American Proms: The Treatment of Minorities

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Few places have left a more indelible mark in American culture than high school. It is a place where young men and women come into their own in society, and where hormones and social anxieties rage. High school life is an experience shared by almost all Americans, and it's combination of drama and familiarity make it an ideal setting for pop culture to cover.

Representation of High School life in pop culture generally focuses on a few areas, almost all of them outside of the classroom. Most prominently pop culture shines it's light on clubs and after-school activities (as seen in glee); sports -especially football, which has huge cultural significance in the south (Friday Night Lights); the party culture (Skins); and, perhaps most significantly, Prom. Unlike every other aspect of (high school culture) prom takes place in just one night, but that one night holds (a place of massive importance in the national psych). Billions of dollars are spent annually on one night, and in 2005 over (4 billion dollars) were spent going to prom.

With that much effort, money and focus being spent on one night, it is only natural that it would become a major frontier for the culture wars waged daily in America. On prom night and the days leading up to it, tensions begin to run high, as while everyone want the night to be perfect, not all of them agree on what perfect means. As different groups within a heterogeneous society try to break through an ideal of prom stemming from a time when society valued homogeneity and a straight, white, male ruling class. And while subcultures and other non-ruling groups have been making headway, the ghost of a once kyriarchal society still lingers to this day, and some members of what once was the De Jure ruling class still continue to support the remnants of its legacy.

The Political Landscape:

'Power' is defined as 'an entities ability to control its environment as well as the actions of other entities.' Power generally comes from authority, and in democratic cultures like that of the United States authority is usually only seen as legitimate if it stems from the approval of the people. While this may appear irrelevant to the issue of proms it is actually, in many ways, the single most important part of the wider culture wars that the prom issue belongs to. Culture wars and civil rights movements are won, at least periodically, when power decisively shifts to one side. After the civil war freed blacks were gradually segregated from white society and stripped of many of their rights despite legislation passed intending to prevent this because much of the population was ambivalent about or downright opposed to the idea of blacks and whites living as equals. It wasn't until almost a hundred years later, when Congress, the President Lyndon B. Johnson and Chief Justice Earl Warren's supreme court banded together under the cause of equality, made rulings and passed legislation declaring segregation unconstitutional and enforcing a policy of integration; which, in turn, was only made possible the American peoples changing ideas about equality and increasing willingness to elect officials who would work to end the segregation of the era. However, even after landmark cases like Brown vs Board and legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, large swaths of society, particularly in the deep south still chose to resist the changing tmes. through any means possible, including keeping proms segregated even as integration was forced upon their schools.
Homosexuality in America has had a similarly rocky history, with no significant changes occuring in the treatment and views of homosexuals until after the stonewall riots, after which a discussion began to open up on whether the legal and societal bias on homosexuals was warrented. Soon gay culture metamorphosed from something occuring primarily behind backdoors to something some homosexuals were even willing to display, and Gay Pride Parades began to form in response to the oppression faced by homosexuals. After several highly publicized beatings,states gradually began to enact policies protecting homosexuals under anti-discrimination laws,and some even allowed them to legally marry. In 2009 the Matthew Shepard act, named after a homosexual boy who was tortured and murdered for his orientation, was passed, protecting homosexuals under federal anti-discrimination laws. However the debate over the treatment of homosexuals is not over, as there is significant divide over whether or not to allow them to marry at the state and federal levels.

Due to the United State's policy of federalism, and various other restrictions, the federal government has no ability to govern how schools host their proms. Ultimately school-boards are accountable only to schoolchildren and their parents, and so the power to change proms or keep them the same lies in their hands. However, like the greater United states, neither of these groups are homogenous, and their are divisions between parents and parents, between parents and students and between students and students over whether or not to keep proms segregated and whether or not to allow same-sex dates to the prom. Students tend to be more liberal than their parents, and are more likely to support integrating proms, while parents are more likely to support keeping them segregated. Interestingly enough, the causes of integrating proms and allowing same-sex dates/other accommodations for homosexuals at prom are in many ways divided. Black students and parents are far more likely to support integrating proms than white parents and students, but also less likely to support basic accommodations for homosexuals, while White parents and students are less likely to support integration and more likely to support accommodations.
However, It is worth nothing that a lot of this apparent divide between the two causes stems from regional differences, as Whites in areas where there are still segregated proms are more or less just as unlikely as blacks to support accommodations for homosexuals, and this split only occurs in areas where proms have already been integrated.

While the power ultimately comes from parents and students, neither side of the issue is alone in their cause, and groups for and against integration/accommodation often enjoy outside support. This support can serve to bolster their cause with an extra degree of legitimacy, or provide them with resources they wouldn't normally have access to such as money for organizing themselves and/or a spotlight shone on their issue to help them attract even more support. If the members of a school-board refuse to definitively take a side or if the opinion of the parents and students is closely divided between the two sides this outside influence can serve to tip the scales. (as seen with Morgan Freeman in Prom Night in Mississippi)

Major outside players on each side:

For integration/accommodation:

Celebrities: Tend to support liberal causes, Morgan Freeman in Prom night in Mississippi is a perfect example
ACLU: The American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps the most visible of all civil-rights groups, and a tireless defender of both homosexual and black equality.
Politicians: Generally Democrat Senators and Congressmen, however many Republicans who identify themselves as libertarians support rights as well, just not government intervention to make it happen.


Religious groups: Religious groups are generally neutral towards race, however most of them oppose homosexuality
Libertarian groups: May support equality, but are very much against government pressure/intervention on behalf of minorities.
Politicians: Generally Republican Senators, Congressmen and Presidents, however many Democrats also oppose affirmative action or pro-homosexual legislation.

