Prom season is in full swing, and high school students across the country have been spending the last few months absorbed with the latest trend to hit the hallways: “promposals,” a word used to refer to extravagant (and often public) prom asks. Whereas the stereotypical prom used to revolve around getting laid, 21st century teenagers seem much more absorbed with when and where their asks are happening.
It’s easy to see why these prom asks have become so popular in our digital age. Teens are already sharing every aspect of their lives online to boost their self-esteem, and promposals are the perfect mechanism for more peer validation. Just snap a picture of your asker with a bouquet of flowers and a giant “PROM?” sign and share it with your Facebook friends for instant gratification. (As a senior in high school, such images have been filling my news feed for months now.) YouTube is also full of promposal videos from high schools across the country, from sweet gestures to a boy twerking in booty shorts embellished with the word prom, a video that has garnered over 7 million views since it was uploaded in April — that’s nearly three times more than that guy who asked Kate Upton.
Teens know that prom is overrated, but it’s difficult to ignore the effects of the promposal trend. With prom asks as the new big thing, there is even more pressure to have a date for prom. While norms have shifted, prom still compels many teens to conform to society’s traditional gender roles: Boys ask girls, and going solo (especially as a girl) is seen as a scenario best avoided.
I interviewed fifteen teenagers about the gender roles of prom asks, the pressure to have a date, and the rising popularity of promposals.
1. The public promposal.
David describes himself as a romantic guy, and with prom approaching, he jumped at the chance to do a big ask for his girlfriend. Even before they started dating, they were planning to go to prom as friends. “Once we got into a relationship, I knew I had to step my game up and do a kick-ass proposal.” David wore a suit to school and asked his girlfriend to prom with flowers at an all-school assembly. “It completely embarrassed her — that was the point — and everyone else loved it.”
He didn’t feel pressured to do a promposal, because it was something he genuinely wanted to do. “As a high school student, I think that there is nothing more romantic for me to do than to ask my girlfriend out to prom.” David wouldn’t have wanted it to be the other way around. “If I am in a relationship with someone, I want to be romantic, and I want to ask her out.”
2. No one wants to be alone in the pictures.
Kim hypothesizes that one reason why high schoolers feel pressure to have a date for prom is because they don’t want to be alone in the prom pictures. “It is nice to be able to stand with someone and call them yours for a night, even if you are single or going with a friend.” Yet she emphasizes that having a date is not the most important part of prom. “Prom is about celebrating our accomplishments for the year. Yes, it would be nice to have a date, but I would be just as happy being with my friends and having fun.”
3. Sincerity trumps showmanship.
Isidro says that a girl asking a boy to prom “would feel kind of weird in a de-masculinizing [sic] sense; it’s like our unwritten duty.” Still, he believes that the tradition of guys asking girls is old-fashioned. “It’s an aged notion. I think it would be interesting to see a girl ask a guy, but most people tend to do it by the book … It would be cool to see women change [that].”
Although Isidro imagines that every girl wants to be formally asked to prom, he finds the idea of a promposal excessive. “I can see how they are becoming more popular in this viral age, but making a whole production out of it doesn’t necessarily make them genuine. Sincerity trumps showmanship.”
4. A date at a different school.
Sofia argues that “the stereotypes [of prom asking] are sexist and traditional, but girls chasing boys does not usually work out well. It’s human nature for the boy to chase the girl, which is why I feel that if two people go to the same school, the boy should ask the girl.” Those rules shift when the two individuals go to different schools.
Sofia asked a boy to prom, “only because he doesn’t go to my school … But now I kinda expect him to ask me to his prom in a cute way, and so far he hasn’t, so I’m stressed.” She says that there is definitely pressure on boys to do a promposal but admits that any way a boy asked would still be flattering.
5. There has to be a grand gesture.
According to Thomas, “It seems like guys are always responsible for asking out the girl. Not only that, but when they ask the girl to prom, it HAS to be a grand gesture.”
Despite this, he would “prefer asking the girl, just because I find enjoyment in things like that. I think girls should be able to ask guys though, and without judgment.” He says he would also go to prom with a guy friend. “It would just be a bro prom. Anybody should be able to ask anybody to prom, plain and simple.”
6. “My boyfriend and I just assumed we were going to prom together.”
Livia made her boyfriend ask her to prom because she likes the tradition of boys asking. She says that prom asking becomes simpler within a relationship. “My boyfriend and I just assumed we were going to prom together. I told [him] that he had to ask me in a nice way, [so] he got down on one knee. He should’ve gotten me flowers.”
7. There’s a fear of rejection.
Braham thinks that “it’s the role of the guy to ‘man up’ and ask the girl,” and he wouldn’t necessarily want to change that. While he acknowledges the fear of rejection, he believes that “if the guy really wants to ask the girl to prom, the reward should outweigh the risks.” He suggests that girls simply hint to their choice that they want to be asked and that the guy should do the ‘official’ asking.
“We live in a hook-up culture, so it is a bit odd to think that there is such a stress on the traditions of prom,” Braham says of the pressure to have a prom date, but nonetheless he believes that “having a date [for prom] is considered more refined” than going stag or with a group of friends.
