Rise of the Penis Piñata
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A few weeks ago, I attended a friend's bachelorette party. In the days preceding, my kitchen morphed into a workshop dedicated to constructing penis-shaped objects to eat and to hit. Resting atop my kitchen table like a prize pig at a state fair was a large pink papier-mâché penis piñata stuffed with condoms, chocolates, and individually wrapped packets of lube. Meanwhile, a large, thickly frosted phallic cake occupied the lower half of my refrigerator.
It wasn't until later (one slice of penis cake down, and the remnants of a bashed piñata safely deposited in the garbage can) that I realized how odd it is that the modern bachelorette party—by and large, a gender-segregated event—is festooned with facsimiles of male genitalia. It seems there is an entire industry devoted to shoving genitals—penis whistles, penis pasta, penis straws, and of course, penis cake—into a bride's face. (Vagina whistles, pasta, piñatas, and cakes are hard to come by.) Ask anyone to spot the bridal party at a crowded bar, and he or she will inevitably point to the group of women sucking on penis-shaped lollipops ("cocksuckers," get it?) and ordering rounds of Sex on the Beach (it's sex—on a beach!). The use of gag gifts at bachelorette parties has become so ingrained in our culture that to have a party that does not in some way feature phallic objects is almost blasphemous.
But the penis-prop industry is a relatively new addition to bachelorette parties, events originally intended to give the bride an opportunity to participate in prewedding festivities and express her sexual freedom. Early bachelorette parties emerged sometime during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and were loosely modeled after the bachelor party. These male-oriented celebrations have roots that stretch much deeper than that of the bachelorette party. They began in the fifth century BC, when Spartan soldiers held a dinner for the groom and a toast to his honor. Over time, the parties grew more rowdy, and the celebratory activities were perceived as more lewd and sexual in nature. Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette describes the bachelor party as "a sodden good-bye to old bachelor days, an event where the groom and his ushers share an evening of abandonment a night or two before the wedding that usually includes a great deal of drinking."
Later, pop culture lauded the bachelor party as a night of pure debauchery before the heavy cuffs of marriage end a groom's days of sexual freedom. Bachelor Party (1984) was the first film to focus on the exploits of the eponymous event, with Tom Hanks starring as the perennial party-animal-turned-fiancé. His friends, incredulous at his interest in settling down, throw him a wild party complete with a donkey snorting cocaine, an orgy, and his fiancée eventually questioning his fidelity. (The bride and her friends also hit the town in retaliation for the bachelor party's perceived debauchery. It is, however, never explicitly called a "bachelorette party.")
Then there's arguably the most famous film in the bachelors-gone-wild genre, 2009's The Hangover, in which four friends head to Vegas for a night of revelry before the wedding. In the course of the evening, they lose the groom, collect a baby, engage in infidelity (a member of the wedding party drunkenly marries a stripper), and steal a tiger from Mike Tyson. The message of these films is that the bachelor party is simply a glorification of men behaving badly.
Prior to the 1960s, women didn't celebrate the "end" of their sexual freedom in ritualized parties like men because it was believed that women weren't actually giving anything up in marriage. Women were not expected to feel sad about their impending nuptials, nor were they expected to lament the end of their single days in drunken bacchanalia—marriage was the aspirational end point. Bachelorette parties emerged only when attitudes about sexuality and marital roles shifted; specifically, when the brides-to-be were no longer assumed to be virgins on their wedding night.
Instead of bachelorette parties, brides were given showers in which they were given gifts—usually housewares and cooking utensils—to prepare them for married life. The shower remains a pillar of prewedding ritual (according to TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com's 2012 Real Weddings Study, 83 percent of brides have showers) and a time in which married women pass on advice and secrets to successful marriage. Many bridal-shower themes focus on the traditional domestic role of women, such as cooking or garden parties. These parties are ruled by etiquette, and they tend to romanticize marriage as the pinnacle of a woman's aspirations. Jaclyn Geller, author of the 2001 book Here Comes the Bride, points out that "as opposed to the raunchy bachelor party, the female shower is mawkishly sentimental and marriage oriented." Though once it may have served to socialize the young bride to sex through advice and gifts of racy lingerie, the shower was rarely overtly sexual in nature.
Early bachelorette parties typically followed the more formal bridal shower, and included guests outside of wedding attendants, but there is little research on them detailing what actually took place. Beth Montemurro, a sociologist who studies bridal events, suggests that early parties sought to provide "the bride with an unforgettable last weekend where she would be able to realize the magnitude of the transition from single to married."
According to Montemurro, through the 1980s bachelorette parties did not explicitly mimic bachelor parties in their perceived sexual deviance. Instead, they were events that sought to reaffirm friendship before marriage without the formality of other prewedding rituals. In other words, the bachelorette party was more about celebrating friendship in a relaxed setting than participating in debauched or sexualized antics.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the bachelorette party was even given a name, and the late '90s before it was widely discussed in media (including women's and bridal magazines) or studied in academia. (Cosmo's first article about bachelorette parties appeared in 1998 and suggested that activities should be tailored to the bride's tastes, even if "you know your pal secretly wants to rub oil on the gun of a scantily clad 'police officer.'") The 1980s brought a subtle shift in tone to the parties—they were usually planned in advance and began to shadow the male version in activity. The first newspaper article to explain what a bachelorette party entailed appeared in 1988, and in it the male author, Richard Roeper (yes, of Ebert & Roeper fame) exclaims conspiratorially, "Guys, you're not going to like this, but my research indicates that on the Bawdy Meter, the typical bachelorette party easily tops its male counterpart."
