What do little girls in princess dresses and teenagers at proms have in common? More than you might think.
Last week, a new survey by Visa found that nationwide, U.S. teens and their families will spend an average of $1,000 on this year's prom. Here in the Northeast, the average is double that — a whopping $2,000 per family. With such numbers, the article argues, "Prom is the new wedding."
Why is lavish prom spending on the rise? USA Today reports:
Teen girls view prom as their "red-carpet moment" and are "heavily influenced" by celebrities who walk actual red carpets in designer gowns. "It's a rite of passage, and there's a legacy of how you look at your prom. Girls want to dress to impress."
In other words, the intense consumerism of prom may be fueled by a girl's wish to live like a celebrity for a night: the center of attention, all eyes on her, enjoying the spotlight.
It's easy for critics to wag their fingers at teen girls and their parents for enabling this behavior. However, prom spending can't be removed from its cultural contexts — specifically, marketing and socialization practices.
Teen girls face a marketing machine that makes extravagant spending on the prom seem necessary (see any teen magazine during prom season for details) and logical. To the teen girls who wish to have a "red-carpet moment," the marketing machine insists that moment will "last a lifetime" — and therefore, it's worth the expense.
Moreover, our culture socializes girls to be consumers who treat themselves as commodities — packaged to be gazed upon, admired, and desired. This involves a lot of self-scrutiny: time spent before the mirror, as a girl turns her critical eye on her own reflection to gauge whether she measures up to unattainable beauty ideals. No sympathy, no compassion — just judgments.
Advertising woos girls, telling them that with just a few more purchases, they can attain this ideal; so their spending escalates. The advertising narrative says: "You're worth it! Go ahead and be glamorous. Show everyone the real you."
But this kind of prom experience isn't so much "real" as aspirational.
For comparison's sake, consider all the toddler girls who want nothing more than to be miniature Disney Princesses. Some are so insistent on their princess identities that they will wear nothing but princess play clothes, and they protest with tearful heartbreak at every well-intended reality check.
For the families of discerning young preschool consumers, this becomes a costly interest to support: Authentic Disney-branded princess dresses start at about $45 at the Disney Store, with accessories like matching shoes, tiaras and purses sold separately.
The Disney princess dresses can cost twice that or more if purchased at a Disney theme park during a family vacation, while a full princess makeover at Disney's popular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique can set parents back an additional $50 to $190 or more (dress not included).
The hair and makeup only last a day, but Disney persuades parents that these expenses are worthwhile, for the memories will last a lifetime. (As the signs at Disney's parks proclaim, "Let the memories begin.")
And so the toddler girl's $100 to $200 princess dress-up experience is a miniature version of the $1,000 to $2,000 prom.
This link between princess play and proms is not one of cause and effect. Rather, it's a correlation.
Thanks to the same set of cultural factors, the same endless soundtrack of pressures and pleasures, toddlers and high-spending teenagers are pursuing the same fantasy: a magical moment of beauty and glamour that purports to last a lifetime.
But does it?
• • •
Rebecca Hains, PhD, is a professor of communications at Salem State University. The author of the book "Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood On Screen and in Everyday Life," she blogs about children's popular culture at rebeccahains.wordpress.com. Follow her on twitter at @rchains.