Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pomp & circumstance

It's one of those times of the year when I'm reminded why I'm glad I'm not a parent.  Yes, perhaps there's a tinge of sour grapes here, but humour me...! 

My Facebook feed lately has been full of "woohoo!" posts and cap & gown photos from parents & teachers in the States, celebrating the last day of school and graduation. Here in Canada (at least in Ontario), school generally starts the day after Labour Day & continues through until the end of June. At any rate, on both sides of the border, prom/grad season is in full swing. (The same thing happens in the fall, when the back to school posts & photos start sometime in mid-August (States) & goes through the first week of September (Canada).)

Prom was the subject of an article in a recent issue of the Globe & Mail by Katrina Onstad (whose work I generally admire):  "Debt, excessive consumption and hangovers: Why prom night is more horror than fairy tale." 

Observes Onstad:
Oh, prom. You hideous hell-child of the eight-hour banquet-room wedding and New Year’s Eve. You, with your bad house band, syrupy drinks, amped-up expectations and inborn disappointment. You whose reality is more Carrie than Pretty in Pink.  

This is not how prom is sold to those who haven’t been yet. For that cohort, here’s a tip: Skip it. Really. Those hands in your pockets are not your own (or Josh’s, or Jessica’s – sorry), but the talons of an industry eager to profit from your youthful enthusiasm. Things have changed since my friends and I shared a cab to our high- school gym 20-something years ago. Now, prom follows the spend-and-stress contours of the modern wedding. There are prom magazines, prom expos, prom reality-TV shows, professional prom planners, and a Disney movie called – spell it out, Walt – Prom. It’s like we’re marking the path out of childhood by passing along the worst habits of adulthood: debt, excessive consumption and hangovers.
I had to laugh reading one of the comments, which began: "I graduated in these golden years after the hippies and before disco when proms actually were passe and were cancelled for awhile since nobody would be caught dead at one."

I remember those days too (although disco was still somewhat in vogue -- just past its peak, I think -- when I graduated from high school).  I could relate to Onstad's cab to the high school gym too (although it was probably my mom & dad who drove us -- or we might have even walked -- it was close enough). 

Today, no doubt fuelled by the Internet and other mass media, prom is just as big a deal for kids in Canada (at least it is here in urban Ontario) as it is the States. But the time (late 1970s) & place (smalltown Prairie Canada) when I grew up was much simpler and less formal.

We had expectations for prom/grad, of course -- I was excited to go dress shopping in the city with my mother -- but limos, designer gowns, hotel rooms, professional mani/peds (not to mention spray tans) were simply not a part of our world.  Casual was king. "Dressing up" for a dance meant wearing cords (corduroy pants) instead of jeans or overalls -- and you would only do so if you called around to make absolutely certain that at least two or three of your friends would be wearing theirs too.

We did have a "spring prom" the year I graduated -- which was basically a regular school dance -- yes, in the gym -- with a semi-formal dress code. The guys wore cords instead of jeans. I don't remember what my female classmates wore, but I wore a newly purchased cotton sundress (white with blue gingham trim) -- probably the first (& last) time I wore a dress in the high school gym.  And (gasp!) I wore it again a few weeks later at the grad banquet.

A few weeks later, our class took a bus into the city for a two-hour grad cruise up & down the Red River (prior to which we were sternly lectured by the infamous no-nonsense captain about his expectations for our behaviour).  I think I borrowed a dress from my sister. I didn't have a date & spent the evening with one of my similarly dateless girlfriends, drinking & tablehopping. (Legal drinking age was & still is 18 there, & we were both of age & thus entitled to service at the ship's bar.)  We wound up sitting at a table full of the school rowdy guys, one of whom proclaimed in amazement that we were actually kind of cool when we were wasted. Gee, thanks.

And then a few weeks after that was our actual grad ceremony. I paid $65 for a long turquoise blue polyester gown with long pleats and a blue ribbon-tied straps -- the most expensive dress I had ever purchased. I wore it that one day, and it has sat in my parents' closet for the (cough cough) 34 years since then. (Mine was the last class to graduate in long dresses for the girls and suits for the boys.  The next year, my sister's class voted to adopt caps & gowns, so what you wore underneath didn't carry quite as much importance.) 

After the ceremony, we had cake and pink champagne at my parents' house, changed into jeans, then headed for the party at the beach, 20 miles outside of town. When we got there, it didn't seem like there was any kind of organized party. It was just dozens of kids running wild in the pitch dark with bottles in their hand. (I knew one girl who got a bad case of poison ivy that night where the sun normally doesn't shine.)  We didn't stay very long -- it all seemed kind of pointless -- so we headed back into town and over to a friend's house, where we sat outside around a picnic table and drank more champagne & ate junk food until dawn.