Wild card:

The Media: While there are arguments to be made that certain media organizations support certain sides, the Media as a whole is fairly middle-of-center on the American political spectrum. The media generally serves to draw attention to civil-rights issues, rather than outright support a side.

Growing up Male/Female in America

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A big difference between boys and girls growing up is the types of role models they're taught to follow or idolize. Boys are generally taught to focus on war heroes, sports players, adventurers and sometimes even intellectuals. As while girls are more often taught to focus on princesses. While there is nothing particularly awful about this as long as princess worship isn't hammered in too deep and as the newer generations of Disney princesses become more capable and independent, thus waylaying the biggest concerns about princess idolization teaching girls to be dependent or submissive, it does in any ways account for the different experiences and expectations of boys and girls at prom.
For American boys the prom is in many ways just one more formal event. It may be seen as a better excuse to go partying or to hook up with a girl afterwards than most suit-and-tie events, but at it's heart it isn't that significant or different for boys past the after-party. This is not t say that boys don't look forward to prom, or that they don't treat it, even it's suit-and-tie portion with more enthusiasm and respect than most events, but it simply does not do too much to distinguis itself form other events other than being bigger.
But for American girls, who are often times very much wrapped up in the princess myth, prom is a different story. War heroes, sports players, adventurers and intellectuals are not particularly correlated with dresses and suits, and, speaking in terms of cultural significance, a comparable experience for boys would more likely be a big game or a wilderness retreat than prom. Prom is a time where girls get to live like their idols, at least for one night. They get to wear frilly dresses, are escorted to a big event by their prince charming in a fancy ride, and get to dance the better half of the night away.
Because this event means so much to them, girls also spend far more time, money and effort than boys into making sure they have the best possible night, and are actually expected to put more effort into preparation. A common cliche of TV prom specials is the boy waiting a long time for the girl to prepare. It is true that the cliche that women take more time to prepare themselves exists prominently in media unrelated to prom, however the high frequency of this cliche occurring in prom specials highlights time taken to prepare for prom as a separate or at least more common cliche than time taken to prepare for general situations. In addition girls also spend over twice as much money on average as their date does, even if he is the one paying for food. While the date buys a tuxedo and a corsage fr his prom date, prom-goers will generally also purchase manicures, gloves and hair stylings; in short anything they can buy that could prepare them for their big night.

Representation of difference

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The representation of difference occurring in segregated proms lacks any form of subtly. The clear difference between the two proms the difference in skin color of their attendants. One group is white, one group is black, and by being made to attend separate proms the school district is all but outright stating that they are different. And, while it may seem that while seperate, since both are attending proms they are in some way equal, this is not the case. Historically blacks were cut off from white society due to slavery, and even after the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, which officially made them U.S. citizens and outlawed slavery, the north and the south both practiced de facto or de jure segregation, often in the form of Jim Crow laws, which drew their legality from the infamous 'separate but equal' ruling of Plessy vs Ferguson. Segregated proms, which were born in that era, are thus clearly attempts to remove blacks from white society, rather than simply trying to separate the two groups. This suggests the notion that blacks are different than, or more accurately inferior to, whites, thus representing blacks as the difference from the 'white norm'.

However, a more accurate term may be the 'straight, white, male norm,' a norm set by the hundreds of years in America where straight, white males were the unchallenged ruling class, as they were for most if not all of the western world. As seen in the argument that has been provided for blacks being represented as different due to segregated proms, the impact of that ruling class still lingers.In addition blacks are not the only group impacted by that lasting influence, homosexuals are also treated differently due to their not belonging to the traditional norm.

Traditionally, almost no homosexual would dare out themselves, and would do anything in their power to keep their secret safe. This is because for hundreds of years, far predating white civilization in America, homosexuality was deemed sinful, and homosexual acts or suggestions were often punishable by castration, severe bodily harm, torture or even death. Even in the later half of the 20th century, being outed as a homosexual could mean abandonment by friends and family, being targeted by the police and being at risk for severe beatings from various groups of thugs.
(Beatings still occur frequently today:

Constance McMillen
Constance McMillen

Due to societies massive taboo on homosexuality, and the alienation followed homosexuals for being so different, teenagers bringing same-sex dates to prom would have been unheard of up until the last 30 years or so, and even then it is rare. Even in the liberal northeast the topic of homosexuality at school proms raises some unease, and Guilderland high School itself allows same-sex couples to attend it's proms but does not announce them like the rest of the heterosexual couples. In Mississippi homosexuals are treated even more differently, as seen in the case of Constance McMillen, a lesbian teen who was forbidden from her school district from attending the prom with her girlfriend while wearing a tuxedo. Initially the school canceled the prom in order to punish Constance, and when outcry over the prom's cancellation went national, they uncancelled the prom but secretly sent Constance to the location of a dummy prom, attended by only seven other people. By doing this the school made it very clear that it considered Constance significantly different from her peers, and made an excellent case for the continuing mistreatment and alienation of homosexuals occurring in public schools, not just by bullies in the classroom but by bullies in the school faculty as well.


In the 'Gay relationships in the media' aspect of Ryan's wiki he mentions many of the points I've been making in my wiki, especially the points I make in my 'Representation of Difference'. For a long time there was a strong bias against gays, both in society and, as Ryan points out, the media. In addition, Ryan points out that recently attitudes about homosexuality in the media, are changing, similar to how I've been pointing out that recently there has been a changing of attitudes about homosexuality in society. Increasingly same-sex couples are being allowed to attend the prom, and increasingly same-sex couples are being positively portrayed in the media (A good example of this is Micheal and Cam in Modern Family)
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See also: Prom Night in Mississippi