Recently, I had a disturbing but thought-provoking experience with a discussion thread on Reddit. It occurred to me that the problems underlying my experience are not limited to the mezcal industry, and may manifest themselves in other industries as well. I want to share what happened and how I responded, in case my fellow entrepreneurs and business owners find it useful when navigating similar situations in their own industries.
Before diving in, let me first credit the featured image: it is the cover of How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, an awesome illustrated book by Sarah Cooper (writer and comic based in NYC) full of funny, sarcastic, and too-true observations on how women toggle between being successful and being likable in the workplace.
This Reddit discussion thread brought to the fore something I had never before experienced in the mezcal industry. When I founded Erstwhile, I expected (but did not worry much) that as one of a small handful of female brand owners in the mezcal industry, I might one day receive off-color commentaries from within this male dominated industry. And I am happy to report that I have found the mezcal community to be generally warm and supportive.
What I did not anticipate was that some men in the mezcal industry (and wider wine & spirits industry) would feel very threatened by Erstwhile’s energy and aesthetics, which are fundamentally tied to one of Erstwhile’s core social missions: empowerment of women in the mezcal / wine & spirits industry.
Erstwhile Mezcal Projects “Feminine” Aesthetics
Most of the excellent mezcal brands on the market are owned, designed, and promoted by men. Many express “masculine” aesthetics, which I do not mind, and which does not detract from my enjoyment of the underlying mezcal. Apparently, that acceptance does not go both ways when it comes to some men in the mezcal / wine & spirits industry.
Erstwhile, in comparison, expresses aesthetics that some consider to be more feminine. The connotation of gender in design and aesthetic choices is not limited to just the mezcal / wine & spirits industry. We see it in many other industries (e.g., perfume / cologne packaging and marketing for, respectively, men and women).
Erstwhile’s “feminine” aesthetics include but are not limited to our logo, bottle design, online presence, and my in-person interactions at trade events. My co-founder and I have strong aesthetic values, and we share these when promoting our mezcals. We believe, for example, that bottles, photos and written narratives should not be an afterthought. We believe that, with thoughtful design, they can complement the mezcal within.
My First Experience on Reddit
This Reddit discussion thread started neutrally — someone posted a link to an Erstwhile blog post about our Henequén mezcal, the first of its kind in the US market. I am not an active Reddit user, and read the thread a few days later after someone brought it to my attention.
Instead of focusing on the substance of my blog post or on why Henequén is interesting (or maybe not?) as a mezcal, the discussion went off topic almost immediately and took a disturbing turn. It became the online equivalent of a roomful of men in the mezcal / wine & spirits trade, nameless and faceless behind their handles, not just nodding tacit approval, but explicitly defending, offensive uninformed comments about Erstwhile’s female founder (yours sincerely), social mission, and our Oaxaca-based mezcal producer partners.
Specifically, one man who had not read Erstwhile’s published social mission statement questioned whether we had a social mission at all, stating that Erstwhile boils down to a “foreigner lady” who lives a “lavish lifestyle” and flaunts “look how rich we are and we’re gonna go get mezcal from poor people and bring it back to NYC for the rich people to enjoy.”
The comments, at least initially, seemed to focus on one of many images found on Erstwhile’s website (one of me wearing a long summer dress and sitting on a truck of agave piñas in Oaxaca) and expressed general disapproval of Erstwhile’s aesthetics.
I wrote a response in disagreement, identified myself by name and affiliation with Erstwhile, and invited all participants to do the same so everyone can be accountable for his/her words and actions (only one person did, to his credit).
I gave these men additional context in my response: brand transparency. We used this image (among many others containing other faces, not my own) for Erstwhile’s website, because Erstwhile is not a faceless, corporate entity. It is run by real people like myself, and supports real people, like our partner mezcal producers in Oaxaca.
Moreover, we at Erstwhile are proud of being a woman-owned, woman-operated business; proud of the women at the head of our partner producer families in Oaxaca; and proud of supporting fellow women in the mezcal / wine & spirits industry whenever possible. As the woman running Erstwhile, I believe I have a duty to the mezcal community and broader public to hold myself personally accountable, and NOT hide my face behind a corporate entity when it comes to Erstwhile’s online or in-person presence.
Within minutes, the discussion thread exploded into a mini firestorm, with the loudest men in the room jumping to each other’s defense and baselessly sabotaging Erstwhile’s reputation outright. These men’s collective position can be summarized as follows:
“Despite what you may think, this has nothing to do with gender….” I dislike Erstwhile from “typeface to the bottle design to the images on your blog and social media”, so much so that I will ignore any and all substance of what you do, what you have to say, or what is in your bottles. Because you guys at Erstwhile pay attention to “fashion and aesthetic”, and your mezcal looks great at brunches on Instagram, you cannot possibly be serious, genuine promoters of mezcal or mezcal producers.
Why Do These Men Find Erstwhile So Threatening?
