Girls’ nights, hen dos and gendered parties

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

Second only to ‘fancy dress’, the two words that make me most nervous about a party invitation are ‘girls’ night.’ I used to think (when I was twenty years’ old, and an absolute shit) that this was because I didn’t get on with women. Most of my friends were men, ergo I wouldn’t enjoy a girls’ night, because what would I have in common with women anyway? Today, I’m still wary of girls’ nights, but for very different reasons.

What does a girls’ night look like?

Let’s begin with the ‘I don’t get on with women’ belief, because once we’ve smashed that into tiny pieces it’ll be easier to see the rest of the equation.

When I grew up, I couldn’t quite get a handle on ‘women’s’ things: shopping, make-up, looking nice. All the activities I’d been told were the kind of things you do at a girls’ night. Put on face-masks. Giggle at shit. Maybe have a pillow fight in your knickers before drinking perfectly-mixed daquiris and getting ever-so-slightly tipsy-drunk. Tee hee. What’s more, I liked hanging out with boys. Boys were fun, and they did stuff I wanted to watch or join in with: hard drinking, play-fighting, snogging, mutual groping behind the bike sheds… wait a minute! 

You can see where this is going, I’m guessing. Boys weren’t more fun, I just wanted to fuck them. Or at the very least get touched-up by them while we all played on arcade machines before rushing home for curfew.

Then, examining further – as I did a bit when I was older – the girl’s nights I used to squirm about didn’t actually look much like the picture in my mind either. Sure, we had sleepovers, but we’d be less likely to put on face-packs than to play strip poker (still young: still horny). We drank, but instead of delicate daquiris, it was massive bottles of white cider – the kind specifically marketed to alcoholics and sixteen-year-old kids. Instead of giggles, we’d yell and cackle and exchange truly disgusting dares.

What I’m getting at is that despite the evidence of my own experience, I thought that ‘women’ were something other. Something different to me. Women liked pink things and shopping and sparkles. And rather than see my own experience and conclude that maybe women weren’t all identical, instead I chose to define myself as ‘not a proper woman’, and reason that women and I… well… we simply didn’t get on.

It took me years and years to realise just how bizarre and horrible a thing this was, and then a teeny bit longer to get on Twitter and learn that it has its own name: internalised misogyny. And now I’ve learned the phrase and the concept, as often happens with these things I start to recognise it in more places. I remember times when I’ve said ‘most of my close friends are men’ or I spot myself making assumptions about some of my female friends that I never would about the blokes. Very recently, I spotted it in someone else: a female friend who held me to far higher standards of behavioural decency than an equally-close guy friend who’d done the same thing.

Internalised misogyny: like a hen party or a stag do in a city centre on a Saturday night, it’s lurking round every corner.

Girls’ nights v boys’ nights v everyone nights

I went on a stag do once: it was pretty fun. I didn’t actually know the groom, I just got invited because I happened to be in town and one of my friends was going. We pounded Jägerbombs (which I think is actually The Law when you’re out on such occasions), chatted a lot of shit, then eventually bumped into the bride’s hen party in town over cocktails. The groups merged, I ended up fucking someone wholly inappropriate, and we all went home for tea. It was a pleasant evening, if a little spoiled by my poor choice of sex companion. And tea. I hate tea.

That’s not a true boys’ night, though: nor are the other boys’ nights I’ve gatecrashed, desperate to be the only girl in a gang of drunk straight men who might or might not get horny enough to do tequila shots out of my cleavage. Any gatecrashing on my part will artificially alter the evening so any experiential data I gather will be tainted. Like the quantum function which collapses the second you observe it, so the boys’ night stops being one as soon as I turn up.

That’s all to say that the following observations are going to look one-sided: I can only experience girls’ nights and mixed groups, because I will never be privy to the Secret World of Men. And to say that although I’m talking girls’ nights it’s not the ‘girl’ thing that bothers me, it’s the gendered thing as a whole. As soon as something is labelled ‘THIS GENDER ONLY’ something quite odd occurs: we play to it. Not always deliberately, sometimes only slightly, and certainly not maliciously, but I think we do.

