It might be 17 years since I attended my high-school prom in upstate New York, but don’t think for a moment that the memories aren’t still burning bright: the polyester scratch of my don’t-stand-near-flames, floor-length frock. The weight of the extravagant corsage that extended from my wrist to my elbow, transforming my arm into a rosy garden border. The inelegant scramble of six formal-wear-clad teenagers as we piled into the back seat of a stretch limousine. Some may say that the increased popularity of American-style high-school proms in the UK is a bad thing for Britain’s youth. I disagree. Nothing prepares teenagers better for adulthood than the prom, and that’s because it’s so terrible.
My mother, an expat Scot with little patience for pointless American rituals, was indulgent in allowing me to attend my high-school prom (and funding it), but was resolute in her insistence on referring to the event as “the practice wedding”. At the time, I found this insulting; in retrospect, I see its acuity. What is a prom but an early opportunity to celebrate heterosexual gender stereotypes through the ritualistic spending of money on anachronistic things that are completely absent from everyday life? Ballgowns, fancy cars, chicken breasts prepared to be served to 300 people simultaneously: so rare are the occasions when they make sense, we must create and perpetuate rituals around them.
What better way to herald a child’s passing from parental dependence to full-time servant of capitalism than an occasion that promises glamour in proportion to expenditure, but which manifests itself as a night with the unglamorous people they see every day? Unglamorous people in uncomfortable outfits, some rented, emitting a chintzy glow under the light of a moon that was made of papier-mache by the kids in third-period art class? The promise of prom is spectacle; the reality is disappointment. Could anything prepare children better for the gruelling realities of human existence? I think not.
Some may say that the Kardashian-inspired scale of today’s proms is excessive. But if children are to learn that money can’t buy happiness, could there be any better lesson than that given when arriving by helicopter to your school prom only to realise that you still have bad skin and that your math teacher is your chaperone? More is more, I say, when it comes to helping impressionable young people understand that no amount of expense on taffeta frocks and sequinned handbags will alleviate the terrible ennui of adult life.
Would we rather that our children wait until they are in their late 20s to get to grips with the fact that a loveless relationship cannot be saved by extravagant expense? No, we wouldn’t, for that is the innocence that leads to £75,000 weddings between people who file for divorce before they’ve reached their one-year anniversary. Much better that a girl should know early on the heartbreak of a boyfriend turning up in a tie that doesn’t match her dress. Far more helpful that a young man’s fancy should be smashed at the sight of his girlfriend doing a sultry electric slide with her physics lab partner.
The prom is a microcosm of adulthood: stupid conventions and rules, established by long-gone arbiters of taste. Slut-shaming of women. Relationships modelled 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.