It’s the American Way, or perhaps I should write, the American Process: create a new ritual to display a human emotion and then develop a range of products and services to help people express the emotion.
But now that we’ve run out of major emotions, like love for mother, father or significant other, we’re moved on to the trivial. Evidently asking someone to the prom has become a big deal. Young bucks are outdoing themselves in constructing elaborate asks—making fortune cookies with “ask” messages, creating flash mobs or appearing at the young lady’s front door in a giant teddy bear costume. One parochial high school is running a “best ask” contest.
The New York Times article in which I discovered this trend pays close attention to the consumer aspects of the phenomenon, detailing how “romantic events” companies and “etiquette coaches” are jumping on the trend. Since real holidays such as Christmas have devolved into a potlatch of spending, it makes sense that manufactured holidays or life events would quickly become commoditized into a series of goods and services—it’s another opportunity to meet an emotional need by spending money.
A few things strike me as interesting about the development of the elaborate prom “ask.” The Times article and all the thousands of other stories about asking someone to go to the prom that are in the news media this week all assume that it is the boy who asks the girl. Not only could I find no reference to a gay individual asking someone to a prom, there was not one mention of a girl asking a boy. Shocking, but perhaps just to me, since in the late 1960’s I was asked to go to my prom by a girl.
Surely, some girl somewhere in the country asked a boy in a cute enough way to make the evening news this year. Yes, there was one: a heart-warming story about a girl who asked a boy with autism to the prom as an act of kindness. Admirable and maybe worth a human-interest feature in the evening news, but the hidden message about normal expectations is pernicious. My take is that the editors and writers who specialize in prom-type stuff are always striving to confirm a set of traditional values, including the “boy asks girl” principle, which is a corollary to the principle that “boy decides.”
Beyond the covert sexism in the reporting of the cute “prom ask” trend, there is the essence of the event—the anxiety that many teenage boys and girls feel when asking someone for a date. Of course, it’s not just teenagers who when dialing the phone suffer a deep fear of rejection even as they feel an exhilaration considering the possibilities. It’s typical for American companies to create anxieties or needs and then fill them with products and services. The “prom ask” is ready-made, since the anxiety always existed. Retailers, consultants and trend-setters just needed to channel that anxiety into a situation that required making purchases.
With or without the “prom ask” ritual, the prom gets too much attention nowadays: dresses have gotten too expensive and prom night has flowered into a series of rituals like the after-prom party, the hotel stay and events the following day, each of which raise the cost of participation. The prom has come to exemplify Thorsten Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, which means the spending on luxury goods and services to demonstrate social status.
The prom has also become a stage for acting out social issues, as each year the news media uncovers stories about segregated proms, prom dress restrictions, anti-proms, use of social media in prom planning and the cost of proms.
In total, some 13.4 million stories popped up when searching for “prom” on Google News; “prom ask” yielded 49,700 of them. A search for “global warming” yielded 76,700 stories; “college loans” yielded 1.3 million; “Plan B,” which refers to FDA plans to allow the over-the-counter sale of Plan B birth control to prom queens and any other girl aged 15 or older, yielded 21,7000 stories. In other words, in the narrow slice of time covered in any standard Google News search, more media outlets cared about how teens ask other teens to go to a dance than about a breaking news story related to sexual freedom for teenage girls.
Of course, there are so many possible ways for the mass media to cover proms: asks, dresses, corsages, decorations, social issues. But read closely: virtually all the stories soon reduce to discussions of shopping for goods and services.