Performing gender

This post was sparked by some research on stag nights, which found that many of the men who take part in stag nights do not enjoy the way they pan out. This doesn’t surprise me much – a lot of the ‘challenges’ that I’ve seen stags partake in down town look like straight-up bullying. I can think of two stag night pranks off the top of my head (one involves semi-nudity and the other involves a gross eating challenge) that are almost move-for-move things which happened to bullied kids at my school. Is it surprising that the person at the butt of the jokes isn’t laughing? And yet – according to the research – despite disliking it people play along. Escalating, celebrating, goading – it’s all part of the ritual. The unwritten rules.

On hen nights I’ve been to, I’ve found myself getting wound-up prior to the event with a whole host of concerns that I’d normally dismiss out of hand. What should I wear? Usually this question is easily answered: whatever I can find that doesn’t smell like day-old fags, isn’t full of holes, and will keep me vaguely warm. But on a hen night I start thinking: is there a dress code? What will other people wear? Should I buy make-up? There are elements of this I enjoy. While I’m not the femme-est of women, I fucking ADORE nail varnish, so spending some time painting my nails ridiculous colours is a part of the ritual I embrace wholeheartedly. The other parts I embrace because… why?

None of my friends have ever asked me to make myself different for them.

But there are unwritten rules nonetheless. Women rarely get chained to lamp-posts and have their trousers pulled down, or dumped unconscious on a train to Scarborough. The unwritten rules of the hen night are very different: the hen is queen and it is Her Night and she is special. It’s about uplifting, and gathering round, and raising one person up. Not in itself a horrible thing, so way harder to complain about than a stag do that ends with the groom waking up on a freezing train without his wallet or any of his mates.

On top of the hen rules, there are unwritten rules to a girls’ night too – at least as far as I perceive them. There are differences in the way individuals behave: whether it’s choosing different drinks, opening up (or shutting down) when certain topics are raised, becoming more confident or more reticent. Sometimes, from the group, there arises a particular atmosphere: this night is about consoling those who are down, this other night is about treating yourself. There are often themes that emerge which are more specific than ‘go to the pub’ – the theme for most of my mixed nights out.

It’s difficult not to perform a role, because that very label ‘girls’ only’ acts as a marker – as surely as ‘black tie’ or ‘casual dress’ would. It’s hard to ignore these markers when they’ve been hammered into us by society and culture: when you’re at a posh dinner you use a napkin (and you worry about whether it’s a ‘napkin’ or a ‘serviette’), and when you’re at a girls’ night you do your hair up nicely, share secrets and drink prosecco instead of pints.

There’s no hard and fast rule book, just some ideas we’ve internalised, and they’re harder to get rid of because they’re far more difficult to spot.

Why can’t Dave come?

So: I still don’t like girls’ nights. And it’s not because I don’t like girls – current-me has far more female friends than 20-year-old me had. Why, it’s almost as if my internalised misogyny made it harder for me to befriend women, or for women to want to befriend me! But while I have lots of female friends, I also have some very close male friends. My best friend is a dude, and my instant response to a girls’ night invite is: why can’t Dave come? When my guy friends, girl friends and non binary friends hang out together, it’s fun. It’s fun because I like them all. So on a basic level I’m uncomfortable with a party that doesn’t feature half the fun crowd.

But it’s not just that, because if it were the case then I’d also be unhappy on nights where everyone was invited but only women could make it. In fact, these nights – accidental girls’ nights – don’t tend to turn out the same way as ones which explicitly say ‘girls’ only’ on the invitation.

The explicit statement is a powerful thing. It tells us not only who might be there but how we might be expected to act. And that power needs to be questioned to make sure it’s not accidentally fucking things up. Like insisting, on a house party invite, that everyone comes in black tie. Or at a fetish club, that everyone must come dressed in expensive leather or latex. The former might seem fun, the latter may feel like ‘the way things should be done’, but are either of them actually necessary?

Would this particular party actually be better if everyone joined in? To put it bluntly: why can’t Dave come?

