Hen parties are simply great big celebrations of friendship

Writing In a Dark, Dark Wood, I spent a lot of time talking to women about their hen parties and bachelorettes, listening to horror stories (some hilarious, some just horrifying) and thinking about their place in society. There are so many different versions, from the French enterrement de vie de jeune fille to the Swedish möhippa, and practically every country has some way of marking the occasion. When there’s so much to hate, why do we love them so much? This is a piece I originally wrote for the British magazine The Pool, reflecting on the question.

Practically every woman has a horror story to tell – the one where the bride got roaring drunk and broke her ankle so she had a cast for the big day. The one where the maid of honour encountered one of her pupils, while dressed as a Playboy bunny complete with ears and tail. The one where the groom’s mother blurted out a horrendously frank sexual confession during “truth or dare”. The one where the stripper failed to show and an amateur replacement was drafted in. Apparently the clue that he was not exactly Magic Mike material was when he folded his clothes after taking them off…
Maybe it’s the L-plates, or the expense, or the costumes (oh God, the costumes), or the peculiar horror of being coerced into doing borderline-humiliating activities with a group of comparative strangers – plus paying through the nose for the privilege… but for whatever reason, we love to hate the hen. Mention the word to a group of women (particularly if they’re of a certain age – at the stage where wedding invitations are plopping through the letterbox like unpaid bills) and you’ll get a chorus of laughs and groans, and the rueful tales will start – of £700 bills, of massive fall-outs, of organisers so bossy they made US border guards look chilled. And in a way the ambivalence is understandable – I’ve yet to meet a woman who actually wanted her face ground into the sweaty crotch of a strange man more extensively waxed than herself.



So why do we do it to ourselves? If they’re such a pain, why do we keep saying yes? Yes to the invitation, yes to the dressing up in silly costumes, yes to the idea of having one at all? I don’t buy the idea of the whole “one last night as a single girl” thing – does anyone really think, these days at least, that her hen party will be the last night of freedom before her husband puts his manly slippered foot down and chains her to the sink? I hope not.

I guess part of it is tradition – everyone else is having one/going, so won’t it look weird if I don’t? Part of it is politeness – I don’t really fancy it, but she’s invited me and I don’t want to offend her. Part of it is undoubtedly because, cringe-worthiness not withstanding, they can be really, really fun. (There’s nothing bonds people together like a mix of embarrassment and alcohol).

But I think the real reason is that in an age that fetishises romantic attachment beyond all else – with whole sections of the film and book industry devoted to couples igniting that special spark – the hen party is the one time we publicly celebrate friendship, and everything that goes with that. There are no anniversaries of meeting our best friend, no “renewal of vows” where we confirm our commitment to the people who get us through thick and thin. And yet friends are often there for you when partners falter, when that romantic spark peters out, when, for whatever reason, you just need a soulmate of the non-sexual kind.

The greetings card industry has made a day for almost everything now – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, every kind of anniversary and milestone imaginable from new jobs, to new houses to new babies and beyond. There are even Happy Retirement cards. And they have in fact manufactured a “Friendship Day” according to Wikipedia. But the fact that I had to Google to see if one existed says volumes about the fact that there are not many points in life when we sit down and really take stock – who are the people who matter most to us?

Hens (and stags) are a way of doing just that. And, like the friendships they celebrate, they can be slightly double-edged affairs, spiced with one-upmanship, pranking and weird bonding rituals that can feel more like hazing than fun. Hen nights hark back to an age when turning up to a party in the same clothes as your best friend was the BEST FUN EVER rather than a social disaster, a time when friendship meant having your commitment to the group tested by being asked to do stuff you’d rather not. When you were ten, that was putting a drawing pin on the teacher’s chair, or telling Jason Fitch that you fancied him. These days it’s rubbing shaving foam into a stranger’s pecs, or drinking from a penis. Tomato, tomahto, I guess.

So maybe it’s time to embrace the L-plates, or better yet, just embrace your mates. In fact, you know what? Don’t wait until the next hen night to do it.