A tradition that needs some retooling, so to speak
by Michelle Chihara
I recently heard about a bachelorette party where the women got together and
watched Father of the Bride. A bachelorette party. Think about
that. Watching Father of the Bride at a party that's ostensibly a
kiss-off to single life is like watching a video on alternating current as a
last hurrah before the electric chair.
A couple of weeks ago I flew to Miami for a friend's bache lorette weekend,
and I've been puzzling over the nature of the bachelorette party ever since.
Like other things adapted without much thought from the days of the
unquestioned double standard, it seems confused.
The male counterpart is much simpler. Guys planning a bachelor party can fall
back on the time-honored strategy of getting plastered, or its more elaborate
variant: getting plastered at a strip club.
Bachelorettes have no time-honored strategy. At a loss for exactly how to make
things risqué without making them dangerous, bridesmaids have
single-handedly created a market for penis-shaped party favors: they buy
penis-shaped chocolates, penis-shaped pasta, penis party blowers, and penis
party straws. They make the bride wear a veil edged with penis lights.
Guys don't do this. They interact with real women, even if the breasts involved
Both genders feel obliged to perform acts of supreme sex-related silliness
before they get married. But often, it seems, there's a perilous gap between a
bride's comfort level and her friends' ideas of sex-related silliness. This
sets the stage for bachelorette disasters.
A friend of mine we'll call Helen attended a bachelorette party in a swanky
hotel room a few months ago. The bride's close friends were there. So were two
female cousins of the groom. The bride said later that the cousins' presence
made her self-conscious.
"We got her some lingerie, and everyone started saying, 'Put it on! Put it
on!' " Helen says. "I mean, it was just a camisole and panties, and
fishnets. We said, 'If you put it on, we'll strip!'
"And we did. The cousins did. But then we had a fake tattoo for her, and we
made her get down on her hands and knees and put it on her ass." Helen sighs.
"I guess she didn't like that."
The next morning, the bride told the groom, in tears, that she felt sexually
harassed. By her own bridesmaids. This is heartbreaking, but who can
blame any of the parties involved? Helen was just trying to whip up the ideal
bachelorette party -- something lively and titillating. It was all among women,
she figured, and she herself could take the tattoo and then some. But she
misjudged the bride's personal boundaries. She feels terrible. The bride feels
terrible. Everyone feels terrible. All in the name of penis-shaped fun.
Back in the day, the raucous pre-wedding bender was for gentlemen only -- the
last skirt chase without consequence, a crass and trashy tradition. Women, on
the other hand, weren't supposed to have been doing anything that they'd miss
once they married.
Post-post-feminist-backlash, the bachelorette party can't decide whether it
wants to follow in those trashy footsteps, or whether the "ette" means that the
whole tenor of the event should be different. It's as if we feel obliged to
compete with the men but aren't so sure we actually want a last night of
freedom on guys' terms.
At the outset of the bachelorette party I just attended in South Beach, my
engaged friend warned us that she might "lash out" if things got too
embarrassing. I appreciated the warning, but I had no idea how to react. If we
made her ask for a condom from a guy's wallet, would that be too much? What
about kissing a guy with the same name as the groom? What about just asking
that guy with the pecs to come dance with us?
Never having been in this situation before, and hoping to avoid charges of
sexual harassment, I pretty much gave up. We bought her a flaming shot at a
restaurant. But when even the cigar was ruled out (she said it would make her
feel sick), we more or less left it at a tiara and a boa.
Guys, I'm convinced, do not worry about navigating such emotional land mines. A
boys-will-be-boys stag party might stretch a guy's comfort zone, but the
behavior demanded of women at bachelorette parties can fall way outside the
norm. Even the bravest among us still rarely make the first move, never mind
asking a guy if he's carrying birth control.
In Miami, the delicate balance of real fun versus forced fun, of embarrassing
versus humiliating, was mind-boggling. Without South Beach's abundant alcohol
and silicone-and-sun-hardened bodies, we would have been at a complete loss.
The evening was not without its highlights, but they were only vaguely related
to the fact that one of us was in a princess costume and carrying a stuffed
At the other end of the spectrum from the bachelorette party's identity crisis
is the bridal shower. The shower -- tea, linens, maybe a naughty nightie -- was
once the ladylike (and only) counterpart to the groom's stag party. Now,
schizophrenically, bachelorettes try to do both.
Conventionally girlish behavior is inevitable, it seems, as my friends enter
the wedding zone. Planning glazes their eyes and gives them a whole new
vocabulary; women I know have gone from mocking Martha Stewart Living to
trying to avoid spilling sun block on the "Good Things" section. Beach
conversation in Miami touched on bouquets (pansies and ranunculus?), shoes
(silver strappy sandals?), and colors (Nicole Miller's mocha or pewter?), not
to mention carats, diamonds, settings, and engagement stories.
To those of us outside the wedding zone, this was something of a surprise. We
were supposed to be celebrating single-girldom -- right? -- living it up
before the noose tightened, not color-coordinating the gallows. But the fact
is, the bulk of the wedding planning still falls to the bride, and she needs a
venue to talk about it. It's fun, but of a different kind.
Maybe it's not surprising that there's no perfect way to plan what's basically
a throwback to a different set of mores. But somewhere there's got to be room
for a poignant farewell to the single life that came before, without an
implicit denigration of the married life to come. A little symbolic farewell, a
little hoopla at the close of one chapter in your life, is a tradition worth
The point is not that it's a person's last night of fun. My friend who's
getting married is marrying an incredibly fun guy. The point is that you're
leaving the meat market behind, for good. For most of us, especially women, the
meat market will not be sorely missed. But it does have its moments, and they
usually involve mild indiscretions or slightly drunken chemistry with a
stranger on a crowded dance floor. We should raise a glass in honor of the
times when such nonsense panned out, and to expurgate all the times it
The bottom line: if tomorrow were my last night on earth as a single woman, I
would, in fact, round up my best female friends for a night on the town. I
wouldn't mind finding out exactly which guys in the bar were carrying condoms.
And I'd sure as hell go back to South Beach. But I wouldn't go anywhere near
penis party straws.
Michelle Chihara can be reached at email@example.com.
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