Will You Go to Prom with Me? Traditional Gender Roles and the “All-American” Dance

With prom coming up for many high schools all over the nation, high schoolers are in a frenzy trying to prepare for the special event, whether it is buying a dress, renting a limousine or asking someone out as a date.

Formally known as the “promenade,” prom is a long standing tradition dating back to the early 1900s. From its humble origins as a quaint tea-party for the senior class, it soon became what is familiar to us today. Starting in the 1950s, tuxedos and extravagant gowns emerged as the appropriate attire, while posh venues and “Prom Court” competitions dominated the high school scene.

Today, it is considered a “rite of passage” for teenagers entering adulthood, becoming an indelible aspect of American culture and even influencing similar celebrations on the international level in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa.

However, among all of this preparation and stress for the big event, we should also take a step back and re-assess the implications that prom has on youth culture, including traditional gender roles and values.

For instance, I have always found the struggle to ask a date to prom kind of ridiculous. There are those who take great pains to execute the plan, buying balloons and flowers, and serenading the girl in front of the whole school.

To me, it seems more like a marriage proposal than geared towards a high school dance.

More importantly, the fact that the guys are obliged to make the first move sounds chivalrous but also very old-school: Why must the girls wait to be asked? Why can’t we be the ones to initiate?

The fear of being labeled “weird” for asking the male sex demonstrates just how much we still embrace traditional roles of gender: the divide between masculinity and femininity, as well as between dominance and subservience.

Also, the expenses.

Why must we, as girls, purchase or rent extravagant dresses when we know perfectly well that it will only be for a one-night use? Paying a few hundred dollars for a single outfit–on top of the cost of shoes, jewelry, and pre-prom rituals like perming, waxing and tweezing–does not seem worth the effort for a few hours of partying.

These extravagant purchases harken back to traditions like beauty pageants and debutantes, where girls are expected to put effort into looking attractive and “girly” by societal conventions of femininity. Hence, those who don’t desire to doll up for the big night are considered strange, or even worse, lazy.

Same with the guys. Tuxedos, along with other costs like dinner, photographs, and limousines, are excessive. You don’t get chivalry points by splurging for your “special date.” In fact, it undermines the female’s right to be included in the decision-making process for Prom Night. In other words, paying for everything perpetuates old-fashioned values of confining women to a subservient role, dependent on the “bread-winning” man’s money in order to survive. It can strip them of their dignity and independence, because they are just as capable of contributing to the money spent for the event as their male counterparts. It’s 2014, not 1954.

Furthermore, the crowning of “Prom King” and “Prom Queen” denotes an act of superiority over student body “subjects” who were otherwise not nominated for the roles. Not only do they imply a hierarchy within heteronormative roles of romantic relationships and marriages, but they also attest to the importance of status, particularly that of high school popularity.

While many schools still do not allow same-sex couples to attend prom together as a date, traditional proms can also be viewed as a flawed celebration of heterosexuality that excludes any sexuality or gender identity that differs from the norm.

Altogether, whether you think that prom is the best night of your life or an overrated experience, it is important to remind ourselves of its conventions and possible effects on our identities.

…and with that: have fun, kids.

For another opinion on dating and relationships check out:

How to Date as a Feminist

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