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    Friday, November 04, 2005

    Prom Night


    Slate magazine discusses Prom:

    In the early 1970s at my unconventional private school in Brooklyn, a prom was unthinkable—a bourgeois and sexist ritual of the traditionalist '50s that our parents might have enjoyed but we, long-haired and liberated, disdained. It wasn't just urban sophisticates like us who sneered. I double-checked with friends who went to a big suburban high school on Long Island—my idea then of the quintessential American teen educational experience—and they didn't go to any proms, either. That is right in line with what Amy Best reports in her slim social history, Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture: During the late 1960s and early '70s, she says, "many 'irreverent' youths brought them to a halt" all across the country. In other words, countless baby boomer parents of today's prom-age teenagers never experienced the iconic coming-of-age ritual. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised by the current prom mess: The erstwhile school dance and celebration of an impending diploma has morphed into a bacchanal sponsored by staggering parental largesse (some estimates put the cost at $800 per couple). A generation of adults, as therapists would say, are working out prom issues.

    Father Philip K. Eichner and Brother Kenneth M. Hoagland of a Long Island Catholic High School chose not to have a Prom this year:
    "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be," that inspired the prom's cancellation, Eichner and Hoagland explain. "It is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake—in a word, financial decadence."


    Money was a big factor for me in avoiding school dances. I had the money; I just preferred to spend it on things I considered cool. As a teen, I was very sophisticated. In fact, by the time of my senior Prom, I'd already skipped town for the Big City.

    These days, the prom signals, if anything, a regression to an immature mean. It is an orgy of consumption that entails abandoning the pretense to policing sex/booze/drugs, sustained over four previous years by parents, kids, and school administrators. High school—at least in middle-class places—occasions no end of hand-wringing by boomer parents and educators about that trifecta of perils (which boomers themselves of course sought out as teens and survived). Given their own wild pasts, parents find themselves trapped in the pose of earnest worriers, shying away from the hypocritical role of scourges. And so they lay down the law by citing the medical (not the moral) dangers of drink, etc., and their kids roll their eyes and break the rules. Come prom time, however, the compact is out the window. Then—to cite Eichner and Hoagland—"fathers [sign] the contract for Captain Jim's booze-cruise out of Huntington for an after-prom adventure," while mothers make motel reservations. And kids eagerly buy into the whole business. They rush out to spend their parents' money on clothes hyped at events like Macy's 1999 "It's Not Your Mother's Prom" fashion show. On prom night itself, they overindulge in drink, drugs, and sex, a first only in the sense that heretofore they've done so with the thrill of illicitness. Now they're partaking with parental approval.

    There is this weird endorsement of debauchery that comes with Prom. Because Prom is considered, for some weird reason, "important". There is also this very serious and sort of FINAL acceptance of gender and sexual roles and mores that the Prom signifies. And I think those gender roles are part of what authorizes the acceptance of sex and alcohol and the absolutely ridiculous expenditures the Prom entails.

    I think part of it is that something feels safe and by safe I mean "normal" about a bunch of kids losing their virginity (virginities?) on the same night in the same way. That, of course, is not what's going on. Few people actually lose their virginity on Prom night, but it is enough of a cliche to make parents sit home in front of the TV and think that this is some beautiful night of awakening for their kids. As opposed to imagining this sexual experience going on in the backseat of the car of some kid they've never seen. It's nice to meet the boy or girl, take their picture looking their best, and, in lavishing money and anticipation on the night of Prom, ensure that this sexual experience is "special". It takes away the guessing game. Parents can assume their child is no longer a virgin without imagining the reality of their child's sexual experience.

    And that is one major way that it approximates weddings. (Your Prom and Teen Prom (two magazines [that] market the event as a "pre-wedding").)

    Amy Best salutes youths for such subversive gestures as wearing Doc Martens with their tuxes or sticking radishes in their lapels ("using irony as a rhetorical tactic to disrupt, expose and resist the adult meaning systems through which the prom is defined"). But if kids are looking for a truly radical way to assert their power and signal that they've finally grown up, they can tell their parents to take their lavish prom-night clothing allowances, liquor-stocked limos, and condos, and go to hell.

    While I agree completely with Ann Hulbert, I wonder if perhaps her aversion to the Prom is not as rooted in her psychology as the love for the Prom is in the boomer parents she scourges. I wish people would just stop Prom-ming. But there is something deeply satisfying about lesbian Prom kings and other such subversions of the middle-class suburban trope and it is most likely more effective than just not showing up.

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