Anthony Ellis and Daniel Briggs
“Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the firm instruction and advice that is given to ‘Doug’, played by American actor Justin Bartha, as he is about to embark on his ‘bachelor party’; his ‘last night of freedom’ before his marriage in the popular comedy film The Hangover. After journeying to Las Vegas with three friends with the intention of just having some drinks together to celebrate Doug’s impending marriage, the following morning his three friends wake up on their hotel room floor, hungover, to find a live tiger in their bathroom, a baby in their wardrobe, a chicken wandering aimlessly around empty wine bottles, beer cans, clothes and broken furniture strewn across the floor, and ‘Doug’, the groom, missing. Told through a series of flashbacks as the characters attempt to piece together the night’s events and find their missing compatriot under a mist of collective amnesia, the film focuses upon one night of seemingly unintended extreme drink and drug fuelled revelry that involves deviant and criminal behaviour. The film was released in 2009 and was greeted with positive reviews from critics; earning it the accolade of one of the highest grossing films worldwide during the year of its release.
While the film offers an, at times, very humorous take on what is a well-established rite of passage for men in many Western societies, it actually offers a useful analytical window to a variety of contemporary social issues, such as, gender, risk-taking, self-destruction and harm, deviance, and crime, all of which are tangled up in the aggressive pursuit of personal gratification and pleasure through hyper consumption in one of the world’s numerous ‘party capitals’. Initially in the film, the substances consumed by the actors appear to be the culprits for their sudden descent into raucous, extreme and unrestrained hedonism that leaves a trail of mayhem and destruction in their wake; repeating age-old associations that the ‘drug does the damage to the consumer’. Yet, as the story unfolds, we see aspects of the characters that had remained ‘hidden’ initially. The character ‘Stu’ played by Ed Helms – a discernibly middle class straight-laced dentist who is horrified at waking up to find one of his front teeth is missing and later that he had married a lap dancer during the night – struggles throughout the film to come to terms with the emergence of this seemingly unfamiliar ‘darker side’ that is attached to his personality as well as his exploits during the night that seems to drastically contradict and oppose the values that structure his life and sense of self.
Furthermore, it is through ‘Stu’s’ internal conflict and moral quandary that we can begin to carve out and extract important contemporary sociological themes around self-identity, the pressure and the will to enjoy and consume to sometimes extreme levels, and the kinds of behaviours that emerge in commercially-cultivated contexts where socially-expected normative comportment is largely absent and actually discouraged. Are the character’s drink and drug-fuelled antics simply another exemplar of that old adage of ‘boys will boys’? Is this really how men ‘should’ celebrate the eve of marriage? Or do in fact these behaviours represent manifestations of an obscene form of hyper, or hegemonic (Connell, 2005), masculinity that is performed and embraced in certain contexts? While contemporary notions of masculinity are certainly significant within the film, particularly the connections that are established with risk-taking, self-destruction, heterosexuality, excessive consumption and ‘cool’ individualism, further important questions can be derived in relation to the increasing emphasis that is now being placed contemporarily upon ensuring one is enjoying oneself, taking time out from the ‘pressures’ of work and family life to enjoy the moment, to live for the now, before the arrival of inevitable commitments to partners, children and families which restrict opportunities for hedonistic wanton and crazy indulgence. Central to this are also the numerous consumerist leisure spaces that have been developed to both cater for and promote this ideology. These are all important tropes that are now a highly visible part of our contemporary social life and ones that frequently appear in the marketing and advertising of various consumer products, including the stag/bachelor party and The Hangover film depicting it. We are bombarded with messages that increasingly encourage us to occasionally suspend day-to-day comportment, to take ‘time out’ from our usual routines, to forget our age, profession, responsibilities, and the social expectations/constraints that accompany these to gleefully throw ourselves into supposedly limitless hedonistic pursuits. To what extent is this ‘extension’ of youth or the ‘dissolution’ of life stages that has become symptomatic of life in late capitalist economies (see Hayward, 2012; Smith, 2013) and something many young people must now carefully negotiate (Raymen, 2016), an important context to frame the events within the film, but also the behaviour of the many men we have observed and interviewed in our research study?
