This is a slightly edited version of a post written by Stephanie Medley-Rath that appeared recently in Sociology in Focus.
As well as being big business, prom night also holds important meaning for both individual participants and American culture overall. This rite-of-passage makes regular appearances on film. Consider the importance of prom in Grease, Carrie, American Pie, and more recently, Prom.
In my own life, I devoted the night before taking my ACT, not to preparing or resting for the exam, but instead had a friend over who practiced styling my hair for the big night.
We can think of prom night as a fun, expensive evening in formal wear, but this is not the only way to think about it. As sociologists we can see much more going on; and most clearly we can see a lot of stratification.
In the book Prom Night (2000), sociologist Amy Best points out how racial divides are recreated through decisions made regarding the music played during the dance and in more extreme cases, by holding racially segregated proms. More recently, Morgan Freeman paid for a Mississippi high school's first racially integrated prom as documented in the film Prom Night in Mississippi (view above).
For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) students, attendance at prom with a same-sex date may prompt the school to cancel the prom altogether. In 2012, a student body president was removed because he proposed allowing gay and lesbian students to compete for prom king and queen, while other schools have elected gay and lesbian king and queens. Straight students may stress out over who they might ask to the big dance, but GLBTQ students face the additional difficulty of wondering whether their schools will allow them to attend with their date of choice.
For many high school students, prom is a rite-of-passage. For others, prom is a rite-of-passage fraught with obstacles. Will they be allowed to attend the dance? Will they be selected to royalty? Will they be able to dance with their date? Will the event itself reflect their cultural practices?
- Did you attend prom or another school dance? Describe what it was like. Does it conform to popular portrayals? How? Consider how the dance was stratified based on race and sexual identity. Describe.
- For other students, religious beliefs may prevent them from attending their school’s prom. Read about an all-girl prom that took place in Michigan in 2012.
- Due to the expenses related to prom, how is prom stratified by social class?
- What changes, if any, would you suggest to make prom less stratified and more inclusive of all students? Explain why you believe these changes should be made.