I would have been fine going through life without ever seeing a neon pink penis-shaped straw.
But in the spring of 2016 our first best friend from college was getting married, which meant that as bridesmaids it was our job to usher our friend into wifehood. And that meant, as I would quickly learn, buying a bunch of plastic tchotchkes and spending a day getting drunk with a dozen other girls.
At the time, all I knew about bachelorette parties were the clichés I had seen performed over and over again in books, movies, and TV shows: strippers, Vegas, bodycon dresses, shots, girl fights, grinding, more shots, kissing a girl, liking it, vomiting in a hotel room, sleeping in your bodycon dress, Advil, big sunglasses, airport bloody marys, returning to your boring life. The pre-wedding ritual has the same predictable life cycle of a romantic comedy, which is probably why they’re the subject of so many movies of that exact genre, including one of this summer’s big releases, Rough Night.
I took myself to see Rough Night to see if it breathed new life into the girls-gone-wild getaway weekends that my friends and I had been taught to expect and throw for each other, and how it compared to my first bachelorette experience. After all, the movie was about the first woman in a group of college best friends to get married, just like what I went through. Plus, a lot of people tell me I am exactly like Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer and Scarlett Johansson combined! And while it turned out to be essentially The Hangover for girls, the movie was driven much more by its emotional arc than anything else. It’s about four best friends from college who have drifted apart as they chase careers and men reuniting for one weekend to celebrate the first one among them to get married and shrink the distance that’s developed between them. But could they? And could a bachelorette party help them do that? And what did this say about me and my friends?
The bachelorette party as we know it came about as a result of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, when women began speaking more freely about premarital sex, and the idea of a “last hoorah” celebration first made sense. Before then, women’s lives were seen as just beginning when they got married. The legal contract they entered gave them a steady provider and way to move out of their parents’ home. “Men were seen as having something to lose in marriage and women were seen as having everything to gain,” sociology professor Beth Montemurro explains in her paper “Sex Symbols: The Bachelorette Party as a Window to Change in Women’s Sexual Expression.”
Though bridal showers and pre-wedding celebrations long predate this type of celebration, they were more about being given appliances and celebrating one’s impending life of housewifery. Today, Montemurro writes, the bachelorette party celebrates “elements of identity that were not socially acceptable in the past.” And by that she means: being horny. The invention of the bachelorette party was about creating a counterpart to bachelor parties, which was about “commiseration over the termination of a man’s sexual freedom,” according to Montemurro. Finally, women had their own version. But in the last 50 years since their advent, while our understanding of sexuality and marriage has changed drastically, our rituals for expressing those feelings have largely stagnated.
It wasn’t until the three other bridesmaids and I began discussing the options for surprises that I began to realize 1) that I had no clue what women actually wanted to have happen at their bachelorette parties and 2) exactly how uncomfortable all of the pre-stocked ideas for bachelorette party “fun” actually made me feel. In Rough Night, Alice (Jillian Bell), the sweet kindergarten teacher BFF of the bride-to-be, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), a high-powered politician, kicks off their weekend in Miami by presenting Jess with a penis accessory basket, including everything from penis straws, to sunglasses with fleshy dicks for noses, to penis-shaped pasta. Minutes before this scene, we saw Jess back home with her fiancé (Paul Downs) confess that she’d rather spend her weekend with her future husband. This gives the impression that the bachelorette party was much more about her friend’s desire to throw the party than the actual wishes of the bride. The penis prop basket was the ultimate embodiment of that fact: a craft project that Alice wanted to undertake, a tropey approximation of what someone who is about to get married would want.
Similarly, the bachelorette party we were planning for our college BFF somehow felt forced, but I couldn’t figure out why. Our weekend itinerary didn’t seem so offensive: we were headed to DC for a night on the town and a day of wine tastings at three different vineyards in Virginia. This didn’t sound like The Hangover 4 waiting to happen. It sounded actually quite tame! Pinterest-y even. Still, I felt wary. From what I understood, bachelorette parties were supposed to be wild, and it was up to us to punctuate the day with some surprises that would let the bride know that we wanted her to have the type of party she imagined for herself. But, what was she hoping for?
As the conversation about our bride-to-be’s bachelorette unfolded, we had to draw some lines. No strippers—that much we knew and could all agree on. But when it came to the associated kitsch, things got more complicated. Brightly colored penis straws? T-shirts we would wear for the day’s celebration to draw attention to ourselves and then donate to Goodwill? What about plastic sunglasses with the wedding hashtag on the side? It became difficult to parse out what felt obligatory and what, if any of it, felt like a genuine celebration of the bride or an embracing of sexual freedom, the supposed mission behind the bachelorette party. I started to wonder who the bachelorette party was actually for. Was it about the bride having a wild night before marrying her husband? Or was it about the group reuniting for a girls weekend, reverting to the drunken days of undergrad, and escaping the doldrums of adult life for a weekend? Or was it just about honoring a milestone using the traditions our society had handed us, without asking why?
