Prom stands for “promenade,” not “promoting awful ideas”

I teach high school, so this time of year I hear a lot about prom. I want to talk about the way an author uses a naive narrator as a proxy for her readers; they want to talk about tuxedo rentals. I want to offer strategies for successfully taking the AP exam next week; they want to skip a day of school to get their hair done. And don’t get me started on the prom dresses.

This year, in particular, I’ve about had it with prom. Not because of the tiresome campaigning for prom queen or the incessant classroom distraction, but because it seems now more than any time in recent memory prom has taken destructive cultural influences and turned the amplifier knob to 11.

Not that prom was ever completely innocent or culturally enlightened. I mean, Stephen King set a pivotal scene from “Carrie” at prom because prom has always carried a certain amount of cultural baggage. There’s the reinforcement of high-school popularity contests, an expectation that money better spent on college next fall should instead buy an expensive night of regret, and the immortal cliches of spiked punch bowls and lost virginity.

But now there’s new stuff, like the “promposal,” an idea so absurd my computer’s spell-check really, really doesn’t want me to write about it. If you haven’t heard of this thing, it’s when a teenager, usually a boy because teenage boys are dumb, invents some kind of elaborate and expensive scheme to ask another teenager to be his prom date.

According to the Internet, this promposal business has gotten out of hand. For example, the Huffington Post told me last month that the average teenager’s prom expenses are almost $1,000, with a third of that – $324! – being just the promposal itself.

Is it possible I am just a grumpy old man who doesn’t want the kids these days to have any fun? Maybe! I do find myself thinking that in my day all you had to do was ask someone, and that cost, at most, your pride or maybe a slap in the face if it went really awry. That “in my day” is a pretty big symptom grumpy old man disease.

Still: A Washington Post commentary recently described ”Richie Riches hiring helicopters to descend on the lucky girl or planes to skywrite ‘Prom?'”

That kind of aerial promposal is undoubtedly the exception and not the rule. But the news last month was full of guys strapping fake bombs to themselves (“I’m kinda the bomb/Will you be my date to Prom?” the young poet-slash-terrorist asked) and asking Miss America in front of the whole school (she said no). There is apparently an entire promposal subculture devoted to spelling the word “prom” in food, like Cheetos or pizzas, and another devoted to getting celebrity dates based on how many retweets a kid can get.

Commentators who jumped on this whole anti-promposal wagon before me have basically decided that this is a symptom of the millennial culture’s need to be noticed and broadcast. One famous promposal video from this season has almost 12 million views on YouTube. For comparison, the hit TV show “Scandal” draws an average of just 9 million viewers.

And sure, that’s plausible. But let me say this: My students in urban Milwaukee, as much as they love their Instagrams and Snapchats and such, are not promposing. There’s not an iota of difference in the desire to be known and noticed between my students and the kids buying a Sendik’s shelf worth of marshmallows to spell out “prom” in giant s’mores.

Rather, I consider the promposal trend another piece of data – like the Apple Watch Edition, $100,000 bar mitzvahs, and super yachts – for the argument that this country’s top marginal tax rates are too low. The $1,000-per-prom figure was from a study by Visa of teenagers’ credit card usage, in fact. What kind of parent gives high school students credit cards with that kind of latitude about what to buy?

Look, if the one-percenters or their children can afford this kind of crap, even on credit, then there’s no reason we can’t afford to fix bridges or make community college free or make “Let it Go” the national anthem. Or, you know, fully fund urban schools like mine.

As late as I am to the anti-promposal business, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write about it this week at all, except there was another prom-related story last month that really angered me, and not in a cute grumpy old man kind of way.

The story was out of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where posters appeared on the walls of a high school telling boys that prom was “a night to protect her character.” The posters were sponsored by a variety of religious outfits in the Manitowoc area, so it isn’t too surprising that the message here is exactly backwards from what I think it should be.

The posters are upsetting in two ways. For one, they reinforce the awful notion that it’s up to men (or, in this case, boys) to protect women (girls) and their virtue. Come on, people! This is 2015! While I don’t endorse the idea of underage sexual activity, I endorse even less teaching boys that the decision about sexual activity lies entirely with them, and that there’s something fragile in these girls that means they need to be protected from themselves.

Girls shouldn’t be told that, either, but that message is overwhelming even in the design of the poster. It features a silhouette of a girl in prom dress made up entirely of words that are supposed to describe her character. She’s not a person, you see, but rather a collection of character traits that her date gets to protect! Ugh.

While it’s nice to see words like “decisive,” “fearless,” “thoughtful” and “independent” on that dress, there’s also “shy,” “gentle,” “tidy,” “quiet” and “loyal.” It infuriates me that anyone:

a) would try to tell girls what their character should be – their “character” is theirs to develop on their own and do with as they please – or

b) that said character involves staying in their place, if you know what I mean.

And staying pure, too. According to the story linked above, a girl at the school recognized what a bad idea it is to tell girls that their value is linked only to their ability to stay pure on prom night. She offered to make posters for the school with a more girl-positive message, but her principal, who had approved the original ones, refused, saying it would “tear at the fabric of society.” Remind me to avoid his society!

But what really makes it backwards to me is the idea that boys should moderate and control their own behavior for the sake of the girl they’re with and not because it’s always wrong to violate another person.

I said above that teenage boys are dumb, and I was only half-joking. They’ll see this poster and not know any better. If the boys in Manitowoc go ahead and have sex on prom night, this poster tells them that, whoops, now your date is a whore – or at least much less than she used to be. There are no consequences for you, young man. You’re no different except maybe you fell down a bit in your duty to keep this weak girl from undermining her own virtue.

To project this a year or two into these kids’ futures, imagine this is a poster in a college dormitory about date rape. “Don’t rape your date,” the poster would say, “because it makes your victim less of a woman!” No, it doesn’t. If you rape your date, it makes you a rapist and a criminal and an awful human being. It doesn’t “make” her anything.

That’s the real lesson teenage boys need to be left with: I control my own behavior, and there are consequences that accrue to me for my actions. I don’t own my date and it’s not my job to protect her because she can’t control herself. If I screw up, if I violate some other person, I am the one who deserves punishment and scorn, not the one I violated.

This poster promotes the opposite idea, the wrong idea. Ultimately, it’s far more damaging to the actual fabric of society than even elaborate promposals – the Internet tells me girls seem to enjoy planning and paying for crazy promposals almost as much as boys do. Which is heartening: a girl-led promposal is a great example of a girl owning her own character. Even if that character cost her $324, it’s cheaper than going through life with the kind of damage that poster could do to her.

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