There used to be two options for the high school prom: Get a date or stay home.
There’s long been some kind of official or unofficial after-prom party. It could be a school-sanctioned overnight event in a community center, a group sleepover at a beach house or a private sleepover in a hotel room.
The anti-prom is different. It’s a rejection of prom culture – of excess, consumer values, conformity, social hierarchies, authority and its rules and expectations.
Prom has become a rite of passage, a culmination of four years of high school work and play, friendships and feuds. And prom spending has gone through the roof. The national average topped $1,100 in 2013, according to the annual Visa report. It dipped to $978 in 2014, but both the West and East coasts exceed $1,000 per teen attending the big night. The idea of spending that much on a single night to fulfill a teenager’s fantasy of starring in a glam fairy tale seems warped.
A student-led backlash was inevitable.
“We were baffled at how emotionally attached everyone got about prom. It became such a big deal for everyone at school,” said Katie Miller, a senior in Bloomfield, Neb. “If you’re not the popular kid, if you don’t have a date, it can be a really difficult situation for some teens.”
She and her friends felt the school’s official prom catered to a very specific group of people. Plus, the music is often pop and hip-hop, and little attention is paid to those outside those conventional margins. They decided to throw their own party.
“There would be no dates, no dresses you had to spend $500 on,” she said. It’s a free overnight event at a community center, open to students around the area, with snacks made by Miller and her friends.
“It’s very much focused on geek and nerd culture,” she said. This month marked their third year throwing the party. There’s a Quidditch match and Nerf war, along with games like a Lego challenge in which students have to build concepts such as “the emotion of anger” or “language of Portuguese” out of Legos in a limited time. Miller and her friends even wore cardboard cutouts of the doctors from “Dr. Who” the day of the official prom to advertise their anti-prom.
In a high school of about a hundred students, it feels like a success when more than 20 people attend their anti-prom, Miller said. She collects a few donations and saves her own money to throw the party.
“We just think prom should be (welcoming) to all types of students, and we decided to make another one,” she said.
It’s not just the proud geeks and nerds who have turned tradition on its head.
Myra Ekram, a senior at St. Louis’ Parkway North High School, was one of the main planners of the Spring Fling for the area’s observant Muslim teenage girls. Some of the other organizers wanted to call it a morp (prom spelled backwards, as some anti-proms are called), but she resisted.
Ekram plans on attending her school’s prom, albeit single, while most her friends will have dates.
“I’m the only one in my school who wears a scarf,” she said. “I want to be involved with everything to show that we do all that stuff that everyone else does.” Her prom involvement, however, will be dateless, covered, avoiding the dance floor and any alcohol.
Meanwhile, she and the other organizers rented and decorated a hotel ballroom for their own Spring Fling, kept it strictly female-only, and were able to shed their scarves, showing off their updos and fancy dresses.
Other anti-proms veer in the complete opposite direction, with free-flowing alcohol and drugs banned from the school-sponsored dance. Or there are anti-proms held in protest of discrimination against gay or lesbian couples at their schools.
For those quick to dismiss today’s teen culture as more narcissistic, consumerist and vapid than we remember our own, it’s only fair to credit them as also being more inventive, creative and resourceful in expressing their individuality.
The anti-prom is what it means to own difference. It’s this generation’s celebration of diverse countercultures.
Whether you go prom or morp, a party is a party.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.