Back in the 80s when I was a teenager, the Year 10 Formal (US readers: think High School Prom) was a tiny blip on the radar. If you didn’t go, it didn’t really matter. Your reputation and entire future weren’t made suspect by the events of six hours.
I can’t even remember my Year 10 formal. I suspect I didn’t go.
True, most of us went to our Year 12 Formal, but by then most of us were 18, and we could drive and drink alcohol legally (but not at the same time!). We were worried about whether we’d passed the Higher School Certificate, our ticket to university. The Year 12 Formal was just an excuse to party with your mates after the intense pressure of the HSC. It wasn’t vested with the same amount of angst, preparation or meaning that you find in today’s Year 12 Formals.
So what happened? What is the Formal phenomenon about? Why do girls -even tom boys- feel the need to participate in this culture rooted in surface deep appearances?
Case Study: My Daughter’s Year 10 Formal.
More than twelve months prior to the actual day, my daughter, Rhiannon, began planning her Year 10 formal. Planning is an essential part of this ritual. In fact, I witnessed my daughter and her friends invest more time in planning, discussing and researching their dresses, shoes, hairstyles and bags for the Year 10 formal than most people spend planning for the purchase of their first house. The only thing that comes close to this is wedding planning (I’m getting a migraine already!). Thus we have rule no. 1: You must plan, the sooner, the better. You can’t do enough planning.
There were endless sessions online or thumbing through magazines looking at dresses, shoes, bags etc. This was fuelled by the angst that Rhiannon could not buy a dress from the one and only formal dress shop in Alice Springs and look the same as everyone else. Recently, my step daughter has been going through the same process for her Year 12 Formal: her dress is coming from the US! There are more rules here: you must source your dress from somewhere away from where you live, a subset of: you must not wear the same dress as anyone else.
However, if you’re a guy, it doesn’t matter. A black suit and tie is fine.
At the beginning of the school year in Year 10, Rhiannon went and booked her pedicure, manicure, make up, fake tan and hairdresser’s appointment. Get this: Rhiannon was booking her appointments ten months in advance. Through conversations with her and her friends, I discovered that they were all doing this. Girls learn planning skills that could make them formidable town planners or park planners with this exercise.
The dress came from Kiama in NSW (3500 km away!), the shoes and bag were bought on Ebay, the jewellery came from Bowral. The dress cost more than my wedding dress!
Two days before the formal, the appointments begin: first there’s the fake salon spray tan. Then there’s the manicure and pedicure. The next day, we’ve got hair and finally, makeup. The total cost: a little over $800. She looks like Hollywood.
We arrive at the venue and it’s like a Hollywood movie premiere. There’s a red carpet, photographers, a crowd, ropes to keep the crowd back, posing and preening, and a lot of competition to see who’s got the best entrance and dress.
Rhiannon arrives, there’s oohs and ahhs, and in a moment, she’s inside the venue and it’s all over for us. There’s an after party, with the inevitable fight and Police visit, and Rhiannon arrives home about 2pm the following day, bleary and tired.
Yes, this is Rhiannon.
You’re A Celebrity!!
Rhiannon has grown up in a very different world to the one in which I grew up, although from the late 1980s onwards, when the ‘brand’ connected to self identity began to arise, I was exposed to at least some of this. Albeit, in a very different form.
To being with, Rhiannon was marketed to from a very young age. I’m not just talking about cereal, toys and junk food. The Wiggles, Johnson and Friends, Lift Off, Lil Monsters – the apparently harmless shows that the ABC televises began to mould and market to my daughter when she was a toddler (the ABC is like the English BBC, the choice of pre-schooler viewing by middle class parents for their offspring in Australia).
Then there was Sailor Moon and the Spice Girls. Rhiannon was too old for Bratz Dolls. These taught her that she could dress up, wear make up and experience something called Girl Power. She was a princess and was special. You could get Girl Power by buying fashion and listening to certain music and doing certain things. If you weren’t into Girl Power, you were bullied or invisible. (Girl Bullying is something I’ll write about another time). You weren’t a princess nor were you special.
After the Spice Girls, came a wave of American teeny boppers whose lives were splashed throughout magazines like Girlfriend and Dolly, and made forever accessible by the internet. We knew everything about them there was to know (and more than we ever wanted to). There was Britney, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson, the Olsen twins, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Sarah Michelle Geller, Nicole Ritchie… the list goes on. Girls endlessly read about, discuss, critique, write about, look at and emulate these people. If you can’t discuss them, you can’t participate in much of the social life of your peers.
