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.
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?