The dress. The tux. The $100-dollar up-do. Prom intoxicates many teens with the promise of a perfect send-off from adolescence yet can alienate others given the price tags and social pressures involved. The tradition has long been upheld in the American imagination as the culmination of high school, but does it still have a place in the 21st century? This question was particularly relevant during the height of the pandemic, when proms nationwide were cancelled or moved online. But with life back to normal, and prom season upon us, it may be a good time to again question the relevance of prom.
Below, we’ll examine three reasons it’s time to give prom its last dance, and three reasons why prom should keep marching on.
Rite of Passage.
For ages, people in every corner of the planet have developed elaborate ceremonies and rituals that signify a young person’s passage from childhood and adolescence into adult responsibility. Whether the coming-of-age event is celebratory, like Latin America’s quinceañera, or a trial like the Sateré-Mawé tribe’s bullet ant initiation (if wearing gloves filled with stinging ants for ten minutes doesn’t make a man of you, nothing will), these events are as meaningful for the initiated as they are for the initiators. Prom is widely regarded as an appropriate moment for parents to finally loosen the reins on their teens and allow them to socialize freely as young adults. Positioned at the end of the high school year, prom signifies the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, creating a signifier of the important transition to adulthood.
Parental bonding time.
As children grow, the need for their parents wanes profoundly. For parents, this is both a source of relief and depression. Because of the financial burdens associated with prom, the event is often the last moment in which a nearly grown child will seek their parents’ involvement. Before the pandemic, statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that on average, teenagers had spent just over 3 hours with their families each week. (Meanwhile, a 2020 study found the number of face-to-face hours to be 5 hours a week.) Given the paucity of quality time, moms and dads clamor at the opportunity to invest time in prom preparations, sometimes too enthusiastically. More than creating a shared activity, prom preparations provide a gateway for discussing important issues that are heightened during the prom season, like drinking and premarital sex.
Celebration does a body good.
The brain responds positively to successes. When we celebrate milestones of any kind, large or small, our bodies release endorphins that become strongholds against negative feelings and stimuli, and improve response to challenges. What is wonderful about prom is that it does not require any special success to merit celebration other than having arrived. For many teenagers, this dance may be the only moment of positive reinforcement and self-expression to fortify them before stepping into their next stage of life, where many challenges await. Prom provides students a model for seizing and appreciating life’s moments – a practice that, if internalized, will certainly make for happier adults. This especially rang true during the height of the pandemic, when parents tried to cheer up their disappointed high schoolers by making makeshift prom celebrations at home due to coronavirus restrictions.
Sit this dance out.
It’s way too expensive.
Prom began in the late 1800s in the event halls of the nation’s elite universities like Harvard and Yale, when university education of any kind (let alone Ivy League education) was a privilege reserved for the ultra-wealthy. Today’s proms are now available to all, but the price tag of attending remains Ivy League – the average parent may find himself or herself spending between an estimated $600-$2,000 on prom per child. Held in formal event halls, with parents shelling out cash for limos, expensive dinners, and even hotel rooms, (not to mention formal attire), prom is little more than a showcase for parents’ affluence. The message is clear: Students on a budget will not be partying like it’s 1999.
Promotes anxiety in teens.
An online survey showed that over a third of students view prom in a negative light. Students feel pressure regarding who to ask, what to wear, and what parties to attend afterwards. Films like “Carrie,” “Pretty in Pink,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “American Pie” capture the stress that generations of teens have felt to acquire the right attire, bring the right date, and attend the right after-party. Prom, and a teen’s view of their success at prom, is deeply entangled with matters of identity and acceptance. Not to mention, the celebration provides a real stage for peer pressure – including the pressure of outdoing each other regarding asking a potential date to prom (dubbed, “promposal pressure”).
It’s out of step with the times.
Prom – short for promenade – was initially conceived as a debutante’s ball in which males and females from unisex universities would have a chance to meet. Today’s high school students mostly attend co-ed schools, and therefore have no need of such introductions. Not to mention that some teens are opting out of using gender identities altogether.
Moreover, the dances tend to be haunted by a bevy of traditional ideals that do not reflect modern youth or social standards. For example, dress codes mostly target female students, equating female dress with sexuality and ultimately discouraging young ladies’ right to choose their attire. LGBT students have reportedly fallen victim to dress codes and worse, date codes, which tend to strictly enforce heterosexuality. What’s more, there are many cases where transgender students – even ones accepted by their peers – have been rebuffed by their schools’ administration when wanting to run for prom court. Come on, prom. Setting strictures on how to dress and who to date is so 19th century.
The Bottom Line: For some, prom provides picturesque closure to one of the most formative periods of a person’s life, while others find it lackluster – or worse, damaging. How was your prom? Would you recommend teens to roll with the crowd when it comes to this time-honored tradition, or is it best we leave prom behind and let teens march to their own drum?