I’m stuck at home, watching yet another Netflix drama, the same high school party trope playing out on my screen once again: it’s the night before graduation, and The Nerdiest Girl in the World has finally made it to The Most Popular Guy in The World’s mansion, which she was of course, invited to as a joke. There’s beer pong and pizza, and obviously, a toxic love triangle that blows up in everyone’s face. Everyone’s either playing spin the bottle or complaining about how they’re not, and some knock-off Chainsmokers song is playing so loudly that no one can hear themselves think, not that anyone was doing much thinking that night anyways. All of the characters are 17, but all of the actors are at least 25. Ah, to be a teenager again.
If I were watching this scene a year ago, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. But now, in the midst of a pandemic, I’m absolutely horrified. The sight of dozens of drunk, sweaty people bumping and grinding up on each other in a tightly-cramped room makes me squirm in my seat. There are no masks, no single-file lines through the door, and no stickers on the floor demanding people stand six-feet apart. It’s disgusting. I know I’m watching a fictional party scene in a movie filmed long before the pandemic, but it makes my skin crawl.
I’m not alone in this feeling. Many of my friends have had similar experiences seeing parties on their screens. The parties posted on social media elicited the worst responses: the Instagram posts of popular girls posing in bikinis at late-night pool parties, Snapchat Stories of frat boys playing beer bong in their backyards, influencers stunting at “networking” events or flying across the globe to tropical island getaways. In these moments, the blatant disregard for the pandemic bleeds through our phone screens, smacking us in the face with an inevitable rush of emotions.
“If someone posts a photo or video at a full-on, no-mask party during COVID, I get incredibly angry as they’re just ruining it for all of us,” said Lithium writer Chloe Hecter, who attends Syracuse University, which was once deemed the number-one party school in the country by The Princeton Review. “Prior to the pandemic, I’d likely wonder where they were, whose party it was, and who was there.”
Nowadays, many of us still wonder the same things about parties, but for different reasons. It isn’t a matter of FOMO but public safety. We worry that if people don’t take the pandemic more seriously, things will never return to normal.
Consequently, we’ve created a new normal: calling people out for irresponsible social gathering. Especially amongst my college friends, it’s become the norm to not just hate on partying, but actively hate the people attending these events for being immoral. The “party” has become political.
Before the pandemic, parties served a two-fold purpose: to have fun, and to prove to other people that you were having fun. After all, what better place to show that you know how to have a good time? In teen dramas, characters drool over attending the hottest party of the year—the one where “anyone who is anybody” will be, and if you’re not, you’re a loser. In this regard, a party isn’t just a party; it’s also a validation of one’s worth and social clout.
To put things in the words of another Lithium writer, Chloe Rose, “Parties are a way for everyone to feel important. When I go to a party, it feels like a competition to be the most important one in the room. In reality, it’s absolutely impossible to have everyone paying attention to you, which is why I’m consistently let down by parties every time.”
In high school, I definitely felt this way—so much so that I defined myself by my hatred of parties. (Yes, I was one of those people). People were too fake, too shallow, too attention-hungry. The list goes on. But in college, something changed. I realized that, with the right people, there was something uniquely magical about parties.
It wasn’t that I suddenly loved the grimy feel of a frat house or the rancid smell of sweat and alcohol. I still hated those things, but in the high-stress environment of college, I fell in love with parties in a different way: I loved that every Friday night, my college friends and I would toss our homework aside, dress up, and dedicate the entire night to having fun together. I loved that after a chaotic night out, we’d cozy up in our dorm, stuffing our faces full of shitty takeout food and staying up until 3 AM talking about anything from our creepiest Tinder DMs to the meaning of life, until we’d inevitably pass out on the couch and return to our routines the next day.
Like many others during the pandemic, I’ve greatly missed these moments with friends; there’s something weirdly intimate about the college party experience, but now, every time I see a party I want to throw up.
Our conception of parties has shifted so dramatically during this pandemic that I can’t help but wonder if we’ll ever revert back to our normal habits. Will we shudder at the sensation of sweat dripping from our bodies in a crowded club, or will we crave the touch of another human being? Will we keep our masks on, anxious of the next big virus, or will be even more wild than before? In other words, will parties ever be what we expected again?
In more responsible countries where COVID-19 has been pretty much eliminated, residents have already returned to some sort of social normalcy. In Melbourne, Australia, for instance, up to 30 people are allowed in private residences, and even larger groups can gather in pre-booked venues. But not everyone has been taking advantage of the loose restrictions.
“I think initially in lockdown everyone wanted to go on a five-day bender when we got out, but once we actually got out we were exhausted,” said Madeline Burgess, an Australian Lithium writer. “I didn’t really see anything other than standard party/club/bar behavior. If anything, people were more careful to keep their distance.”
Burgess added that after a year of doing nothing, small talk is “horrendously awkward.” That being said, she said most people have been very respectful of guests needing to go home early to recharge their social battery.
Some of my friends in the States are expecting a similar transition—hoping that we’ll eventually resume normal party habits, even if the journey will be painfully awkward.
After all, besides the small population of people attending underground parties, most people haven’t been in a large group setting during the pandemic. As a country, we’ve become accustomed to staying away from these spaces—to avoiding socializing with strangers at all costs—and it will take a while to transition out of survival mode.
Personally, I already flinch when someone gets too close to me at a grocery store, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ve grown to like wearing a mask in public—not only for safety, but for style—and my best friend and I often joke that we’ll continue wearing masks after the pandemic (if not to prevent diseases, to hide our ugly faces). What better way to pick up a guy at a party than to maskfish him?
So now, out of necessity, we’ve reverted back to our pre-teen selves: Watching parties play out on our screens—in cheesy teen dramas, on social media, and even in our own iPhone memories. We sit there, yearning for an experience that no longer exists, wondering what it will be like when things finally “return to normal,” and if our first post-COVID party will live up to our expectations.
But we know how this story goes: real life hardly ever reflects the hyperglamorized party scenes we see on-screen, leading to an inevitable letdown. So why do we keep buying into the hype? Why not adjust our expectations to be more realistic, or even better, adjust parties to meet our expectations?
Whether it’s the germ-encrusted countertop of an open bar or the obnoxiously loud frat bros fist-bumping each other in their way-too-tight muscle tees, parties have always been imperfect—even party enthusiasts would agree. But this pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine parties on our own terms. If harnessed correctly, the mainstream focus on social distancing could open the door for other much-needed discussions about crowded spaces. We can get to work on creating safer party spaces in terms of public health, eliminating sexual assault and harassment, encouraging safer drug and alcohol consumption, and more. The parties we see on-screen don’t need to be the parties we return to post-pandemic, and honestly, that’s for the best.
By Kiddest Sinke
Illustration by Julia Tabor