Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Kate S on 04/21/2010

The Asking

Prom...hopefully better than Carries experience...

Prom...hopefully better than Carrie's experience...

It’s time for prom! I’ve refused to go prom all these years but decided to go this year since it’s my senior year. Besides, the prospect of mocktails is just too much to decline…

Anyway, I’m always fascinated and agitated by the prom traditions. Having emigrated from Korea seven years ago, prom is something still foreign to me and since this is going to be my first and last prom, I can’t say that I’m not secretly excited for it. I’ve reserved a table with a few good friends and without any pressure of dates, we’re going to spend a jolly good time (in other words, I hope to spend a ninety-dollar-worth of time).

Inevitably, I started noticing a sequence of flamboyant “asking.” Without hesitation, boys assume the role of alpha male; they give bouquets, serenade the girls after school, and (since it’s a boarding school) fill the girls’ rooms with balloons. These are lovely gestures in most cases, but there are times when the boys, aware of the impossibility of getting the girls of their choices, resort to public displays of asking. These desperate guys blatantly announce to their friends that they are going to ask publicly so that the girls can’t reject them. While not deliberately malicious, this reflects on the reality of the absence of “just-say-no.” A handful of girls have been confronted by this kind of mentality already; they complain afterwards about how they didn’t want to say “yes” but felt obligated to do so for the fear of being mean. It’s a legitimate reason since her refusal would automatically label her as the villain who brutally stamped on a boy’s feeble attempt to bring her to prom.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I find this inability to say “no” in girls stems from the fear of being labeled as mean, bad, or intimidating—a bitch. Most girls grow up, believing that they have to be polite, nice, and affable young ladies who are also to fulfill sexual desires of their husbands. When a girl rejects these master-narratives, she is almost immediately labeled as “difficult.” In Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, she discusses that these “difficult” women are often the ones who are free-spirited and strong-willed. These women fully exercise their voices: they say “no” if they so choose to. I get the sense that girls are too preoccupied with preserving a complaisant image and too frightened of the consequences that they forget just how much power they have, once they execute it. Perhaps this inability will magnify into something more dangerous in the future.

A similar idea occurs again when a girl decides to ask first. So far, we have one senior girl that asked a sophomore boy by taping a poster on the school wall (she had already asked him for an answer prior to the public display). Many reacted with surprise and discomfort: they would walk by the wall and wonder out loud as to why a girl would ask a guy out for prom. It seems to me that most students expect girls to wait quietly until the right date asks her to prom. But when a girl asks first, she’s marked as “weird.”

Fortunately, some girls, after days of pondering, have found a polite way to reject the offers by using the “friends” excuse (“Oh, I was just going to hang out with my girlfriends”)—which is totally fine. Prom is ninety-freaking-dollars. We should be able to have a great time with great friends. And if that means saying “no” to an unwanted date or asking a boy first for him to say “yes,” so be it.

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  • Amy CT @ at 12:34 pm, April 21st, 2010

    Prom is a completely different phenomenon in Britain than in the USA, I’m thinking…

    There’s pretty much no such thing as “going to prom with someone” here, unless you already happen to be “together”. My friends and I are going as a group, for the hell of it, because it’s our Leavers’ Ball, and we’ll pretty much never see each other again.

    I think that, over here, it’s just an excuse for girls to dress up and guys to get hammered. Not to stereotype, or anything… ;)

    But if someone asked me, and I didn’t want to go with them… I don’t know how I’d feel. I guess I can understand the feeling of obligation, but I hope I’d have more strength than just to say yes!

  • A.Y. Siu @ at 12:50 pm, April 21st, 2010

    Thanks for writing this piece. It’s one of the many reasons I never went to my prom. No regrets.

    I think it’s important for women to just go ahead and be “difficult,” “mean,” or “bitches,” because 1) it’s freeing to suddenly shirk off society’s message that you should always be accommodating and put others’ feelings before your own, and 2) men (and women, too, unfortunately) will likely call you a “bitch” at some point anyway, even if you are trying to be accommodating.