The wedding-fication of prom/grad, the inflation of expectations, has extended on down the chain to junior high school. I remember a scrapbooking message board discussion about 10 years ago, when one of the moms was posting about the rigamorole surrounding her daughter's Grade 8 graduation. She told us about taking her daughter to a local salon to get her hair & nails done, and chatting with the other mothers who were waiting there for their daughters. Comparing notes, they all realized that none of them had ever (or rarely) had a professional manicure or pedicure, now being demanded as part of the grad experience by their 14-year-olds. "What's wrong with this picture??" one of the moms joked. 

I've heard many more such stories in the years since then, and things have only gotten more elaborate. And not just for junior high schoolers.

When I graduated from kindergarten, we did have a ceremony (at which we were presented with a mimeographed "diploma" signed by our teacher), but we fashioned our own hats out of construction paper, with tassels made from crepe paper & attached to the cap with scotch tape.  : )

A few years ago, I started seeing photos of kindergarten & junior kindergarten kids wearing full caps & gowns -- not just for photographic purposes, but also at actual kindergarten graduation ceremonies.

This past week, I saw photos of one kindergarten graduation ceremony where the little girls wore fancy flower girl/junior bridesmaid-style evening gowns that reminded me uncomfortably of JonBenet Ramsay (!!) & the little boys wore miniature tuxedos with bow ties.

If you are wearing evening gowns at age 5, hiring limos for Grade 8 grad and coughing up $1,500 or more for the full prom experience when you're 18, what's left to look forward to?

Your wedding, I guess (Onstad's wedding reference is absolutely spot on) -- but since we've now got kindergarteners wearing tuxes & and high schoolers spending more on their prom gowns than I paid for my wedding dress, weddings have had to up the ante too. (Which then trickles back down again to the high school grads, & so on down the line. It's a vicious circle.)

Fuelled by the rise of the Internet & reality shows like "Say Yes to the Dress," some weddings have become more like elaborate stage shows (with the bride & groom as stars & celebrities in chief) than about families & friends celebrating together. Planning a wedding has always been somewhat stressful, of course, but these days, it seems like there are so many more ways to get stressed (and to spend your money, of course).  (Right now, I'm reading Mel's new book, Measure of Love, in which one of the characters is stressed out by wedding preparations.) 

Weddings have always had an element of the theatrical about them, of course. But it didn't really hit me just how much they've been influenced by show biz until I attended a wedding about five years ago. It was very pretty. But the whole thing, and especially the reception, gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I was attending a stage performance and not a WEDDING.  At the reception hall, each table had a spotlight on it, highlighting the tall, spiky flowers that formed the the centrepieces.  Just before dinner was served, the bride & groom made a grand entrance from a balcony at the top of a double Scarlett O'Hara staircase, and then danced their way down staircases (she down one & he down the other). Once they reached the bottom, they launched into their first dance, as a dry ice fog wafted up through special vents in the floor.  It was a loooooonnnnnng way from the wedding receptions of my childhood, generally held at smalltown or rural community halls, where the church or Legion ladies catered plates of ham & turkey & large bowls of mashed potatos, served buffet style or set in front of us, seated on folding metal chairs at long folding tables covered in paper tablecloths. 

Other weddings I've been to in recent years have featured choreographed dance routines, theatrical numbers by the band, dance troupes entertaining between dinner courses, and an endless parade of speakers.

One of the young girls at work was suffering angst this past week over her girlfriend's upcoming bachelorette party. We're not talking a night out at the bar with a sash & tiara. She's trying to organize accommodations, dining & possibly theatre tickets. For three days. In New York City. For 14 people!!!  I told dh & he said, ""That's asking a lot, isn't it?? Of her, to organize, and of her friends." 

When I was getting married, some (cough cough) 28 years ago you had a bridal shower, or maybe two. You had some sandwiches & dainties (squares) and tea, and unwrapped your gifts, which might include some teatowels or a couple of cake pans or cookie sheets. One of my aunts hosted a shower for me where she asked the guests for $10 each and then presented me with several place settings of my bridal china from my registry (which was also something relatively new to the brides in my family). 

Male strippers were only just coming into vogue, and I heard the odd story about pre-bridal outings to see them. The closest I ever got to that experience was when one of dh's cousins got married in 1988. The same night the guys feted the groom at his bachelor party, the girls went out to a female impersonator revue (hosted by a Joan Rivers lookalike). (It was actually a lot of fun.)

