Will the American prom ever die?

Saying yes to the (prom) dress.
Saying yes to the (prom) dress.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s May in America, and that means it must be prom season.

Yes, this most hallowed of teen traditions is a study in contradictions. As young people across the country seem more politically active and engaged, millions of high school students still spend hundreds of dollars to attend what is essentially a glorified debutante ball.

Prom is a tradition both unconscionably retro and unexpectedly enduring. And its position in pop culture as an annual rite of passage also makes it a predictable battlefield for the culture wars. The good news, I think, is that teens are increasingly winning these battles, and in the process subverting and enriching the traditions that were held dear by their parents and grandparents.

Growing up in the relatively liberal enclave of Sacramento, California, my school was so small that we eschewed some of prom’s more dramatic elements—there were no kings or queens—and most students attended several proms over their high school career. While I remember enjoying the experience at the time, I also (like many adults I’ve talked to recently) look back on this rite of passage with mixed feelings today.

Perhaps Jean Hannah Edelstein put it best when she noted in The Guardian that “Nothing prepares teenagers better for adulthood than the prom, and that’s because it’s so terrible:”

The prom is a microcosm of adulthood: stupid conventions and rules, established by long-gone arbiters of taste. Slut-shaming of women. Relationships modeled according to a socially acceptable script rather than the reality of two individuals and how they feel about each other. Go for it, kids! One might even say it’s the night of your lives.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder if the rigid cultural mores of rituals like prom helped suppress my own understanding of my sexuality. Had I been openly gay when I was 17, I like to think my principal would have allowed me to bring a same-sex date—something that is still not true in many schools around the country. But while my upbringing was enviably progressive, the idea that I would bring anyone other than a boy to prom, or any other school dance, would have been a foreign and honestly bizarre thought.

Similarly, I remember sincerely enjoying the process of picking out dates and outfits with my friends. It was a community effort, with squads of girls descending on the local boutiques en masse. A consummate tomboy, my friends usually did my hair and make-up. It was a bonding experience—everyone gathered around mirrors at a designated home, bedrooms filled with new shoe boxes and tissue paper. But then again, I don’t really recognize the young girl in pink satin from old pictures. With my long, curled hair and heavy mascara, I look like someone from a shopping mall ad. I look like I’m wearing a costume.

This surreal sense of nostalgia—mixed with a heavy dose of traditional gender norms—is perhaps one of the reasons prom has remained such a mainstay of US culture. For mothers and fathers, it represents an experience that is familiar; it’s something that connects them with increasingly rebellious offspring.

At the same time, it represents one last opportunity for society to impress upon the next generation “proper” values and traditions. Believed to have originated in the late 19th century, proms were historically events in which wealthy (white) women were paraded in front of eligible bachelors.

Eventually, proms were introduced into middle-class society, and they took on increasing significance as American youth started attending high school instead of immediately joining the workforce. Prom, in this context, was viewed as a way to enforce cultural, heteronormative expectations, Amy Best, a sociology professor at George Mason University, told Mic: ”To communicate what it means to be a ‘proper’ middle-class girl, just like the debutante balls, both had narrow [gender role] expectations.”

In the early 20th century, many schools did not allow black students to attend prom, especially but not exclusively in the South. Nor did the repeal of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s lead to swift integration. Indeed, students at Georgia’s Wilcox County High School attended segregated proms up until 2013, when a group of white and black teens organized their own an integrated dance.

A testament to the enduring power of racism in modern America, the Wilcox County story highlights the ways teens around the country are making their proms more progressive. As race, class, feminism, and LGBT rights take center stage in American politics, teens are also making their voices heard on these issues, and prom is a logical place for such modern cultural battles to play out.

Indeed, feminist and LGBT teens have been pushing hard in recent years to combat prom’s sexist and heterosexual origins. In March, students at Stanton College Preparatory, a highly ranked academy in Jacksonville, Florida, were outraged after administrators posted signs depicting which dresses were worn by “good girls” and which by “bad girls.” A rather blatant attempt to patronize young women and control their bodies, the signs were taken down and apologies made after male and female students banded together in protest.

LGBT and trans students have also fought for the right to attend prom with the partner of their choosing, with positive results. In 1979, Sioux Falls, South Dakota police were called out to protect the first openly gay couple in prom history, according to Mother Jones. Much has changed since then: This April, 17-year-old Alan Belmont became the first transgender prom king elected at North Central High School in Indianapolis.

“It was honestly one of the most heartwarming feelings that I’ve ever felt,” Belmont told the IndyStar. ”Just to feel an audience of my peers and an audience of believers in progression, to hear that my peers were on the same page that I was incredible and to know that there were juniors I hadn’t met yet who voted for me was incredible.”

Of course, this type of progress remains an ongoing project—a junior at  St. Petersburg Catholic High School in Florida was recently told she could not bring her girlfriend to prom—but the many successes so far point to a serious cultural shift. While Molly Ringwald’s Pretty in Pink may have defined prom for previous generations, today’s prom is bound to be less white, less buttoned-up, and much more queer.

And that’s a good thing.

Ultimately, it’s hard to know when (or if) the American prom will ever die. There’s always going to be something a bit weird and uncomfortable about a tradition that began as a way to control young women and set them on the path towards traditional marriage. But due in large part to the courage of teens, prom in the US has become, in many schools, a much more open and accepting event. Now if only we could do something about those hideous corsages.