14 Comments

  • Gaia says:

    Are you me? I was so anti-girl that I went on my husband’s stag, rather than having a ‘hen do’. (I snogged my ex, maybe it was a miracle we stayed together nearly 20 years?) I can’t ‘do’ girly, it’s alien to me, and I zone-out when they start talking about laxatives and eyebrow-crayons. I was invited to a ‘girly night’ a few weeks ago, and absolutely refused, for all of the reasons you have stated above, I just didn’t realise there was a term for it. (The other reason I refused is that the invite was from one half of a lesbian couple, the ‘other half’ being possessive, and criticising her partner for communicating with me, she wanted me to attend as a no-threat performing monkey.)

    Ah, well, I imagine we’ll continue knocking about with the boys, or find girls that are similar to us? I choose not to ‘go out for tea’ with the women from work, because they bore the arse off me, and say stupid things like “Oh, these heels are killing me!”, when it’s not a legal requirement to wear heels for work, or spend an hour in the morning drawing on your eyebrows. I don’t get them, and they don’t get me. Plenty more fish in the sea, I suppose? Fish that don’t spend hours pretending not to be fish, I hope.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah see I think a lot of this is part of the problem, though: while often many of us feel like we need to perform these rituals, it’s easy to imagine that the rituals themselves have no worth or that the people who do them out of genuine desire are somehow different or ‘lesser’ or what have you. I have pals who love make-up and beauty stuff, and I’m able to have much better relationships with them now I’m older, because I don’t (outside specific arrangements) feel like I have to perform with them. I can chat with my friend who is super-into make-up and genuinely enjoy the conversation, because it’s no longer marked as something that I have to do too – I can recognise it for one of her passions, and get the enjoyment the same way I would if she were talking about her cool job or something. The problem isn’t in the rituals, or the people who perform them: it’s in the expectation that because some do we all must, I think.

      • Gaia says:

        I agree with your argument, that I’m possibly being dismissive, and trivialising the primping and preening, when the ‘other’ females enjoy it; that’s my point, I REALLY don’t enjoy it, and, in the office, the background chatter seems to be all about Slimming World, and hairdressers. Never mind, that Celebrity programme is coming back on TV, they’ll talk about that, and the bloody ‘Christmas spreadsheet’ for a bit. I do see myself as different, because I fundamentally am, but neither group is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we just have different ideas of normal. It’s not their normal to wash their hair in the morning, and tie it back still wet, and it’s not mine to spend ages faffing about with ‘products’ to make my hair sit a certain way.

        I’ve no real business commenting on gendered nights out, in the main, I just don’t go out. Maybe I’ll stumble upon a group of like-minded misanthropes, and we can all sit in a dingy pub, not speaking to each other, and complaining about the noise?

        • Girl on the net says:

          “Maybe I’ll stumble upon a group of like-minded misanthropes, and we can all sit in a dingy pub, not speaking to each other, and complaining about the noise?”

          Oh this is basically me and at least half of my pals =D Grumpy pub-dwellers: my kind of people.

  • Can definitely relate and definitely something relevant to our lives as our friends are already getting excited for our bachelor and bachelorette parties happening next year. Some of my guy friends are just like way more fun – I genuinely have more fun with them (I got over the internalized misogyny a while ago thankfully) – and because it is a gendered party, only their girlfriends can be invited? Total bullshit.

    Andy wants to have a joint party, or meet up at the end of the night so we can have fun together with all of our friends, irrelevant to gender. The resistance from some attendees is so strange – they just want it to be a ‘girls night’ or a ‘bros night’ because it is so ingrained to be divisive. Any other night we have a total blast together, but because it is a societal norm, we have to cut out half the people? Ugh. Why can’t ‘Dave’ come, too?????

    • Girl on the net says:

      I think a joint party sounds nice! It must be tricky if all your friends (or most friends) are mutual ones, because there’s no obvious split of ‘oh well of course I’d be at X’s do’ – I think if me and my other half had stag/hen parties it’d be fairly clear who would attend whose, as most of our friends are old ones that we each met individually before we were together. That said, I know a fair few of my friends would be sad to miss out on his party, and still more that we weren’t throwing some sort of joint sex party instead of individual ones.

      It’s really interesting though how many people want to keep those gendered lines – as with so much gender stuff it’s often enforced quite unconsciously and knee-jerkily, which I guess is why it takes so long to fade away =(

  • Josephine_kk says:

    I can’t do ‘girlie nights’, when my mates suggest a ‘girls night out’, what they mean is “leave the men at home and let’s get fucking pissed”….

