“I had this girlfriend who did not go to her prom and every once in a while she gets this really terrible feeling that something is missing. She checks her purse, she checks her keys, she counts her kids. She goes crazy, and then, she realizes that nothing is missing. She decided it was side effects from skipping the prom.”
—From 1986’s teen film classic Pretty in Pink
In popular culture, from teen pix of the eighties to this year’s smash, Twilight (in which our heroine is escorted to the event by a vampire), the prom is narrated as one of the most important events in teen lives. Spoken out loud, some adults find this notion absurd. My spouse, for example, shudders at any mention of the word “prom.” How could one dance be a defining moment in our personal narratives? Why does the drama surrounding the event run so high?
The prom, for some, seems frivolous and empty of meaning; a consumer ritual in which parents and teens fork out copious amounts of cash (the current average is around $900) for one evening. Yet the narrativity of prom and its continuing presence in our popular culture suggests a wealth of significance. This particular dance elicits strong reactions, but the desire to narrate our experiences at this dance (whether ecstatic or traumatic) as somehow crucial to our young adulthood remains strong. Nostalgia, and often the horrors of the event, remains freshly coded in the memories of many, and as such the dance emerges as sacred and distinct from other high school experiences. To explore the prom as sacred indicates not only a cultural fascination with coming of age, but also commentary on what the event signifies to teens, their parents, and us onlookers.
My own memories of prom are somewhat clear, but they simply don’t live up to romance of Pretty in Pink nor the abject horror of Stephen King’s Carrie (I am thankful on both accounts). I do remember the tears, the frantic searching for a perfect dress and date (in that order), the all-consuming decorating of the gym, and the mounting pressure to attend. Dresses, make-up, flowers, tuxes, and dinners all had to meet a high standard: perfection. For a fragmentary moment, we had come of age while wearing strappy sandals, electric blue dresses, glitter, too-large tuxes, and enough hair spray to constitute walking fire hazards.
The prom was a ritual that marked our voyage to adulthood, and it contained all the trappings of religious experience: the rite of passage, the parameters of dress, the constrained space of the ritual, authority, liminality, transformation, particular rituals, community (imagined or otherwise), etc. In my small town, the prom proved sacred. Parents and teens came together to imagine the event: to codify rituals (to garter dance or not to garter dance?); to grant that these teens were no longer children; and to concretize this coming of age in pictures, words, and actions—a religious rite of passage.
At the Threshold
The idea of liminality, that crucial events in a person’s life occur at the threshold between one phase and another, comes into strong focus when we think about the meanings of prom, an event that rests precisely in that zone between mandated schooling and the larger world.
In the documentary The World’s Best Prom (2004), filmmakers followed teens in Racine, Wisconsin, as they prepared for the all-city prom. Teens and adults involved in the Racine prom narrated the dance as a significant moment in their lives. Some met future spouses at the prom; for others, it was their last moment to be young and foolish. But, almost all of those interviewed signaled that prom was a major life event, much like a graduation or a wedding. Even if the prom was perceived as odious, the avoidance of the event signaled transformation too.
For this rite of passage, teens require special costumes, transportation, and various bodily decorations, usually involving flowers and curls. They emerge as somehow different from their mundane selves, transformed and new in preparation for this event. In addition, they pair off for the prom. This rite celebrates heterosexuality, consumption, and privilege. The coupling must meet some normative standard, which becomes apparent in school rules about appropriate dates. The prom is rendered as a coming of age, a mimicry of adulthood: glamorous dress, a rarefied setting, fancy dining, dancing, (clandestine) adult beverages, and the sometimes obvious, sometimes blatant, celebration of sexuality.
This focus on coming of age gives the prom traits distinct from the rounds of other high school dances. It is an ending and a beginning, and the dance carries that gravity for both teens and their parents. Teens at prom appear as changelings in the moment, no longer children but not quite adult. Their finery obscures their appearances. In the poem “The Cryptozoologist Chaperones His Daughter’s Prom,” Nick Lantz writes of a father’s fracturing vision of his daughter: He can’t trust his own memories of her face or voice. Books she loved as a child were books some other child loved. The next song cues up and she and her date disappear into the fold of bodies. He watches her as she drifts out across the wooden floor, sure that when she returns he will not recognize any part of her.
The father sees his daughter transform in front of his eyes. At the prom, her distance from childhood becomes apparent, and she is a new creature—no longer the child from his memories. Her journey to adulthood appears complete.
The prom, however, is an imagining of adulthood, a fantasy. The prom serves as a rosy vision of what it is like to be grown-up for both the teen participants and the adults that craft this environment. Promgoers are offered a vision of adult life as full of romance, privilege, and (heterosexual) coupling. To attend the prom is to take part in this fantasy, to imagine for an evening what adult life has the potential to be but never really is. In this time and space, they imagine what they would be like as adults in this fantastic setting, but the moment is limited and comes to an end. Teens imbibe this imagining, which suggests that coming of age is a process of ease rather than one fraught with tension and contradiction. To become adult, they mimic what adulthood hardly ever is.
Finger food and metallic party dresses do not (generally) categorize our lives. Instead, the mundane replaces glamour. Sex is no longer forbidden, and romance is more complicated than a dinner date and dancing (not to suggest that teen romance is uncomplicated). Coming of age proves much more difficult than the imagining that the prom provokes. Perhaps the dance proves sacred because it contains a wish for a certain kind of life, or maybe it provides some with their sole experience of adult fantasy. Prom nostalgia signals a moment of glamorous adult life in a sea of the mundane. It proves lasting and sacred because of the imagined component: the one chance to be adult without all the baggage attached. Through ritual, clothing, and collective imagining, teens inhabit a moment, no longer ordinary time but transitional and transformative.
The focus on transformation and coming of age means that alternative proms have also increased in popularity. For those who missed prom or perhaps despised their proms, the alternative event allows for a reenactment of transformation. Gay proms celebrate the sexuality of the attendees, which was often lacking (or even forbidden) with traditional high school proms. Mormons have started to create their own form of the prom, which adheres to higher standards of morality for clothing and dancing, but allows Mormon teens to come of age similarly to their peers. Groups of Holocaust survivors have thrown proms to celebrate what they lacked from teenage life. They came of age in harsh environments and deadly circumstances, and the prom allows them to celebrate their life passages with the glamour and fantasy that they missed. This transforming proves sacred to many, not just teens, and shows that the prom is something more than a dance.
The larger question remains of what this rite of passage signals about American culture. Why does it seem so significant to so many? Why is hated so vehemently by others? Why does the drama of the prom replay in the written word and on celluloid? Why does a high school dance contain the subtext of the sacred?
The prom serves as the entrance into adulthood. As a coming of age ritual, it packages adult “experience” for ready consumption. It serves as one of the few cultural markers by which American teens embrace their adulthood. American life can feel devoid of rites of passage, and the prom fills this space as a symbol of this transformation. The prom combines the pleasure of material consumption with an invitation to recreate ourselves. In popular culture, stories of the prom are always stories of finding and identifying one’s self in transition.
The prom is about transformation and movement. We move from one life stage to another with ritual, dress, and collective imagining. The prom proves to be a dramatic rendering of transition. It provides liminal space to test change but to also participate in imagining what our lives might look like. The danger in this imagining is the celebration of privilege, romance, and manners as the crux of adulthood. What would be the morality of the prom? What does this imagining suggest about the nature of adult life? That we need to consume to be happy? Fine clothes and food signal success? The prom’s sacrality comes from the collective imagining and narrativity of transformation.
So as this year’s prom season winds down, test the nature of this religious experience: ask a teenager what the event means to her or to him, and listen carefully to the narration.