I am careful and think twice before bringing gender into any divisive conversation, unless I have strong reasons to believe gender is a factor. While Erstwhile is proud to be a woman-owned, woman-operated business, I do not think this is Erstwhile’s most defining feature. From day one, Erstwhile’s core values have always been gender-neutral: quality mezcal, dealing fairly with our partner family producers, mezcal education, and brand transparency.
In this situation, I will bring up gender, because I have good reason to believe had I been a man or projected more masculine aesthetics on behalf of Erstwhile, this Reddit discussion would never have flared up, let alone with such vitriol.
Let us take a closer look at the things that immediately came to their minds, when these men saw an image of a strong female presence, sitting in their turf working in their trade: fashion, “lavish lifestyle”, “rich” dilettante “foreigner lady” exploiting “poor people”. Their words, not mine.
It is extremely disappointing for me to see Erstwhile’s partner producers and their families being labeled as “poor people” by someone who knows nothing about them. Erstwhile’s partner producers in Oaxaca may or may not have less money than these men, but I had never thought of them as “poor people” nor heard them described as such until reading these commentaries on Reddit, made and defended by men in the mezcal community no less.
What is the focal point triggering their “rich” descriptions? Certainly, it is not the agave piñas I was sitting on or the blue Oaxacan sky in the background, as photogenic as they are.
The only possible focal point triggering their ire and disdain is none other than me, the woman in the image. Are these men actually reacting to any lifestyle or message projected by myself or by Erstwhile? Or are they reacting on instinct that unabashed displays of aesthetics and design in combination with the woman in the image — a woman in charge, not a “booth babe” — are threats on their turf? That this woman, as an object in and of herself, is rich and lavish because she is wearing a pretty dress, and thus not to be taken seriously?
I daresay there is very little “fashion”, and nothing suggestive of “rich people” or a “lavish lifestyle”, on Erstwhile’s website / social media. Had I been a man in this same image, sitting in the same way on top of agave piñas, would anyone have given this photo a second thought or called out my “fashion”?
Granted, these men may dislike Erstwhile’s typeface and bottle design either way. But, how much would that have affected their overall opinions of Erstwhile, let alone lead them to dismiss Erstwhile off the cuff based on only one image?
Sabotage versus Constructive Criticism
To be clear, we at Erstwhile have always encouraged and valued feedback, both positive and negative, from consumers, enthusiasts, and the broader public. This is one of the best ways for us to learn, grow, and become better. We always knew that Erstwhile’s social values, aesthetics and mezcals would appeal to many, but not to everyone. And that is okay. We can only be true to our aesthetics, speak up for the values we believe in, and promote the mezcals and producer families we believe in. And trust that our tribe will follow.
There is, nonetheless, a difference between negative feedback and trolling. This discussion thread on Reddit was not ordinary consumer feedback. I saw no conversation about Erstwhile’s mezcals, their production processes, their producers, etc. In fact, none of the people in the discussion group appeared to have even tried Erstwhile’s mezcals. Instead, the conversation focused on attacking a picture of a woman sitting on some agave, and voicing their general dislike (or jealousy?) of Erstwhile’s typeface, bottle design and images.
Moreover, I find it enlightening that the two loudest men in the room — who claimed to give Erstwhile organic consumer feedback and berated me for not being more receptive — both work in the mezcal industry and represent several major mezcal brands. Neither had tried any of Erstwhile’s mezcals or met any of our partner producers.
I find it telling that, in the middle of attacking me and attacking Erstwhile, they managed to weave in product placements for other mezcal brands they worked for.
One of them explicitly named a major mezcal brand he represents (one owned by an American man), citing it as an example of a company that is actually “making a best impact for mezcaleros and their families.”
The other man works in sales for a spirits importer and distributor based in our home state New York. Explicitly naming one of the mezcal brands he represents as an example of a company doing the right thing, he was quick to point out that this company has a woman partner – presumably to say because he is nice to other women, his attacks on me and on Erstwhile could not possibly have anything to do with gender.
Erstwhile, these men seem to suggest, cannot make a positive impact on the mezcal industry because we care about feminine things like design and aesthetics.
I responded to a few commentaries on the Reddit discussion thread before logging off. I made it clear that while I value and welcome feedback for Erstwhile, I am not and will not become an active Reddit user. I strongly encouraged these men to contact us directly via Erstwhile’s website, to the extent they want me or someone at Erstwhile to actually see the feedback and respond.
Not surprisingly, no one has taken me up on the offer. Also not surprisingly, numerous troll accounts surfaced on multiple forums (e.g., Instagram, Reddit, Erstwhile website) on the same day, shortly after this blog post went live on Erstwhile’s website, and made further attempts to sabotage Erstwhile and intimidate me.
Who knows, maybe the Erstwhile roasting party on Reddit is still going lively and strong.
¡Échale leña al fuego, muchachos!
Yuan Ji, founder of Erstwhile Mezcal