So what's my point? I guess just that everything these days is overhyped. It's more more more & faster faster faster -- and when & where is it all going to end up?

You'll note that I haven't even touched on the inflation of expectations over the past few decades when it comes to pregnancy & babies. We're all only too familiar with THAT. Baby bumps on magazine covers, the proliferation of chic maternity wear boutiques, 4-D ultrasounds, pregnancy photos shot like fashion magazine layouts, belly casts, gender reveal parties, babymoon resort packages -- none of these things were in vogue (at least, to the extent they are now) when I was pregnant, just 15 years ago.  And the fact that so many women take for granted that all this will be theirs -- even demand it -- makes us feel all the worse about our own infertility, loss & childlessness. 

But I've rambled on long enough. I think that's a subject for another day.

OK. Cranky old childless lady rant over. ; )  (For now.) ; )


  1. I am actually going to dinner tonight at the place where I went to dinner before prom! Very fancy $5 pasta :-) I wore a dress, but that was where the fancy ended. I made a special mix tape for the car, we drove ourselves (my friend, and our two dates), had a casual dinner in a place where we'd normally go to dinner, and then went to dance. I went to a lot of proms -- maybe 5? -- because I got asked by boys at different schools and in other grades. But none of my proms, in an affluent area of the US, looked like prom today.

    The ChickieNob and Wolvog already know that we're not doing limos and such -- just normal prom.

  2. I totally agree with you. Maternity photo shoots are just SO hard for me to see.

  3. I don't think it's a cranky childless woman rant, but a reality check and I couldn't agree more. I don't understand the whole obsession.

    But I didn't go to Prom. Wasn't asked, didn't bother, never dance... I did have an arrangement to go with a friend, since we were both single, I bought a dress at the thrift store and everything. But his car broke down... eh. I don't feel like I missed ANYTHING. I never understood school dances. I'm pretty antisocial, so maybe that's part of it.

    I never had a wedding shower, bridal shower, bachorelette party, or anything. My wedding was in a park, with a potluck, mid-week. It was about us confirming our dedication to each other. We were 21, and didn't have any support. Do I wish my wedding was different? Sure. But at the end of the day, I was married, and that's all that really mattered.

    Okay, enough personal rambling about my own weird anti-social views! lol

    What's up the the battering of graduations? I don't even understand. There is way to much media/social pressure. I think that people need to step back and question these things. They're the consumers, and if they don't question it and make a stand, it's just going to continue. It's sad.

  4. I was visiting with my SIL tonight & she was at a wedding last week... when I asked her how it was, she rolled her eyes & said (completely unprompted by me), "Everything is so overdone these days, it's gotten to be such a production... Whatever happened to having a nice, simple wedding?" ; )

  5. I couldn't agree more. Everything is so overdone these days. Not only in America, also in Europe & elsewhere.

    I enjoy living a simple life with my DH. We have a luxury of not having to adapt to new (expensive) rituals (since being childless).

  6. I never went to a prom and neither did my two sisters. I wonder if I missed out on something or what's the big deal?

  7. I loved prom in my small hometown because it was a big deal--but it was the only big deal. It was limited to Juniors and Seniors, so you only got to go twice, it's held in the high school gym, which the junior class got to decorate, and they set up bleachers so the town comes out to watch the promenade (students are announced as they arrive). The thing that makes it entertaining is the vehicles students ride in--you borrow a fancy or classic car, or (since we're in the midwest) a lot of students come to prom on farm equipment--tractors, combines, etc. Some ride bicycles or come as groups of friends in the back of delivery trucks. It was the only time I got my nails done or tanned (sigh, but it's true) in high school. To avoid the debauchery associated with prom, the After Prom committee sets up events all over town and students check in (it takes less than 10 minutes to get anywhere in town so there's no unaccounted for time). There are plenty of parties and underage drinking, but prom night is not one of those nights. It was super cheesy high school fun, and I loved it. Even the Eiffel tower that looked like an oil derrick for the "Springtime in Paris" prom theme!

    But I do agree that with so much overhyping, those kind of magical nights lose their magic. We didn't really dress up for any other dance, we didn't have eighth grade (or kindergarten) graduation. With limited shopping opportunities (the nearest mall is an hour away), we were kind of sheltered from the hoopla (of course, this was before the rise of the internet!). It's hard to keep the really special things special with the more-more-more consumer mentality.