Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Latest Threat to Western Civilization: Unescorted Prom Attendees

Last night was prom night for hundreds of schools across the country. My niece attended hers in Ohio: we’re waiting for the report. One state over, Amanda Dougherty apparently went to hers, too, but only because she was able to get a date after the guy who was supposed to take her backed out.

Ms. Dougherty attends Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She, like high school girls everywhere, was excited about going to prom, but her date cancelled on her—it doesn’t matter why. She dusted herself off and prepared to go to the event alone. Except that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had other ideas: they, in their infinite and medieval wisdom, have a rule against going to prom without a date. Really.

Quoth the Office of Catholic Education:
The prom is an exciting event for students in all of our Archdiocesan high schools. We do have policies in place to regulate both the junior and senior prom. Unfortunately, not all students are able to attend. We can’t address specific issues with specific students but there are various reasons that a student would not be able to attend. Not having a date is one example. Our high schools offer numerous dances and events throughout the year where dates are not required, but we view the prom as a special social event where a date is required to attend.
You can pretty much bet they wouldn’t be too pleased if Ms. Dougherty showed up with a female friend, either.

OK, let’s start with what this isn’t about: it isn’t about whether the rule would apply equally to boys or to girls, or whether there’s a legitimate intimation of sexism here; it isn’t about the $1000 or so Ms. Dougherty and/or her family reportedly shelled out so she could attend prom in style; it isn’t about whether her running to the press was the appropriate thing to do; it isn’t about whether the school, the diocese, or whoever is in charge, has the right to make and enforce its rules; it isn’t about the fact that the policy was apparently well-publicized and shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. It’s about one thing, and one thing only: whether the rule itself is profoundly regressive, punitive for no apparent reason, and, well, just plain dumb. (Hint: it is.)

Students have been going to prom solo and in groups since well before I was in high school, and that wasn’t exactly yesterday. The enjoyment level of the couples attending—both the couples attending and the hey-we’ve-been-friends-for-a-decade-and-neither-of-us-is-in-a-relationship-so-do-you-want-to-go-to-prom-together “couples” attending—is unlikely to be diminished by the presence of—OMG—a dateless girl. For contrast, if indeed such is needed, compare the impact of the presence of a couple who decide to make their own trio by inviting their good friend Jose Cuervo along for the ride.

But apparently the exalted poobahs of Catholic Church, those exemplars of interpersonal relationships involving adolescents, have not yet lurched forward into an era in which high school students ought to be able to attend social functions without an appropriate adornment of the opposite sex on one’s arm; an era in which one needn’t be physically beautiful or popular—or even comfortable in social settings—to participate in school activities; an era in which antiquated and arcane tenets of social decorum are not continued simply because that’s the way it’s always been done… or, as I like to call that futuristic realm: the Eisenhower administration.

The problem here isn’t really that the policy is kind of silly (OK, OK, a lot silly). It’s that, unlike most such rules, there appears to be no rational argument in favor of it (N.B., there are arguments against Ms. Dougherty’s response, but that’s a different matter). I may disagree with the Church’s position on abortion; I may think it’s a little hypocritical to cite Leviticus 20:13 ad nauseum to justify anti-gay bigotry, all the while pretending, say, Leviticus 11:10 (prohibition against shellfish… and whales and frogs, for that matter) doesn’t exist; I may think the Church is a little too ready to cover up for pedophile priests. But at least I can figure out why someone would behave the way the leaders of the Church behave, even if it’s out of prejudice, paranoia, or Machiavellian self-interest. I just can’t wrap my head around this one. The fact that the official statement doesn’t tell us why the policy exists only exacerbates my suspicion that there really isn’t a reason other than inertia.

The argument that “Unfortunately, not all students are able to attend” is all too true: alas, there are a lot of families who can’t drop a thousand bucks onto prom after already ponying up $5600 for tuition (plus, possibly, another $1150 in “supplemental tuition”). Not in these economic times. These are real-life exigencies: not everyone who wants to go on the study abroad trip to Ireland I’m leading this summer can afford it, either. I get it. But the idea that someone couldn’t attend because of some arbitrary rule that has no particular purpose other than further stigmatizing the unattached seems a bit odd.

Can we, Gentle Reader, take as given that only a small percentage of those attending prom as couples are in fact dating each other? Can we grant, also, that there is still a social convention that impels non-couples to get a prom date? Making a rule when one isn’t really necessary—either because there is no behavior that requires the prohibition (think: outlawing the imposition of Sharia law) or because there’s no harm done if the norm is transgressed (this situation)—may or may not be symptomatic of a greater societal malaise. But it’s certainly dumb.

There will be lots of students—tens of thousands of them, probably, male and female—who don’t go to prom this year because they don’t have a date. I didn’t, four decades or so ago, and I have managed to survive in the interim without being racked with remorse. I’m reasonably confident, in retrospect, that I could have found a date if I’d tried; I didn’t. I just didn’t care. But prom was available to me, even then, had I simply decided to go alone. It was, in other words, my choice.

There’s an argument that prom serves as an important social rite of passage. Attendees must, whether by decree or convention, conform to a dress code, obey certain dictates of decorum, engage in social niceties for no particular reason other than to have done so. These are legitimate functions, appropriate training for later life, and I have no intention to demean them. But independence, whether or not there is a gender element to this incident, is also a quality to be encouraged. So is personal initiative. So is standing up to The Man.

The fact that Ms. Dougherty appears to have circumvented the system rather than overcoming it is neither inherently good nor inherently bad news. We don’t know whether she or her (ultimate) date for last night’s festivities were even capable of enjoying each other’s company, under the circumstances. But, for all we know, it’s the start of a new romance. None of this is relevant to the simple fact of the matter: the rule prohibiting dateless students from attending prom is outdated at best, moronic at worst. And it’s apparently still on the books.

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