This shift marked the end of the staid bachelorette soiree, one in which friendship above all else was celebrated, and the beginning of the move toward a manufactured mimicry of the male version. Geller maintains that the bachelorette party is "a gesture of retaliation rather than a real sensual adventure…[answering] an imagined insult, responding to the bachelor party's text (lewd sexuality) rather than its subtext (lamenting lost friendship)."
Several factors contributed to the rise of the penis-centric modern bachelorette party. Montemurro notes that "throughout the late 1990s and into the first few years of the 21st century, there was a boom in print media coverage of bachelorette parties, reflecting the increase in the popularity of the parties themselves." Descriptions of rowdy women commandeering bars and salivating over the chiseled pectorals of male strippers became salacious fodder for women's and wedding magazines. Additionally, women began taking bachelorette activities outside of private homes and into the public sphere. Bars, clubs, and restaurants became popular venues for bachelorette festivities, and because women were celebrating in public, it was easy to witness (and comment on) their rowdy behavior.
According to the 2012 Real Weddings Survey, 77 percent of brides have a bachelorette party. Activities are designed to pantomime naughtiness without creeping past the boundaries of acceptable behavior. After all, a penis straw is too quirky to be salacious, right? But bawdy bachelorette culture is a manufactured construct that grew from the hushed urgings of big business. Between 1990 and 2002, the average cost of a wedding grew by almost 50 percent. There are nearly 2.1 million new marriages each year, and in 2012 couples spent an average of $28,427 on their wedding and the flurry of ritualized events that precede it. From the engagement party and bridal shower to the rehearsal dinner and bachelor and bachelorette parties, getting married is more expensive than ever. Weddings and prewedding rituals have become lavish affairs that barely resemble past traditions. In her 2007 book One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead points out that in the first decade of 2000, bridal magazines conveyed the message that a wedding is "a consumer rite of passage, in which the taking up of a new role in life is given material substance through the acquisition of products and services for both the wedding itself and for the marriage that is to follow."
The bachelorette party has become its own consumer rite of passage, and as the parties gained popularity, new rituals were introduced. Embarrassing the bride became a central focus, with bachelorettes instructed to wear fancy sashes, veils, or hats to distinguish them from their friends, and it's customary to shove various symbols of genitalia into their blushing faces. An article on TheKnot.com lists the seven "must-have" party props for modern bachelorettes. The author advises women to "add a hint of hooker to the bachelorette's outfit to make her feel dangerous, daring, and fabulously embarrassed," and to "make a beeline for the penis sipper (a.k.a. 'dickie sippie') and straws…these two items make the most sense, provide a constant laugh, and allow everyone to get in on the phallic fun."
The forced use of phallic symbols at bachelorette parties suggests that the role of women in heterosexual marriages is simply to penis-please and that an evening of female bonding must include a reminder of the men they're leaving at home. During the bride's last night to express her sexuality, she is instead encouraged to worship and covet cutesy symbols of the penis. It's unlikely that a woman would be seen carrying around a penis straw at a Sunday luncheon, but within the confines of the prescribed hypersexual bachelorette party it seems only normal.
The use of penis props also mocks the supposed sexual purity of a bride (after all, she'll likely be wearing white on her wedding day to symbolize her virginity) by insinuating that she'll be horrified or embarrassed by all the cocks around her. These props are emblematic of the contradictory roles the bride is forced to play: Within hours of the bachelorette party ending, she'll morph from bawdy bachelorette to blushing, virginal bride.
The rise of queer marriage has already shifted the conversation about the sacred institution, and it will no doubt shift the traditions surrounding it as well. Steven Petrow, author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners, notes that same-sex couples are creating their own wedding rituals, ones that often leave gender-essentialist rituals by the wayside. These changing traditions will inevitably trickle down into prewedding events, either queering bachelor and bachelorette parties or perhaps speeding toward the end of such festivities entirely.
The business of being a bride-to-be mandates a wild party, contrived sexual deviance (within the boundaries of acceptable behavior), and a set of rituals that have strayed far from their original intent. Though bachelorette festivities still celebrate female friendships, the ritual of bonding is often overshadowed by the manufactured naughtiness of the penis-prop culture. I wonder how bachelorette parties will change in coming years as they become institutionalized rituals of weddings. I wonder if the traditions created by queer marriages will usher in a new era of celebratory activities. And I can only hope that when it comes time for my own bachelorette party, it's devoid of penis propaganda.
Madeline Grimes is a writer living in Brooklyn. She's written for Brooklyn Magazine, Budget Travel, Salon, and The Awl, among other publications.
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