8. Promposals can put girls in an uncomfortable position.
Jane thinks that the traditions of prom asks are unsettling. “The pressure put on boys to ask girls to prom is gross. And girls feel pressured to keep quiet when they consider asking a boy to prom. ‘It’s his job!’ is the usual response.” She takes further issue with the rising popularity of promposals, especially outside of a relationship. “A lot of girls feel pressured to say yes in the midst of a fancy and public way of being asked. Then they’re put in a position that is uncomfortable for them.”
Jane identifies as a lesbian but was still urged to go to prom with a boy last year, an idea that made her uncomfortable. This year she is bringing her girlfriend to prom; she spent $80 on concert tickets to her girlfriend’s favorite band as part of her promposal. “Her reaction? Priceless. Even if we broke up in the future and hate each other, the happiness in someone’s face like that can’t be erased from your head.”
9. The boy going with his best friend.
Alex likes the idea of going to prom with friends instead of a date, adding that a lot of his friends get upset that they haven’t been asked to prom. He is going to prom with his best friend, who is a girl. “We won’t be attached at the hip for the whole night. All my friends and I will definitely spend the night as a group.”
10. Boys feel the pressure from their friends.
Alvaro admits that boys often feel pressured to ask a girl to prom, because “if he doesn’t, he might look silly in front of his friends.” He wouldn’t care if a girl asked him to prom and believes that girls often expect to be asked rather than ask a boy themselves. “It’s always the boy who has to grow a couple and go for it.”
At the same time, Alvaro doesn’t see prom as something to fuss over. “[Looking back in ten years] I’ll probably laugh because we made such a big deal out of it when it didn’t really matter. I’m just going to have a good time with my friends and with some classmates that I will probably never see again.”
11. The romantic promposal fantasy.
Danica believes that girls’ expectations about being asked to prom or receiving a promposal stem from pop culture. “It has been engraved in our teenage dreams that our stud for a boyfriend or the chiseled boy in the front of the class would come and awkwardly ask you to prom, but this is not reality.” She has always dreamed of receiving her very own romantic promposal. “There is a lot of pressure to make this such a romantic night, when the reality is, prom is a night to say a final fun farewell to your best friends in high school.”
Danica isn’t sure if she would ask a boy to prom. “I’m really old-fashioned and still believe in the chivalry of a time lost long ago.”
12. Why go with someone you don’t care about?
Jenny goes to an all-girls school, so the girls have to ask their dates to prom. “In a way, it almost adds to the pressure because it makes it very clear who has a boyfriend outside of school and who doesn’t.”
She doesn’t think that there is that much pressure to have a date at her school. “I would definitely consider going with friends, but people who are in relationships are revered, because it’s so rare to pin down a significant other outside of school.” At the same time, many of her classmates are set up with dates; Jenny doesn’t see the appeal. “If I go with a date I’ve been set up with or don’t know well and spend the whole evening making sure he’s having fun, I’ll wonder why I didn’t just go with a group of friends.”
13. Boys going with boys.
Adam, who identifies as gay, says he would bring a boy to prom at his all-boys school if he had a date. “I’m comfortable with my sexuality, and I could care less if people see me with another boy … I can see why people whom I know to be closeted or uncomfortable with their sexuality will automatically only bring a person of the opposite sex.” He acknowledges that there are social pressures surrounding prom dates and is unsure whether any other boys would show up as a gay couple, regardless of what he chooses for himself. “I would love to see a gay couple at my prom, [but] people in my school are a bit too conservative for that.”
14. The girl who asked an underclassman.
Nicole asked a junior boy to her prom, which is only for seniors and their dates. “It’s pretty much unheard of for a senior girl to ask a senior boy. If a girl wants to go with an underclassman, often she’ll tell the guy and then he’ll ask her. I think it’s pretty stupid that girls are expected to be so passive in the whole process.” She discloses that there is a “ton of pressure” to have a date of the opposite sex. “It’s completely unheard of for a guy to go with a guy or to go alone. Girls can go with other girls as friends, but that means they couldn’t find dates.”
For Nicole’s promposal, she made signs spelling out “Prom?” and surprised her date at her high school’s carnival. At her school, promposals are “completely expected for senior boys asking any girls within the school — the more outrageous, the better.” She adds, “It’s not okay for a guy or anyone really to ask a date just by saying ‘Wanna go to prom?’ It’s expected that they’ll at least give their date flowers or something.”
15. “If you don’t have a date, you don’t go.”
Lizzie feels pressured to have a date for prom. “At my school, if you don’t have a date, you don’t go.” She expects a boy to ask her and would only ask a boy if she had to, “like if he was in another school or another grade.” Yes, promposals are a big deal at her school: “I’ve heard of people rejecting boys because they just asked, rather than planning something huge and special.” But despite the pressure that surrounds prom now, she realizes that she’ll look back and laugh. “The things that are a big deal in high school really aren’t that important in the long run.”
Some names have been changed.