A week ago, while I was lounging around the slightly-falling-apart shared house I struggle to pay the rent on with a guy I sometimes have sex with and scraping the mould out of a mug I’d neglected for two and a half weeks, a friend sent me the inevitable text. You know, that first of many that you get in your twenties, the first gentle roll of a snowball that will eventually crush you under its icy weight as it gathers a terrifying amount of speed. ‘I’m engaged.’
Luckily, I was already sat down. This was the same friend I had been told off with in English class for being disruptive. The friend from a cynicism-making family of divorce just like mine, who had told me in no uncertain terms only a year before that she was happily destined for cat-ridden spinsterhood. So dedicated was she to this future that she had even bought the cats (no, I’m not kidding.) I hadn’t even known she’d had a boyfriend in the six months since I’d last seen her. And suddenly she was telling me – via SMS, no less – that she had ‘fallen in love in a way I never thought possible before.’ My fellow cat-lady had been brutally, irreparably slain by Cupid.
We had to meet to discuss this further, and fittingly enough, it was over breakfast after another person’s hen night. I gatecrashed this post-hen brunch to quiz my friend on her own wedding date and her sanity. Infuriatingly, she seemed entirely sane and blissfully happy. She held hands with her beau and said ‘I love you’ and all that stuff that makes you suspect she wasn’t actually held at gunpoint and forced into an unwanted arrangement. Shit.
Meanwhile, I was treated to a breakdown of the hen party from the night before: it wasn’t a ‘learner driver and penis headgear’ affair, I was assured, it was a classier kind of beast. They had dressed up in wedding dresses made out of tissue. They had played an invented game where you planned your own wedding on a made-up budget, making it as fabulous as possible, and then they had eaten dinner at a civilised restaurant, without a fireman stripper or a fishnet stocking in sight. Although it was true that nobody had fallen out of a nightclub and knocked out their two front teeth while trying to save their Jaegerbomb from the pavement, the two scenarios didn’t seem entirely removed from one another. They both struck equal terror into my heart. And then, of course, was the threat that my own friend would hold one sometime in the uncomfortably near future.
Aside from weddings themselves, the stag/hen do culture has always seemed a bit alien to me. It’s certainly an institution: Ann Summers shelves team with bachelor(ette) party fodder, from the aforementioned learner plates to penis-shaped, well, everything (some serious features from the Ann Summers website: penis bracelets, an ‘inflatable willy ball’, a neon penis shooter, a game called ‘Stick-A-Dick: pin the tail on the male’, ‘Blow-Me bubbles’, a glow-in-the-dark ‘willy hoopla’, and… oh God, the list goes on. And on, and on, and on, like a drunken shag bound to give you cystitis.) Meanwhile, you can’t navigate Heathrow Airport nowadays without bumping headlong into a group of men dressed up in adult nappies with dummies round their necks, or women adorned in pink veils, all proudly sporting T-shirts that promise ‘Sexy Sammy’, ‘Cheeky Charlie’, or some such other proud moniker.
See, there’s nothing entirely wrong with smothering a penis-shaped shot glass with chocolate body paint, filling it with vodka jelly, and then simulating a blow job on it in front of a fake policeman in a leather thong. But there’s something depressing about how conventional the scandals have become, and how backward-looking they have to be; how a hen night has to be all-out raunch or cupcakes and tissue wedding dresses, either fifties housewife or sixties displays of liberation from the already liberated. The problem with hen nights is not that there’s anything particularly surprising about the latest set of fluffy purple handcuffs that come free with the latest Agent Provocateur ‘hen night survival kit.’ It’s just that they’ve become so tiresomely repetitive of the past, in a way that even weddings themselves seem to have broken out of.
I stand on the cusp of an age where I will inevitably be asked to these events. And hen parties are now serious events: week-long Ibiza trawls have long taken over from the modest 60p shot crawl round Newcastle. Hen and stag do’s are bastions of girlishness and laddishness, separated by veils of neon pink and blue, hypersexualised displays of cocks and tits and arse and parodies of ‘the single life’ that become more extreme with every year (anecdotally, prostitution is now weeding its way into a part of the stag/hen ‘sphere of normality’ nowadays.) Either that, or you’re planning your imaginary wedding while the boys go paintballing. The way in which the genders suddenly separate when faced with an actual gender union is astounding. One click of a diamond-ringed finger and everyone instantly becomes a cartoon of themselves.
When the bitterness of losing my cat-companion has abated, I may find myself pouring out the jelly vodka shots, and enthusiastically jumping up on the bar to perform the first questionable karaoke version of It’s Raining Men. But just before I start planning the first of many, has anyone out there ever experienced a hen party that wouldn’t make me vomit? Can cyberspace bring forth some reassurance that we’re not all destined to dive headlong into ‘fairy wings versus combat pants’ the minute someone mentions commitment? Or am I doomed to trample along in the back, holding on to the learner plates and the bondage tape, until one day I’m wearing one too?