stop drinking” was used as sexist advice to curb sexual assault). They’re accepting that drinking no longer needs to be central to all social activity (Sex and the City), nor is it the only way to articulate darkness and depth (Jessica Jones, any “badass babe” on TV clutching a whiskey glass, even Fleabag). They’re considering stopping altogether. Or, at the very least, sobriety has entered the chat.
But when drinking and doing drugs has long been associated with intrigue, temperance must compete with generations of “cool.” Can it go the way of smoking cigarettes? Or does sobriety, to most people, just seem pretty fucking boring?
In the pilot episode of Single Drunk Female, protagonist Samantha Fink, expertly portrayed by Sofia Black-D’Elia, goes to work drunk. (It’s not BuzzFeed, but the website she writes for is called Bzzz, so you do the math. Journalism and alcohol have long been intertwined.) In one particularly pathetic moment, she struggles to get a phone away from her supervisor as he tries to call security on her and ends up striking him in the head. As a result, she loses her job, goes to rehab, participates in court-mandated community service, moves back home to her mother’s house, and tragically, relapses before getting clean. These wild stories of carousing are likely why, when the show debuted in January 2022, its first episode was the most-watched Freeform comedy series premiere on Hulu, with over 2.4 million viewers and a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
As the season progressed, those numbers dropped—just as Sam’s sobriety really kicked in. Compare that to, say, the first season of Euphoria, when Rue (played by Zendaya) mentions that after rehab, she has “no intention of staying clean,” and then spends the next two seasons proving it. The most popular episodes are typically the ones where she is suffering the most. There are endless factors that could account for the Single Drunk Female slump—not everyone watches a show all the way through, maybe some felt the quality waned (it didn’t)—but one takeaway is curiously dark: Viewers, sober or not, only like the electric drunk tales.
Finch, who based Fink on her own sobriety journey, argues the opposite. “My original pitch was about addiction as a soap, but it’s a cyclical thing. It’s really boring,” she says. “You’re just doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, whereas sobriety is where the transformation happens. You go from being a hot mess drunk girl—a child, really. I was 28, but I acted like I was 15. Without it, you’re Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, just walking into the ocean.”
Hepola agrees. “I fell for the lie that the drinking life was the more exciting life,” she says. “The truth is that it’s quite a cliché…for someone single, in their 20s in New York City, working as a writer and sinking into her own sadness and isolation.”
Finch started writing Single Drunk Female in 2012 when she was still drinking. Going to Alcoholics Anonymous and getting help allowed her to transform the character of Fink from a one note drunk to a humorous and heartfelt, fully dimensional person who works through experiences ripped from Finch’s own life. In Season 1, it’s pounding shots and dancing on a bar to Shakira, feeling like a sex goddess despite looking like the opposite. In Season 2, which is now on Hulu, it’s the emotional betrayal of reading someone else’s anonymous fourth step (the “moral inventory” step in AA’s 12-step program, where a person in recovery examines all the ways they’ve hurt themselves and others in order to take accountability).
I think sobriety is the richness of it, and you have to sell it in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re eating vegetables.
The sober stuff is the good stuff, at any rate, though it may be the stuff no one really wants to dive into. Here’s an example: In Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of Hepola’s Blackout, he wrote, “There’s a wrinkled little part of our souls, of mine anyway, that liked our friends a bit more before they lost weight or fell in love or got straight and so damn sensible.” There is something within so many of us that prefers the fuck up, which makes a sobriety tale a hard one to crack. Those alcoholism memoirs probably wouldn’t sell if they didn’t dig deep into the ugliness of addiction, first, before their protagonists get clean. Hell, Delevingne’s sobriety story might not have gone viral if it weren’t for the paparazzi photos.
“It’s so true,” says Hepola. “I think sobriety is the richness of it, and you have to sell it in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re eating vegetables. As soon as you start sliding into slogans, as soon as you’re in a basement with a bunch of people, it’s every cliché. Nobody wants to go to a 12-step meeting, including people who go to 12-step meetings.”
She learned this firsthand: “I really resisted getting sober because I was basically afraid everybody was going to turn the channel. I wouldn’t be interesting at a party. People wouldn’t want to date me. I wouldn’t be fun to hang out with after work. The painful truth is that was true, for a while.”
The ways in which women addicts on television have been portrayed in recent years reflect what Hepola calls our current “therapeutic culture,” where we seek to examine trauma in order to understand self-destructive behaviors. Basically, these stories provide a neat narrative as to why and how protagonists became addicts, when the reality is much more complicated and decidedly less sexy: Genetics, culture, marketing, the woman’s environment, personality traits, and beyond can account for drug and alcohol abuse.
Like Euphoria’s Rue, Single Drunk Female’s Sam loses her father as a young person. It’s a circumstantial similarity more so than a consistency in women’s addiction (i.e., women do not pick up the bottle or pills or what have you specifically because they don’t have fathers), but it is an interesting choice. In Rue’s portrayal, her dad’s death is a catalyst—it’s easier for the viewer to blame her addiction on that grief, but it also undercuts any nuanced conversation surrounding her abuse. But Finch says she and her character would’ve been alcoholics anyway. “What came first: the addiction or the trauma?” she says. “My dad’s death definitely hastened [my alcoholism]—it gave me an excuse to drink,” much like Sam talks about in Season 1, Episode 9. “It helped me be a victim.”
I wonder, then, how Finch and Hepola view celebrities, not characters, and the ways they choose to narrativize their sobriety journeys publicly. (That is, if they do; AA and NA require anonymity, after all.) Some become forthcoming with time (like Rob Lowe), some cite wellness and motherhood as motivations (Chrissy Teigen), and others suffer private, potentially traumatic moments of addiction in the public eye that they then reveal the context of, like Delevingne.“One of the reasons I wrote Single Drunk Female is because of the way Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton were portrayed—drunk party girls, and that’s all they were. I wanted to show the opposite. Maybe there are some real issues, and we’re not seeing that. Cara is flipping the script a little bit,” Finch explains. “And sobriety doesn’t mean the end of the party. We can go wild. Just without alcohol.”
Hepola is a little bit more skeptical. “There’s obviously a real gain in changing the narrative. [But] it’s a really sketchy thing to go out there and announce you’re sober after only four months. That said: After six months, I wrote a story announcing I had quit drinking. I did it because I needed insurance. It smacked of overconfidence,” she says. For Delevingne, it could be crisis PR; it might also be an action meant to hold herself accountable for her own recovery. Whatever the case, her public image will evolve. As Hepola says, “Drinking is one of the things that women look to signal, like, ‘Is she cool? Can I drink with her?’”
Uprooting a belief system that’s upheld by the market and convention is hard work—especially when ceasing to drink and doing drugs means challenging that “cool girl” image. “Alcohol is one of the great leisure drugs. There’s a reason every society ends up coming up with some version of it,” says Hepola.
The path to getting past the fear of being boring, then, is recognizing a problem if it becomes one, graciously welcoming a cultural interest in sobriety, and remaining free of judgment for those struggling and those who continue to drink with no issue. Much of this is already happening: The non-alcoholic drinks market hit $11 billion in 2022; “sober bars” are cropping up with increasing regularity, after movements like Sober Curious and California Sober took off. And Gen Zers drink about 20% less alcohol than millennials did at their age, refusing to buy into “liquid courage” branding. They are taking fewer drugs. That can only be a good thing. And soon enough: the cool thing.
Maria Sherman is a music writer, culture critic, and author of “LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS.” Her writing has appeared in NPR, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Elle, and many others.