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While media reports have raised concerns about young women drinking, Statscan data suggest it’s older people who are the real boozers. (White Pine Pictures)
While media reports have raised concerns about young women drinking, Statscan data suggest it’s older people who are the real boozers. (White Pine Pictures)

Leah McLaren: CBC’s Girls’ Night Out is a patronizing, fact-averse travesty Add to ...

Binge drinking, you may have heard, is an epidemic among young Canadian women. According to a new CBC documentary, Girls’ Night Out (which airs for the first time Thursday, February 26), young women are drinking more than ever before and suffering an alarming array of social, emotional and physical consequences because of it.

These young women are, apparently, putting themselves at risk of cirrhosis of the liver, memory loss and cancer. A recent Maclean’s feature with the headline “The Alarming Rise in Binge Drinking Among Women” backed up the trend; the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse announced the launch of #RethinkTheDrink, a year-long campaign to encourage young women to cut back.

Except here’s the thing: This so-called “epidemic” is complete nonsense.

Young women aren’t drinking more. They’re actually drinking less. Significantly less, if you believe Statistics Canada. According to the most recent numbers from Statscan, the number of women aged 12 to 19 who reported having four or more drinks at one sitting at least once a month in the past year (the fantastically stringent guidelines for what Health Canada classifies as “heavy drinking”) dropped nearly 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012.

There were similar though slightly less precipitous drops in heavy drinking among women under 35 as well. The age groups for whom drinking actually did rise, according to Statscan, were 35- to 44-year-olds and over-65s – the onset of middle age and old age being the presumed reasons to take to the bottle.

And that’s not to mention that, on average, men drank far more than women in every age group, and middle aged men were the most committed boozers of all.

Over all, the stats say heavy drinking in Canada is marginally up, but young women are certainly not the culprits. So why are they being blamed?

The answer is a dispiriting blend of cultural puritanism mixed with irresponsible journalism and the CBC’s shameless attempt to boost ratings with dramatized footage of college girls in skimpy dresses doing body shots in nightclubs.

Vaguely based on the book Drink: The Deadly Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, the documentary takes a complex and multilayered topic and reduces it to an episode of Girls Gone Wild narrated by church ladies. Girls’ Night Out is a patronizing, fact-averse travesty, the broadcast equivalent of TMZ’s never-ending gallery of D-list actresses staggering out of nightclubs, lipstick and bra straps askew.

This sort of sexist voyeurism cloaked in the guise of moral shock is nothing new to the celebrity tabloid press, but the producers manage to take it one wobbly, retch-inducing step further into outright misogyny. The deeper thesis of Girls’ Night Out comes in the form of old-fashioned victim-blaming – a disturbing message coming from the CBC, particularly in the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi trial.

According to the documentary, “alcohol is involved in nine out of 10 sexual assaults” – a misleading statistic since alcohol is likely involved in nine out of 10 social activities of any kind involving university students, whether it’s a romantic date or a frosh-week scavenger hunt.

But the makers of Girls’ Night Out ignore nuance as they hammer home their point: Girls who get drunk also get raped. Tearful testimony from several recovered alcoholics to whom “bad things” happened in their misbegotten youth drives this dangerous message home.

If you want to get wasted, the filmmakers seem to be saying, you run the risk of becoming human garbage. And really, ladies, whose fault is that? The faceless male rapists in this documentary (presumably drunk themselves) don’t even merit a moment’s reflection because, for men, drinking or behaving badly apparently isn’t an issue – it’s just a given.

The real victims here are the female undergraduates who agreed to participate in this documentary, presumably on the assumption it was a clear-eyed look at the drinking habits of students rather than a moral condemnation of their personal choices.

We are encouraged to judge these girls for their keggers and drinking games, and yet anyone who has ever known a 19-year-old will recognize their experimental behaviour as utterly common. Moreover, as “shocking” documentaries go, it’s a snooze. The girls get hammered, have a blast and wake up safe and warm in their single beds the next morning. In the end, all they seem to be guilty of is having a good time.

The morning after the night before we get a lingering shot of a university student rolling over in her single bed and pressing snooze on her alarm in the morning. The horror! Yes, alcohol can be a slippery slope, but it’s important to remember the vast majority of its female users manage to drink responsibly. Young women are drinking less, not more. It’s the middle-aged moms and dads, sitting in their renovated kitchens cracking a second bottle of wine over dinner, who are truly cause for concern. But who wants to see that?

There’s no need for the CBC to let facts get in the way of a good documentary. When in doubt, blame the girls.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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