    This idea that women aren’t allowed to say “no” is dangerous. Being asked to the prom publicly is on the lighter end of the scale. On the heavier and more disturbing end is date rape, during which a lot of times women know they should say “No” more forcefully or fight back harder but then they don’t because their whole lives they’ve been told to be “good,” to be accommodating, to put others’ feelings before their own… to make that sudden switch even in a traumatic assault can be difficult. And then if they weren’t forceful enough, society then blames them for the rape “Why didn’t you fight back harder? You said ‘No’ only once? Clearly you must have wanted it.”

    It’s a very tough situation to be in, to have those mixed messages thrown at you.

    At the same time (in the situation of prom asking, not date rape), I understand where those boys are coming from in terms of resorting to the cheap ploy of public pressure to get a girl to say “yes” to going to the prom. Boys feel an enormous pressure to ask girls out as dates, and rejection is painful, especially if it happens multiple times.

    If we could just get rid of the BS both main genders have to put up with and just let girls ask boys, boys ask girls, girls ask girls, boys ask boys, both people ask publicly and privately, and stop labeling folks “mean,” then prom could be a lot more enjoyable activity for everyone.

    Maybe the British way (as Amy CT describes) is best!

  • Freddy-May @ at 1:37 pm, April 21st, 2010

    This is a really good article with a lot of really good points. I’m confused about the girl asking the boy though – maybe your prom isn’t like this, but if you’re a freshman or sophomore, don’t you have to be asked by an upperclassman? It would make sense then that the girl would ask the boy, since she knows he can’t ask her. I don’t get why people would be perplexed by it.


  • Haley @ at 6:07 pm, April 21st, 2010

    Most of the girls at my school ask the guys!
    I’m a junior and most of the guys in my grade suck (its a junior-senior prom), so my friends and I all asked sophomores! It’s not that big of a deal at my school

  • Desiree @ at 9:02 pm, April 22nd, 2010

    Yeah, my school adheres to those strict gender roles where only boys can ask girls for it to be “normal”. I haven’t heard of any girl asking a boy to prom at my school. It’s always the boys. Same with dating also.

  • KS @ at 2:29 am, April 23rd, 2010

    Thanks everyone!

    Amy CT: I very much like the British way…that’s how it should be done. Most public schools forbid singles to attend prom–students must have dates. What a horrifying way to impose heterosexual settlement…

    A.Y. Siu: That’s exactly what I was frustrated with–the inability to express her feelings. And prom’s just one of those things…

    Freddy-May: I didn’t really do a good job pointing out the difference between a senior girl asking an underclass boy and a senior guy asking an underclass girl. Logistically, it’s not a problem but there’s such a disparity in how people receive the two types.

    Haley: that’s great! I wish that it would happen more in my school.


  • Freddy-May @ at 11:24 am, April 23rd, 2010

    Oh, I see. Like, even though it makes sense that a senior girl would ask an underclass boy, people perceive it differently.

  • Michelle @ at 9:05 pm, April 23rd, 2010

    I think this is a really interesting piece. I suppose I never paid much attention to “The Asking” around prom. I dated the same guy all through high school, and all my friends were in steady relationships too. In my school I guess it was just assumed who would go with who. I can tell you though, there were no extravagent ways of asking, like public displays or anything like that. I guess I liked the way prom wasn’t a big deal at my high school.

  • Carrie @ at 1:20 pm, April 26th, 2010

    I agree that the British tradition of prom sounds better. However, British people shouldn’t compare their customs to American customs and say that the British way is better. You shouldn’t prescribe a solution to the other society! The two societies are different, and each has its own problems. It’s rude to assume that you should “fix” another country’s problems from your own perspective.

  • Guest @ at 11:03 pm, March 19th, 2011

    That is the problem with formal events here in the USA. A lot of sexism and gender based mannerisms. Guys think they are the ones to ask girls to prom while girls cannot ask or else, they’d be treated like prostitutes. And if you’re a female foreign exchange student from a gender-equal country, where women are allowed to ask men on dates and pay, it can be difficult because the USA is still very male-dominated.

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