Much will inevitably be made of this study that links teenagers’ viewing of movies to the rate at which they start drinking, and start binge-drinking. It’s worth pointing out, however, that other features are more significant, most importantly, the drinking behavior of a teenager’s peers, which is almost twice as influential as movies on whether a teenager who has tried alcohol moves into binge drinking. But the study still suggests that movie exposure is responsible for 28 percent of teenagers’ decisions to first try alcohol and 20 percent of their transitions from alcohol sampling to binge drinking, which is not insignificant. And if this gains traction, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see calls to treat alcohol like tobacco, getting it increasingly off-screen or consigned to period pieces, or for a crackdown on alcohol advertising or both.
Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s much harder to portray the fun you can have while you’re drinking than the non-fatal consequences you can suffer from over-drinking. Raccoon-eyed makeup like Claire Dunphy’s in the most recent episode of Modern Family doesn’t actually convey what it’s like to feel like your head is going to explode from within, or the arid sense of extreme post-drinking dehydration. Showing someone throwing up tends to be momentary, while partying takes up more extended space on screen because it’s narrative. It’s easier to fetishize and make jokes out of the objects of alcohol consumption, like the Big Joe and Big Carl wine glasses on Cougar Town, than it is to celebrate their absence. Movies about alcoholism can absolutely be an effective prevention tactic, but that’s the kind of material you generally have to seek out rather than encountering it randomly in the course of a romantic comedy or an action movie. Sober or straight-edge characters aren’t regularly incorporated into pop culture friend groups or social scenes. Bars are convenient meeting social spaces, and they haven’t entirely been replaced by alcohol-free settings.
And it’s really hard to get at the nuances that make drinking both enjoyable and manageable. It’s hard to dramatize that process where you realize that National Light tastes terrible and you can afford Knob Creek and it tastes better, or where you have a divine meal and realize that the wine and the lamb are working together and you want to learn more about that. In the real world, drinking isn’t a matter of abstinence or addiction. But it’s a lot easier to show ecstasy and despair than this kind of aesthetic experience: