Whether it was a wonderful experience or a terrible one, if you went to your high school senior prom, I am sure that it was a night to remember. For so many teenagers the prom is the highlight of high school. It is the one thing so many students look forward to. Many see it as a rite of passage into adulthood. For Amy L. Best, the author of “Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture”, the prom is a perfect opportunity to explore teen identity and individuality. It is also a place to look at how this event speaks so much about today’s kids.
Proms today have changed; they are much more upscale events. They no longer are held in school gymnasiums, but rather in luxury hotels, fancy catering halls, or high class country/beach clubs. They have multi-course sit down meals and are entertained by music professionals. Students no longer borrow their parents’ cars; instead they rent lavish cars or limousines. Even the dress is more extravagant, boys rent tuxedos and girls spent a fortune on the perfect dress which is usually an evening gown. Proms are not just a one night thing anymore either. After the prom is over, some students set off to a weekend of celebrating. The weekend is unsupervised and involves both males and females. For some, it is the first time going away without their families.
Amy Best interviews numerous teens about their prom experiences. To better understand today’s teens, she looks at the popular media, finding that the prom is an industry in itself. There are magazines dedicated to preparing for the prom and movies and television shows whose themes are prom-oriented. Clothing stores and services (limousines, hair stylists, nail salons, etc.) that also join in on the prom market.
While the prom is often played down, many high school students take it very seriously. For some the prom is a place of struggle, personal and public. It is too often that we hear stories of students being excluded from their prom because of whom they choose to romanticize with. This is common for inter-racial couples and same-sex couples. These students often do not go to their prom, or as with gay teens, have begun setting up “alternate proms.” Proms have become more than just a night to dress up and take pictures. It is now a place and time for students to “work through their understanding of authority, social class, gender norms, and multicultural schooling.”
There are many themes presented in this book. I will do my best to talk about all of them. I will discuss the popular culture of proms, the fashion involved, the romancing at the prom, proms as sites of social control, race in school presented at the prom, and those who contest the prom.
Fashion definitely plays a huge part in the prom for both girls and boys, more so though for the girls. Best mentions in chapter three that the prom “belongs to the feminine.” There are usually high expectations for girls to express their utmost femininity. Girls prepare for the prom weeks, sometimes months in advance. They look for the perfect dress, the most suitable accessories, some go tanning, and when the day gets closer they get their nails and hair done to perfection. Prom is a “highly visible and public spectacle”, and for most girls it is their one time to shine.
The dress seems to be the most important detail of prom. Years after prom has past, one always remembers the dress they wore. Girls dream about the dress that they will to the prom as young girls. I myself remember keeping a folder with magazine cut outs of dresses that caught my eye for almost three years before my actual prom. Girls want their dress to be the one that stands out and makes everyone stop and stare. One thing that all girls dread is walking into their prom to see that another girl has on the same dress. A girl in one of Best’s studies says that it is ok for two girls to have the same hairstyle, but the same dress is different story. Girls go to all sorts of lengths to be sure that they will be the only one wearing their dress; some keep what they will wear a big secret until the final day arrives. Best explains that girls work to set themselves apart from everyone else is “such a significant aspect of feminine consumption.”
Although the dress is usually the most important part, there is a lot of fashionable preparation for the prom. Girls search high and low for the ideal shoes and jewelry that will complete their dresses. The close days reaching the prom is when things begin to get a little hectic. They will get their nails manicured, their toes pedicured, their hair done, and their makeup applied. My own experience getting ready for prom was similar. I went tanning for the two weeks before prom, my nails and toes done the day before, and I remember rushing around the day of to get my hair and makeup done.
Girls seem to spend a lot of time on them selves preparing for the prom, but most of them do not forget about their dates. Many girls also find it very important that their dates match up with what they wear. It is very common to see boys wearing handkerchiefs, cummerbunds, and bowties matched with the color of their date’s dress.
Romance is sure to play a large and significant role in prom night. Since they were young girls, many prom goers dream about spending that magical night with the man of their dreams. Many girls will decide not to attend the prom if they do not have the right person to go with, whereas some will just bring a friend or just go on their own. Finding a date for the prom sometimes serves as enormous torment for young women. It is so important to these girls that they begin their search for a date early on in the year. In chapter four, Best says “for girls, having a prom date [is} internalized as a means to both measuring their feminine self-worth and to solidifying their heterosexual identities.” Naturally, because of this girls are pressured with the fact that they must find a date for the prom.
Family members, especially mothers, and media play a large part in hyping up the romance that is expected on prom night. Young girls anticipate being romanced; they want their date to have all their attention on them. Such expectations may be very disappointing to some girls, because their night may not have turned out the way they hoped it would. At the prom, most boys are not thinking about the romance aspect of it all, so they might direct their attention to others things besides just their date. These naive actions on the boys’ part may be very offensive to some girls; whereas some may just be grateful they had a date in the first place.
Then again there are the many girls who reject romance at the prom altogether. These girls would much rather go with a date “who would maximize their ability to socialize.” They would rather have someone fun to share the night with, someone who will not be shy, and one who will get up and dance. It is more important to these girls that their date takes part in the socialization of prom than to sit back, watch, and be quiet. This leads to many teens going with people who are “just friends”. Going to the prom with a friend reduces the pressures of boys and girls to be “romantic”, and helps them concentrate on just having a good time.
Schools and parents work together to figure out ways of controlling the actions of prom-goers. Growing more and more popular is the “Prom Promise”. The Prom Promise is basically a “program created to raise greater awareness among youth about alcohol-related automobile accidents.” It is usually in the form of a written contract by the school and signed by students promising that they will not drink alcohol or use drugs at the prom. Although I am sure that this might have a positive affect on some students, I think most of them do not take it very seriously. Students see it as another way parents control how they choose to have fun. Even in chapter five of Best’s book she mentions that many students signed the contract just to sign it, knowing that indefinitely they were going to break the promise. Other forms of controlling the behavior of students at prom include having students check in as they arrive and sending letters home to parents encouraging them not to hold pre-prom parties. Unfortunately there is only so much teachers and parents can do to ensure the well-being and safety of the students at prom, however it is somewhat difficult to control what they might plan to do afterwards.
Race plays a big part in high school proms. It is said by Best that “the prom [is] an event where kids of color already [feel] excluded.” An example in chapter six explains that some African-American students opposed to the music intended to be played at prom, because it only reflected the taste of the white students. Many students of color in Best’s studies described the prom as boring. They feel that the prom supported the ideas and practices of white culture and neglected the cultural customs held by students and communities of color. Even when you look at prom magazines, the models who exhibit the dresses and hairdos are mainly white. Movies and television shows that have a prom theme also pay more attention to white middle to upper class students. The prom queen and king are almost always white students, and very few students of color are seen. It is no wonder that many students of color do not feel connected to the whole prom scene.
No one group of students feel more left out than those who consider themselves to be gay. I know that at my own prom there was a strict rule that same sex couples could not attend prom together. In “Prom Night”, Best gives examples of schools who do not even allow students to attend prom alone, so that same sex couples could not even arrange to meet up at the prom. The growing restrictions of gay couples at prom led to the existence of many alternate proms held across the country. Gay students and sometimes gay organizations put together a prom specifically for them so that “queer kids may experience going to the prom as queer kids.” Again, the media plays a large part in the idea that prom is only a heterosexual event. You never see same sex couples posing for pictures in prom magazines and queer students are often excluded from images of prom in movies and television shows.
There are many others who contest the traditional prom formalities in their own ways. Youths struggle to express themselves as individuals, and prom is a perfect time and place to do so. Changes in prom style over the years reflect the changes in American cultural ideology. Students today seem to ignore the words formal, conservative, and traditional. More and more it is common to see students straying away from what may be considered normal or proper attire for prom. Some urban kids wore a baggier tuxedo style with oversized jackets and pants worn below their hips. Many teens wore sunglasses while they were indoors, tuxedo “shorts”, and some girls even wore tuxedos themselves. Once again, this is an example of how students oppose the wants and expectations of their teachers and parents.
I might have been aware of how the media plays a part in prom preparation, but only after reading Best’s “Prom Night” have I realized what a great affect it really does have. America has this big general idea of what a prom is supposed to be, white middle class heterosexual couples who have this wonderful romantic night. In reality is not always like that. Maybe 50 years ago it was like that, but everything has changed so much since then. We now have homosexual couples, interracial couples, and the need for youth to express themselves and to be set apart from everyone else. Prom has always been seen as a rite of passage, and maybe it can still be seen that way, but certainly not a passage into adulthood. Maybe we can see it as a beginning of a new chapter in life.