As high school winds down, my newsfeed is overwhelmed by pictures of everyone all dolled-up for their big prom nights. Seeing all of these (seemingly) happy couples in their matching prom attire makes me think of my own encounters with the weird "prom culture" that erupts from all of the hoo-rah surrounding the event.
Now that I'm a college junior, that prom courting ritual that seemed so dramatic and overwhelming feels absurd and even funny. Instead of seeing a crystalized moment in time where a couple looks pristine and happy, I think of all the drama that leads up to this single photo.
Prom really isn't just one night. It is an entire process. I was a member of a private Facebook group for both my junior and senior proms called something along the lines of "PROM DRESSES 2012," a place where high school girls posted pictures of what they planned to wear so that no two people would (god-forbid!) show up in the same dress.
But these groups have an underlying hostility simmering beneath each post with teens calling each other out for having the same dresses as them. On a friend's prom dress Facebook page, one group member posted an image of her dress with the caption "DO NOT GET MY DRESS!!!!!" Another person commented on someone else's image, "That is an easy access dress!" And some minor fights even erupted. "Just wanna let you know I have that dress in a different color i posted it on here like a month ago” one angry member of the group wrote when she saw that her classmate posted the same dress as hers.
These posts are benign compared to other Facebook prom dress groups. One group goes by the name of, "Bitch don't steal my dress!" And in the same ilk, "If YOU steal MY prom dress, bitch I'ma cut you." If you google the now deleted Facebook group "steal my prom dress and i'll knock you the fuck out" you can find abounding remnants of the threats that were once posted.
In my own group, people commented as early as the beginning of January (5 months before prom!) with what dresses they will wear. Some changed their dresses as many as 3-4 times. Most people put up all of their "maybes” (that is, what they might be wearing) so that they could lay claim to all of their potential options.
The posts are territorial, passive aggressive, and some just straight up cruel– and they reveal how prom means different things for different people. For guys it may be a last chance to lose their virginity before college, but for girls it is about the pressure to look flawless, about losing weight for their dresses, and getting the perfect tan.
Aside from the community of hostility these groups create—similar to (or perhaps a result of) the hostility created by a society that constantly pits women against each other— they also reveal a culture’s obsession with what is (typically) a heteronormative event that excludes anyone who veers from the “ideal” couple. What about queer people, trans* people, aromantic people? What someone is wearing is among the least of worries for a gay couple restricted from taking one another to prom. A trans* girl who wants to wear a dress has bigger problems to face than someone showing up in the same outfit as her.
At the end of it all, prom is really just a night of false norms and unmet expectations.
Hollywood, social media, and most importantly, 80s teen flicks, have turned prom into what is supposed to be one of the most important nights of a young person's life. It is a rite of passage into college where we tie up all those loose ends, fit in all that awkward teen stuff before we diverge on our separate paths of adulthood. And perhaps this fixation on hooking up and “maturation” by means of the prom is why it is such a big deal for people. Perhaps this is why teens are purchasing dresses months and months in advance and assuring they are the only person on the entire face of the Earth to ever wear it. And I don’t mean to critique just the women but instead use this group as a firsthand example of all the prom drama ("proma"). We treat this night as if it will change our lives forever.
Thinking about my own dreadful junior prom experience now makes me laugh. Between my breakup at the time and fear of having no date for the prom (because how could one possibly go to the prom–gasp–alone?!), and ending up with a date who I barely spoke to the entire time, my own experiences were nothing like what the movies told me it would be. The prom itself consisted of some gross food, little dancing, and an anti-climactic (no pun-intended) after party that I did not attend. But despite all the trauma, I now realize how insignificant all of it really was.
In one of the very first posts on my prom dress group, its creator ironically writes (after dictating a number of rules about posting dresses), “It’s going to be okay. Seriously.” Though she meant it passive aggressively, it’s true. Prom will be okay. You will survive it even if you are wearing the same dress as someone else. You will survive it even if you go without a date.
Instead of focusing so much on the socially constructed “rules” of prom, we should be fighting against them. Next year, instead of wearing dresses, all the girls should wear tuxes. Next year, instead of caring about who is going with who, we should fight against the fact that some schools still don’t allow same-sex couples into prom. Next year, instead of worrying about the perfect prom couple photo, let’s rebel against the binaristic gender norms that underlie the event. Next year, instead of getting involved with the after party hook up gossip, let’s worry about how the fixation on partying and “losing one’s virginity” on this big night can cultivate unsafe environments for sex.
Starting right now, let’s focus on what really matters, instead of if two people are wearing the same dress.
Alexa is a student at Emory University and a summer intern at Trixie Films. You can read more about her here.