While for obvious reasons the antics engaged in by the characters during the film are rather extreme and exaggerated, the connection that is established in the film between deviance, harm, crime and the stag/bachelor party are already quite firmly established ones within popular culture. A brief perusal of media outputs produces numerous stories of British men at home and abroad ending up in trouble because of stag party antics that have ‘gone too far’. A similar perusal of company websites specialising in the sale of stag parties and the various paraphernalia (inflatable sheep, women and phalluses, t-shirts) associated with them provides further evidence of these tropes of edgy, deviant, excessive behaviour, ‘hyper’ masculinity, debauchery, and personal freedom that permeate the stag party. Yet acknowledgement of this is largely ignored in what is a surprisingly small body of academic work carried out on the stag party. The existing sociological work on these events mostly acknowledges and attempts to deal with the ritualistic parodies of humiliation and self-degradation that frequently characterise these events (see Thurnell-Read, 2011; 2012). Finally, anecdotal evidence from large numbers of married men, and those who have attended stag parties, demonstrates the social expectations that quite often accompany these events. We include ourselves in this too: Daniel’s stag party involved excessive alcohol consumption and he was forced to walk up and down a beach covered in glitter, armbands and dressed only in women’s underwear. Although Anthony has not had his own stag party – but will in due course have it – he has attended numerous others. Heavy drinking and pranks, as well as various forms of deviant and in some cases criminal behaviour, were both expected and realised during some of these events. As researchers, we had both encountered and collected qualitative data on stag parties taking place in the night time economy through our respective research projects, and share a mutual interest in deviant, risk-taking and criminal behaviour within this leisure context. So, this quite firmly established relationship was one that we sought to explore further through ethnographic research and together we set about the task of attempting to make some sense of these occasions.
In particular, as discussed above in The Hangover, we were interested in the ways in which excessive alcohol consumption, associated risky behavior and harm can, and very often did, collectively evolve as social norms in these contexts (see Hall and Winlow 2015). What struck us immediately during our observations but also during interviews we conducted was the general expectation and anticipation that the ‘stag’, and his compatriots, should enjoy themselves and this extended to certain activities that they felt they should be engaging in. Their expectations were very often for a ‘wild’, ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ night or weekend that would be worthy of a place in folklore; one that the group would remember for the rest of their lives; evidence they had ‘lived’ and would not need to suffer the indignity of remorse or regret over what might have been later in life. There were quite intense feelings of desperation and anxiety when faced with the prospect of having not enjoyed oneself, of having not taken the opportunity, of not having ‘lived’. Amongst many of our respondents this sheer desperation was palpable and was underlined with the threat of feelings of personal humiliation and inadequacy because there were often very awkward assumptions made in relation to what these men had come to learn was expected of them in a leisure context and situation which suspends those constraints that are attached to day-to-day behaviour. Our research shows that many of the things suggested, and which took place, simply echoed much of the commercial ideology surrounding what the stag party has come to be about – a “last night of freedom”, hence the company with the same name offering drinks packages, club entry and the promise of a night surrounded by half-naked beautiful women. Importantly, these various observations extend beyond the mere context of the stag party and the night time economy to various other forms of leisure and spheres of social life. They speak powerfully to life under advanced liberal capitalism and the way in which it has quite fundamentally altered our emotional and collective lives. Feelings of fear, insecurity and precariousness in relation to employment, relationships, friendships, personal identities and leisure can be very typical for increasingly anxious subjects fixated on avoiding a terrifying abyss of social and cultural insignificance that contains the various ‘losers’ in late capitalism’s ubiquitous competitive contests for personal distinction (Hall, 2012; Hall et al, 2008; Horsley, 2015; Smith, 2013; Smith and Raymen, 2015; Standing, 2011; Winlow and Hall, 2009).
As we discuss in our work, risky and potentially harmful activity did trouble some of the men we encountered; catapulting some of them into moral quandaries or dilemmas about their behaviour and the consequences of it. For some, their retrospective musings revolved around a tension between following the strong and palpable injunction to enjoy, the importance of having stories to tell, of being able to say they had ‘lived’. In fact, when we took them aside – out of the group context of pressurised and competitive consumption – some were quite philosophical about these issues, while some were scared and ashamed about what they did. This raises further important questions that criminology should be routinely concerning itself with: namely why, even when faced with the prospect of harming oneself or potentially others, do some individuals act in damaging ways? Furthermore, and in pertinence to the discussion here, why are various forms of harm normalised, accepted, embedded, actively endorsed and encouraged, particularly in commercialised contexts? Our work here along with the cultural significance and positioning of events like stag parties, raises such important and significant questions for criminology and sociology to consider against the broader backdrop of the dominance of consumer capitalism.
You can access the full article published in Deviant Behaviour journal here.
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