In the end, the neon penis straws made the cut. Someone went rogue and ordered them without telling the rest of us. Upon opening up the packages before we headed off for the weekend, the creepy, twisted plastic testacles stared back at us. It was funny, for a bit, but ultimately all garbage, and the only thing I could think about was which landfill all of it would end up in some day, a confetti of neon dicks raining down as a Loader truck dropped a massive shovelful of trash onto a mounding pile.
When we all piled into the party bus that morning, I was worried about all of us collectively becoming the trainwreck drunk girls of the day. It was my first time on a party bus (yes I am lame), and I didn’t want to be gawked at or chided as we rolled up to each vineyard courtesy of our driver Mike, who absolutely questioned what he was doing with his life as the day unfolded.
In an account of her first year sober, writer Kristi Coulter lays bare the realizations she has once quitting booze about how compromising drinking is for women who are told by society that they must be “24-hour women,” a tagline that was coined for a perfume called Enjoli in the ’70s. I keep coming back to a scene she lays out at the very end of the essay, in which she’s on vacation at a resort in Arizona with one of her old female friends and observing a bridal party that’s also at the pool:
“On Sunday morning we’re reading by the deep end of the hotel pool when the shallow end starts to fill with women, a bridal party to judge by what we overhear. And we overhear a lot, because they arrive already tipsy and the pomegranate mimosas — pomegranate is a superfood! one woman keeps telling the others — just keep coming until that side of the pool seems like a Greek chorus of women who have major grievances with their bodies, faces, children, homes, jobs, and husbands but aren’t going to do anything about any of it but get loaded and sunburned in the desert heat.”
The Greek chorus: that is what I feared, and that is what we would inevitably become on our ramble through Virginia. By the time we reached the second vineyard we were already deep into the early 2000’s favorites on our Spotify playlist and using the pole in the party bus for things beyond stabilization while standing in a moving vehicle. I found myself taking part in a lap dance wherein each of us gyrated atop the bride, trying to please her, but instead worried the only emotion I aroused in either of us was embarrassment. If this entire bachelorette party was one big attempt at enacting how we thought we were supposed to feel, me grinding on my best friend who graduated magna cum laude while we’re both wearing dresses from Anthropologie, is the ultimate embodiment of the fact that we are probably not sure why we are doing any of this. Mike, bless him, never said a word.
As described by Coulter, the Greek chorus is a pitiful but familiar thing to be a part of. She feels bad for these girls because they haven’t yet made it to the deep end of the pool, where the women are more world-weary, experienced, and no longer in the life stage where they’re attending booze-fueled bachelorette parties that inevitably go off the rails. Bachelorette parties are, by definition, for the uninitiated. Were we making our naïveté worse by being obnoxious about it?
Of course, not all bachelorette parties have to be a one-night mission to give an entire bridal party cause for a month-long juice cleanse. But the traditional bachelorette’s inherent theme of debauchery, which is often achieved by drinking enough to be okay with degenerate behavior, is what has failed us, not just the drinking. Even party bus companies designed for crazy nights of revelry have found that bachelorette parties get too wild. On Monday, The Tennessean reported that NashTrash, a Nashville party bus company, has banned bachelorette parties from using their services (but not bachelor parties) to prevent incidents of “sloshing alcohol and being disrespectful to the guests” and because bachelorette parties typically “want it to be all about them.”
Photographer Dina Litovsky did an entire series of photos on the ritual to understand the unique group behavior it creates. What it all comes down to is the goal of the evening, which Litovsky posits in a New York Times piece, “They know that they have to go beyond their comfort zone...The evening is a get out of jail free card for many of the girls who attend, including the bride.”
The idea of a get of jail free card might seem nice in the abstract, but it doesn’t really exist for women. To that point, Vogue writer Karley Sciortino warns us of the reality women willfully ignore during these weekends in order to have a good time:
“The performance of bachelorette parties are usually partly ironic, and a bit parody, but the reality is, even if you’re wearing a dick on your head at a restaurant “as a joke,” you’re still wearing a dick on your head at a restaurant. People can see you.”
Unfortunately, the escapism that bachelorette parties are designed to create can only last until the final hungover bridesmaid boards her flight back to reality the next morning. At its worst, assuming you have a get out of jail free card can lead to dulling your senses in a world in which women have roofies and assaults to fear on any given night out. And even when nothing bad happens, women must still inevitably trudge back to their regular lives in which they must face the reality that they are trying to live like men in a world in which they’re still getting paid and patronized like a woman. If the celebrations are so embarrassing that they outweigh the potential in-route to the expression of our true feelings, are they really doing us any favors?