    I don’t do the whole giggly getting ready in masses, just no! Give me a bottle of wine to guzzle on, whilst you highlight your face to your heart’s content.

    When we’ve had hen parties, they consisted of booze, drinking games, awkward karaoke sessions, whilst dressed as zombies,ghosts,superheroes. I think we are the least girlie girls there are! Yeah, our hair and makeup are on point but sod the giggly stuff.

    Our last hen party had 5 lads out with us, it was another excuse to get pissed.

  • SkSh says:

    I spent my youth in a culture that didn’t do the “girls nights out” as a thing, though there were many nights when it was, in fact, just girls. But I don’t think I was ever invited to a specifically single-sex social outing. So encountering the concept for the first time some time in my mid-20’s was confusing as fuck. But it was less the performing-gender part that bothered me than the fact that a lot of conversation seemed to focus on complaining about / slagging off men – both specific men, including the participants’ patters and men in general.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    My brother’s getting married next year, and he and his fiancée aren’t having stag and hen nights. Partly because they’re not terribly outgoing people, but also because of the argument here – “Why should we have to divide our friends in two on artificial gender lines?”. If they do hold a pre-wedding party, it’ll be for everyone.

    (Anyway, good for me, because I really didn’t fancy the idea of having to organise a stag night… perhaps the only thing less appealing than attending one.)

  • Exquisite Catastophe says:

    My dude and I are getting wed next year, and the thought of doing seperate hen/stag parties didn’t even enter our heads. Pretty much all our friends are mutual, I couldn’t imagine a celebration without my brother and two male best mates, and the traditional hen/stag activities make us both break out in hives. I have no desire to drink brightly coloured drinks while wearing a tiara, and he very much wants to keep his pants. A joint party just seems like the obvious choice.

    It has really surprised me how much resistance we’ve recieved from some of our family. From the women, there’s a sense of disappointment that they’re being denied a “girls’ night”, with some assuming that I think I’m “too good” for a traditional hen party (I don’t, it just isn’t my scene). The guys seem convinced that I’ve demanded a joint party so I can keep an eye on my partner and prevent the boys from having too much fun, and that my guy would really prefer a “proper stag”. It’s just bizarre that people who’ve known us for so long think we’re going to suddenly abandon half our friends and all our taste in parties just to fit into the prescibed gender traditions of a wedding.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “It’s just bizarre that people who’ve known us for so long think we’re going to suddenly abandon half our friends and all our taste in parties just to fit into the prescibed gender traditions of a wedding.”

      That’s super interesting, and yeah I think it kind of fits with some of those stag do research findings and my general uncertainty about the whole thing – the idea that you ‘have’ to do something. Tradition can sometimes be fun (like, a lot of my Christmas traditions are there just because they’re super fun) but it is often a huge drag on actual enjoyment. Maybe the general message should be always examine traditions to work out if they’re actually fun in this instance or total arse =)

  • Mr Fantasy says:

    Way back when I was a best man once, I organised a joint stag/hen night. We didn’t see why we couldn’t just all hang out together. We went to the Raymond Revue Bar (OK – this was maybe unfair, but it was risqué). The guys got to see a properly staged strip/burlesque/dance show and the women enjoyed seeing how it was done as well. I think everyone enjoyed themselves. The audience was mostly Japanese tourists. The Revue Bar staff/bouncers were very suspicious. They couldn’t understand why women wanted to go at all. I think they were worried that we might stage a protest or something.

  • David says:

    From the other side gender wise there is a similar set of unwritten rules. You have to be competitive, talk about sport and drink any alcoholic drink some idiot has thought up on the spot that is likely to hurt for days if drunk.
    When I was younger and peer group pressure was a thing I bowed to you would find me neck deep in these parties. But now avoid them like the plague. In fact if these events don’t include food now and mixed company then don’t bother to invite me.
    I do have male friends who I enjoy time out with but they are a very select group who are like minded. Not sure if I’m playing to the same thought process or not but I do wake up with less hangovers and have way more fun than I used to.

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