Have you heard of the high school student who was suspended from school for asking Miss America to prom? It sounds a little ridiculous, but the real story isn’t all that out of line. He went against a direct instruction by the school administration, who didn’t want him disrupting their event of having her speak at the school. His suspension was about defying authority – however benignly – and how the school has to handle disciplinary issues.
That being said, it didn’t take long for a feminist with a voice – Amanda Marcotte, who was previously associated with John Edwards – to declare that the student’s punishment is just, not because of authority and defiance issues, though. She declared that his actions amounted to sexual harassment.
As disgusted and flabbergasted as I am by her opinion, I can almost understand it. After all, when I was in high school it was not considered out of place for a guy to get a hotel room for the night for himself and his date on prom night. Too few people at my high school ever batted an eye at the notion that if a guy shelled out plenty of money for prom, he should receive sexual favors as a reward. I haven’t spent a lot of time studying prom culture – promology? – since my high school years, however, my general impression is that things have not really changed for the better. So if a woman feels that asking a girl to prom is tantamount to asking for sexual favors, well, maybe she isn’t too far off the mark in this day and age.
However, I hope that you and I can agree that prom should not be viewed as an occasion for sex. Yet, even if we are agreed on that point, there are some other issues with current prom culture that I think deserve some extra thought. Here are a few trends I’ve taken note of in the last couple years:
- Prom proposals: Guy wants to take girl to prom. He doesn’t just walk up to her one day at school and say, “Hey, um, so… would you like to go to prom with me?” No, he gets all his buddies to play a part in unraveling some grand plan, holding up signs or banners or some such, and then he pops out with flowers and gets down on a knee and everything. It’s all very sweet, but it reminds me of something… Oh, yes, that’s it! Marriage proposal! So, when he wants to ask the girl to marry him (presuming she’s the girl for him), how is he going to top the prom proposal?
- Fancy photography: Once was a time when prom photos involved a shot of the couple on the front porch by mom’s camera, and a really expensive single shot at the dance itself by the professional photographer. Now I note that some couples get photos done by a “professional” (might be her cousin…) a couple weeks in advance, already in prom attire, and the poses involve all kinds of clever and amusing shots. Once again, though, these photos seem all too reminiscent of a much more significant event in a person’s life.
- The before prom party,the dinner, the prom, the after prom party, the after prom party party…: What happened to, you know, going out to the Cheesecake Factory for supper, then going to the dance, then bidding one another goodnight? Why such an effort to make it an all-day and all-night event?
While these trends, when taken alone, aren’t necessarily bad, together they make me wonder if prom has been conflated into something way bigger than it was originally meant to be, and I wonder if that is healthy. So, let’s all take a moment to remember where prom came from, and hopefully glean some ideas about what it ought to be.
Prom (short for “Promenade”) in its earliest form it was a means for wealthy parents to introduce their daughter to society, to entertain potential suitors. The girl would not be attached to any one boy, but would dance with many, and only later on might the possibility of a relationship develop. Certainly, no expectation would be placed on her, other than that she be courteous and social.
It had little to do with schools until the early 1900s, and even then it was more of an excuse for young debutantes to put on some nice clothes and be sociable with one another. Intervening decades have added various traditions, including the responsibility of the boy to ask the girl, the exchange of flowers, the after party, and the expectation of traveling to and from the dance in a limousine.
These developments aren’t all bad. There is something very fun for teenagers about dressing up nicely, doing something luxurious for a night, and having lots of pictures with which to remember the evening. But I think we need to caution our teenagers to be careful about how much of their hearts they give to another person in the whole process. Glamour has a way of endearing us, but that endearment can also be fatuous.
This weekend is Prom weekend in our town, and many other areas will be holding proms this weekend or soon. Parents, here is some advice you ought to give your kids as they head out for the big dance:
- Boys: Be gentlemen – A gentleman holds doors for the girl, he pulls out her chair for her, he fills her drink before his, etc. But those are just customary actions that point to a deeper character, one that values the young lady and her needs over his own. A true gentleman treats a young lady with the utmost respect, and that includes everything from complimenting her to maintaining godly sexual boundaries. Treat her as though your job is to both make her feel honored and protect her virtue.
- Girls: Be ladies – A lady is polite, courteous, and social, and she knows when to let a young man take the lead. She shows him respect and appreciates what he does for her. But she doesn’t go overboard in that appreciation – she promises him nothing more than the pleasure of her company. Encourage the young man in being a gracious gentleman.
- Take the long view – In the grand scheme of your life, this is one night. Most people don’t marry their prom dates, so don’t invest too much of your heart in the relationship. Instead, look at it as a chance to get to know someone better, to see how they behave in polite society. This is a chance to see who a person is capable of being.
- Just have fun – Maybe one of the biggest mistakes a teenager can make is to make too much of prom night, to expect it to mean too much. It’s a dance, it’s a social outing, it’s a time to be with friends and celebrate growing up. So don’t make more of it than that. It doesn’t need to represent a turning point in a relationship, it doesn’t need to be a dress rehearsal for your wedding, and it doesn’t need to be the perfect night. So if things don’t go perfectly, smile, laugh it off, and move on. Prom happens too few times in your life to make it such a big deal that you let it get spoiled by trifles.
- Say goodnight the right way – This almost goes without saying at this point, but kids… don’t have sex on prom night. Don’t engage in sexual activity of any kind. You don’t want your prom night be something you confess to a potential spouse some day. Even if, by some chance, you end up marrying the person you go to prom with, do you want it to be a source of guilt between you? Try this instead – the night is done, the dance is over, the boy drives the girl home, and at the door he says, “Thank you for coming to prom with me.” She says, “Thank you for taking me.” And then maybe she gives him a light peck on the cheek that says, “You were a gentleman.” And they smile and say goodnight. The right way.