Saturday, June 9, 2012

Off-topic: 'I went to the prom with a sissy!': Evolving gender roles and the high school prom

It's a Saturday in June, and we're taking a break from our usual heavy fare.

Ah, the prom! -- partly iconic, partly inane, America's strange, formal rite of passage for high school students retains its allure in an age when everything says it shouldn't. For some, it's the pinnacle of their callow lives; for others, its a cruel social pressure cooker that underscores their outcast status. But for the older, reflective set (i.e., us), it's a microcosm of America's cultural evolution, especially its changing gender roles. (Too pretentious for a Saturday morning in June? Yeah, you're right.)  The prom has been in the news lately, highlighting how, as Bob Dylan used to try to sing, The Times They Are a-Changin.

For starters, American families with teens who attended the prom shelled out, on average, between $700 and $2,000 this year, depending on where they live.  That's more than one year's college tuition when I was in school.

But here's better news: the New York Times reported on the trend of older girls asking younger boys to the prom, which is good for the guys and a minor mile marker of female empowerment.  One junior girl explained why she wanted to go to the prom with a ninth-grader:  "I could just have . . . fun with him at the prom and not feel any social pressure.” Yet, a few wise asses are calling the girls "cougars."

A couple of famous newspaper advice columnists, twin sisters Eppie Lederer and Pauline Phillips -- better known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) -- used to write about the prom all the time, and a look back on some of those columns is enlightening. Some of it is hysterical, some of it is frightening.

First, all this nonsense where the girls are asking younger guys to the prom? Forget that!  Dear Abby, 1962: "It is no more proper today for a girl to ask a boy to dance . . . than it was years ago. This is where 'pushy' girls get their start. . . . I hope mothers of sons read this and encourage their boys to ask girls to dance." 

On that last part -- teen boys needed to be pushed, and chided, because one of the themes of these columns was how the boys were letting the girls down. Example, Ann Landers, 1965: a self-proclaimed "bitter" 16-year-old girl starts off with this gem of a sentence: "This letter is for teen-aged boys because they are mainly to blame for the misery of teen-age girls."  Why is that? Because boys chase after the best looking girls and ignore the "plain gals."  Ann's response: "Thank you for an excellent letter."

Or how about this one: Dear Abby, 1960: A mother wrote: "Prom time is just around the corner and you could do many girls a favor if you would print my suggestion: Won't the mothers of SONS urge them to ask a girl to the prom?"  It seems the boys were slow to ask, leaving many a girl "broken-hearted . . . at home on prom night . . . ."  Abby's response: "Thank you for your beautiful letter. I am starting on my son tonight."

Boys may not come off well in these columns, but girls are kept on a tight leash lest they stray from traditional femininity: Ann Landers, 1965: A girl writes that she can't get a date to the prom. She admits that she "got off to a bad start" because she used to play baseball and football with the guys in the neighborhood. She quit when her mother said it was "disgraceful." Ann agreed with mom: "I'm glad you finally gave up the sand-lot routine," she wrote. "What fellow wants to get romantic with a third baseman?"

And then there was the shocked mother who wrote to Dear Abby in 1967 to complain that a 16-year-old girl gave her garter to her prom date as a souvenir.  "Maybe the next move," mom quipped, "will be for the boy to ask his date for her girdle or bra!  What is happening with our young people anyway?"

Here's a good one -- Dear Abby, 1967: a high school boy reported that when he picked up his "nice, clean respectable" girlfriend for the winter prom, his teenage boy sensibilities were shocked -- shocked I tell you! -- at the sight of his girlfriend's low neckline. He poured out his soul to Abby: "I was ashamed and embarrassed." You can only imagine the horrors that followed. The boy's enlightened friends made "several wisecracks and dirty remarks" throughout the evening. Thankfully, the customs of the day forbade the newspaper from reprinting the off-color remarks. One can't even fathom the terrors this boy experienced, dreading all night that he might accidentally catch a glimpse of nipple.  What should he have done, he implored the wise Ms. Van Buren?  Abby's sage advice was spot on: "You should have told her in a nice way to please change her dress." With her customary cutting wit, Abby noted that "[w]ith summer coming on, no telling what she might have worn to the next dance."  Right on, Abby!  If she wasn't stopped in her tracks right then and there, I'll bet she'd have gone to the next dance naked!

If girls weren't permitted to stray far from traditional femininity, boys who veered from traditional masculinity were subjected to name calling: Dear Abby, 1959: A girl wrote: "I went to the prom with a boy who is what you call a sissy."  The only evidence provided for the "sissy" label was that the boy didn't like to mix with others. In her response, Abby seemed oblivious to the name calling, likely because she approved.

And name calling wasn't reserved for the boys: Ann Landers, 1963: A European boy new to America wrote that he invited a girl to the prom and she asked him to pay for her prom dress. Is this customary, he asked?  Ann replied: "In America, girls do not ask such favors . . . unless they are cheap little gold-diggers."

Funny, being a "gold-digger" was a bad thing, but when it came to who pays for the prom, there was none of this modern talk about splitting the cost: the boy paid, period.  Ann Landers, 1964: A girl's father wrote to complain that his daughter was going to the prom, but she informed her parents that it was customary for the girl's father to hand the boy half of the expenses for the grand evening. The money was supposed to be passed to the boy in an envelope when the boy comes to pick up the girl -- this sounds less like a prom date than a union rep visiting a Congressman.  (Actually, it smacks of a scam cooked up by the girl and her Romeo -- they probably agreed to split the dough in the envelope.) Ann would have none of it -- the boy pays for the entire evening, not dad.

And, Dear Abby, 1960: A boy explained to Abby that he was not taking a girl to the prom because it would cost him over $25!  Abby expressed sympathy. What Abby did not express, however, was a common sense solution: the boy and the girl should split the cost. Heaven forbid.

There's a lot wrong with the world today, but speaking as an ex-teenage boy, I'd prefer to be a guy going to the prom in 2012 than in the '60s. In fact, I want to be that ninth grade dude going to the prom with the older girl. No one would expect me to do the driving; I promise that I wouldn't complain about my date's low neckline; and my guess is that the girl and I would split the cost.