I don’t think I am the only one who feels like the rituals we use to celebrate bachelorette parties offers women a narrative that we have outgrown and no longer serves us. I almost exclusively hear women talking about attending bachelorette parties in an obligatory tone. And satirical headlines like “I Had Fun At—Record Scratch—A Bachelorette Party?!” are proof that our culture sees them as not a great time. They’re expensive public performances of tropes that women can’t fully get on board with because we are more complex than the traditions we’re being offered. And yet we continue to create these situations for ourselves, as if the bachelorette party is a runaway train we just keep hopping on, hoping that a free robe will make up for it. (The robe never makes up for it.)
The third and final vineyard visit was a true shit show at the most beautiful of the three wineries we visited. As we entered the quiet, cool barrel storage barn in the backyard, I posted a Snapchat video of my friend noting, man-on-the-street-style, that the vineyard’s logo, which was branded above the barn doors, resembled a vagina. “This is what being a woman at a bachelorette is all about, right?!” I imagine I thought to myself. “Reclaiming vaginas and embracing the freedom to share your views on Freudian symbolism with all of your followers, including your Irish Catholic mother?? Yes, this is living!” I was, in hindsight, slowly losing my shit.
Once inside, a quiet middle-aged woman who poured our glasses did her best to explain the complex melange of flavors and tannins, while we tossed back our complex sips with reckless abandon. After the tasting, our gaggle swayed barefoot on the lawn to acoustic Norah Jones covers played by a young girl we accosted at one point to ask if she “knew any Sheryl Crow” (she didn’t). At this point, the first mimosas of the morning felt like they occurred on a different day entirely. So much had happened since then! So many feelings and self-discoveries! I felt a deep sisterly connection with everyone in our group, including the ones I had only met that day! Our drunken stupor had stretched and contorted time until it was about to snap. It was time for us to go, and quickly. As we left the vineyard one of the bridesmaids thanked an older gentleman she somehow learned was a veteran for his service, and then proclaimed she was blackout. We were officially a Pinterest pin-turned-public disturbance.
We piled back onto the bus, the dirt-caked hems of our maxi dresses trailing behind us, and I made my way to the back bench to sit with the bride. The Greek chorus would sing its final song to the sticky interior of the party bus (and to Mike, the only true angel among a bus of drunk demons), and retire until the next inevitable pre-wedding festivities for another one of our college friends.
I turned to my friend and began to thank her for putting this day together, for choosing me to be a bridesmaid and help her celebrate her wedding. And then, it happened: tears started sliding out of my eyes and down my face. Could it be? Yes, I was crying. As I told my friend how much she meant to me, and how much I respected her commitment to her fiance and cherished her optimism that love was real, I was overcome with a flood of emotion (read: drunk tears).
I’m brought back to one of the final scenes of Rough Night, after Scarlett Johannson has saved her entire friend group (and a random male stripper) from two armed robbers who nearly murdered the entire bridal party. While only 30 minutes before they had been locked in a petty blame game over the man they accidentally killed, now the relief of not being murdered reminded them of why they were friends in the first place, and that that in actuality, the thing that was supposed to bring them closer together—the bachelorette party—was actually keeping them from really connecting. They had got lost in the details. They couldn’t see the bachelorette party through the penis straws, so to speak. In the end, they make up and Scarlett Johansson and her fiancé decide to get married at a foam party the very next day.
Similarly, while I had spent the entire day worried over my friends becoming cartoonish drunk stereotypes in public, suddenly I was the one with my guard down, feeling more deeply emotional about my friend’s upcoming wedding than ever before. Buried underneath the facade of the bachelorette was a moment of vulnerability and love that I was able to share with my best friend.
Had I been wrong to be apprehensive this whole time? Was this a day us women truly needed? The answer lies somewhere in between. No, I didn’t and still don’t think that the typical ways of celebrating bachelorette parties are doing women justice. Nor do I think we actually enjoy them most of the time. But what if we all tried to be the bachelorette party we wanted to see in the world? Could we transform this obligatory booze-fest into something uplifting, meaningful and most importantly more fun and less embarrassing?
We hugged and said I love you, at this point the flurry of tears coming faster than my fingers could windshield-wiper them away. I meant every word I said, and have said as much again since, but I don’t think I needed a day of drinking to get my feelings across. Regardless, there we were: feeling the love, fucked up on shitty Virginia wine. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” came on. This is, as all our friends know, “my song.” I slipped my plastic sunglasses with the wedding hashtag down over my makeup-smeared eyes and got up to dance. After all, we still had an hour left on the party bus.
Catherine LeClair is a writer from Maine who lives in Brooklyn, like everybody else. Follow her on Twitter for some reason: @catherineeclair.