Friday, May 20, 2011

Prom--Or, an American Tradition Gone Awry

The other day my family went looking for prom dresses for my sister. The first place we stopped was an expensive boutique with thousands of dresses. As I was about to step inside, Adrianna remarked casually,

“This place is really crowded with dresses.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, assuming she meant densely packed on hangers, or maybe not much aisle space.

“You’ll see.”

As it turned out, the store was a claustrophobe’s nightmare—a thin bit of waddling space alongside giant round racks of dresses zipped up in plastic garment bags, every color and style imaginable. By the time we walked out (no dress in hand), it felt like Adrianna had tried every single one of them.

She finally found her dream dress in a less specialized department store (where the dresses also cost half as much). The emphasis was on finding something that would be long enough to also wear at a piano recital.

What’s funny about my sister going prom dress shopping with the rest of my family in tow is that my parents were never that big on prom. More specifically, my dad didn’t go to his because he wasn’t into his high school social scene (or, as my sister translates it, he was a social outcast), and my mom grew up in ‘70s Communist China, where high school dance opportunities were pretty nonexistent.

The American tradition of high school prom, however, seems to have found a believer in my older sister—along with what seems like every American news organization. World News with Diane Sawyer on ABC broadcast not one, but two prom stories—the first to congratulate all the brave souls asking their significant others to go to prom with them, the second as a follow-up story on a boy who was suspended for trespassing on school property to post giant cardboard letters on the side of the school asking his girlfriend to go to prom with him. He’s now become a celebrity, having appeared on Today, Jimmy Kimmel, and others.

As a writer, I get it. Prom has all the elements of a popular story. It reeks of all-Americanness, tension, drama. It has romance. Pretty dresses. Dancing. Limos. High school. Coming of age. But couldn’t we get all that (maybe minus dancing, pretty dresses, and limos) with something that didn’t cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, students valuable hours in fundraising, working-class families worry over how they could afford dress and tuxedo shopping? Maybe an awards ceremony or gala to honor the unique in-school and extracurricular accomplishments of seniors? If you wanted, you could still dress up, invite a guest or two, roll out a red carpet, have music, call it prom...but you would be congratulating and evaluating people based on what they’ve done for others, not just how they’re dressed or who they’re going with.

The current concept of prom just seems so empty. Teenagers get dressed up to go to a dance at a fancy location. It encourages social inclusion or exclusion based on your ability or inability to snag a date. I feel like schools shouldn’t be taking a role in supporting dating this way—even for seniors. And it starts way earlier. People often start by going to their junior high dances in seventh grade, maybe followed by a formal dance (my sister’s was on a dinner boat in Seattle) in ninth, homecoming every year through high school, and of course, the jewel in the crown, prom in senior year. I mention this to people I’ve met in Europe—this system of dances and social events—and I haven’t heard of any equivalent.

So how did the prom come about? According to this interesting article from Mental Floss, the prom actually originated in the 1800s as an effort to teach etiquette and good manners to college students. It migrated to high school students with the same goal. Mental Floss described it this way: “the senior class, dressed in their “Sunday best,” gathered in the gym for tea and light refreshments, socializing and dancing under crepe paper streamers and the watchful eyes of chaperones.” It only started migrating to fancy locations in the 1950s, and in the 1980s, the prom became the giant deal that it is today, with students voting on where they want their prom to be...sometimes two years in advance. Paying hundreds—or thousands—of dollars for dresses and dinner and pictures and corsages.

Imagine if we took all of that effort, money, and thought that goes into designing a high school student’s in-school social experience, and put that into designing a student’s educational experience. There’s nothing wrong with getting dressed up and having a celebration of your high school life, whether in a dance or a ceremony or a conference...I just take issue with the American obsession that is the modern day prom.


  1. Adora, I agree with you that prom is silly, though I'm not sure a fancy dress academic awards ceremony would be much better. At any rate, I enjoyed reading this--very polished and concise.

  2. you raise a valid point in that it does put a strain on families because of the social expectations, however I think that prom has a lot of value -- even more than you have described. it IS primarily a coming of age. it's like the gateway into adulthood in a way... taking away this tradition would spark more outrage than benefit in my opinion.

    I also think celebration of academic success would also leave out those who are, well, not as academically successful, making some people feel ostracized (which is comparable to feeling like a social outsider if you can't 'snag a date'). Not to mention there are plenty of times during the year where success is rewarded. Prom is for everyone, not just those who do well in the conventional sense.

    I don't know if it's just the American ideas of prom, but here in New Zealand we have the equivalent 'high school balls'. And we have like grade 6-7 'social dances' as well. They're designed to make people more comfortable with socialising with others, especially with the opposite gender (I actually went to an all girls' school so if that sounds weird that may be why).

    Schools nowadays do not simply teach knowledge. they must educate the mind, teach morals and prepare students for the world beyond the classroom. a social aspect of education is necessary for the times we live in; it's not enough to just be academically smart anymore, we also have to be street smart and socially responsible. I guess I'm just trying to say that Prom and other things that one would initially consider to be superfluous actually do have some value. It may not be immediately measurable but the experience is surely valuable.

  3. Honestly, I think people take proms WAY too seriously. I mean, it is just one night where you dress up, dance, eat cheep food, then go home. But I guess not all proms are like that. In our school, we are going to only have one dance at all and it'll be for our graduation, which is in about 4-5 years time. So I guess this prom could be taken a little more seriously. But some people honestly do take it too far, and like you mentioned in your post, especially with the outfits.

    I have a friend who is actually about to graduate elementary school and she has been looking for a dress since the beginning of the year and still hasn't found the "perfect" one. I mean, out of all the stores she (and sometimes me too when she dragged me along), there wasn't something that was PERFECT. There were dresses that she liked, and many that caught her eye, but none of them were good enough. And even when she did find one that was absolutely amazing, it was just too expensive. For me, I would just throw on a dress I like, don't bother with makeup, then go to the prom. Some people really do take it way to seriously.

    Just an add-on, I think your blog is great and i look forward to reading new posts. I'm trying to write a book as well and get one published at least by the time I turn 14. So anyway, great post!

  4. Where I teach, I am the assistant advisor and help put together the prom. The amount of money spent by the students is crazy. It can cost at least $200, and I'm sure that's not what they really end up spending.

    In the end, though, when you see your child/student dressed up in sophisticated and elegant attire, it's all worth it. The smiles on their faces is priceless, and it's a once in a lifetime experience that you will remember for a long time.

  5. With the drastic disengagement of government resources to fund schools, I almost choke at the conception of a $200 prom dress for a student using obsolete textbooks.

    I hope the inflation of important social gatherings in the face of a dire need to invest in a source of usable knowledge is just a joke. If not, we can look forward to 'prom' being the final exam.