In minutely studying these celebrities, girls seek to emulate some things and not others:
- 1. A luxe lifestyle. If celebs can afford a $5000 dress, so can I. If they can go to the beautician’s three times a week, I should be able to as well.
- 2. Partying and getting drunk. It’s harmless fun. Binge drinking is harmless fun – if you’ve got a staff of minders to pick up after you! (This behaviour peaks around 16 and then declines sharply once people reach the legal drinking age!! Explain that).
- 3. That it’s ok to be a fussy, demanding drama queen. In fact, this is how women should be.
- 4. You should control normal bodily functions. Heaven forbid a sweat patch.
- 5. Your periods are an inconvenience, so just run endless packs of the Pill together and never have another period. Better still, get an Implanon.
- 6. If your hair doesn’t behave the way you want it to, you’ll need at least four products from the salon to control it.
- 7. You must hate underarm hair, leg hair and most of all, pubic hair. Pubic hair is dirty and disgusting.
- 8. Whilst you won’t be going out sans underwear like Paris Hilton, you must always wear G-Strings (thongs). Thus, you will always need a Brazilian.
- 9. Paris Hilton is a slut and a whore, but you should aspire to her wardrobe and lifestyle.
- 10. Talk like an airhead … like … how cool? Remember Melody from the Josie and the Pussycats? You should sound like her.
- 11. If your 15 inch stilettos hurt you, that’s ok. After all, it’s all about looking good.
- 12. If your 15 inch stilettos still hurt, there are products you can buy to help you put up with them.
- 13. Lindsay Lohan is a slut and a whore. Don’t aspire to anything she does. She’s not a Hilton.
- 14. Get a Chihuahua or some other small fluffy creature you can dress up like your barbie doll.
- 15. When you’re feeling down, try Zoloft. You shouldn’t feel down.
- 16. There is no meaning to life, no God in the Biblical sense (I won’t argue). There is only consumption and looking good. Give it to me NOW!!
Where did this all come from?
Ahh. My theory. Remember back in the beginning I mentioned the term ‘brand power’? Somewhere around 1988, marketers discovered that marketing had no starting age. Thus, there was suddenly a toddler and pre-school market, where you simultaneously play on parents’ fears about being a good parent, and prepare future consumers (the toddlers and pre-schoolers) for the years ahead. So, watching the Wiggles is a subtle gateway to brand-image-consumer-mania.
And then there’s this: Another part of thread attempts to captures girls’ desires to emulate mythological princesses (think about the Cinderella story and all the fairy tales small girls are exposed to). It could be said that we have even created a new class of princesses: celebrities. Our marketing friends have convinced us that we are princesses and deserve to be spoiled. We can achieve and have anything we truly set our minds to. The cult of self-improvement, much New Age spirituality, and our obsession with emulating celebrity culture is based on this: you’re imperfect and a princess (a paradox?) – but you can fix it through consumption.
Marketing is to blame?
I suspect so, but there’s also status anxiety: the insecurity that you’ve got to be better than the next gal (or guy) or you’ll miss out. True, marketers play to this insecurity as well, but I suspect there’s something sociobiological in this urge; something to do with the selfish gene and its effects upon human behaviour.
There is, as I’ve pointed out above, a number of deep cultural myths at work here (see Joseph Campbell was right!), and these, too, are utilised by marketers. But we learn them and they, as people like Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bordieu have pointed out, predispose us to act and think in certain ways.
Thus, I will argue that what we’re seeing is the result of cultural predisposition and historical context. The time and the culture were ripe for the picking. Marketing helped create the content.
The End Product
My daughter is nineteen next month. She knows right from wrong, is (mostly) intelligent, is going to university next year, has no problem getting and holding a job. She doesn’t smoke, she drinks only on the weekends, she exercises, reads, and sleeps a lot on Sundays. She has a great boyfriend.
She watches crap TV, like Australia’s Next Top Model. But then, she has pet chickens. She’s equal parts responsible (she pays her bills) and irresponsible (she bribes her little brother to feed the chickens when she’s too lazy to do so).
She is obsessed with her looks. She knows we all age. She can see age creeping up on me – and knows what’s ahead. She goes to the beautician’s at least once a week. She has so many hair and make up products, I couldn’t describe half of them, let alone put them to use. These things, I worry about. She will choose fashion over comfort and affordability. She said she would rather miss a meal than a Brazilian next year when she’s at uni. It was intended as a joke, but I know she means it. I am yet to convince her that periods are a natural part of life.
I don’t know what the future will hold. In ten year’s time, Rhiannon will be buying a house, thinking about children etc etc. Unless she becomes very wealthy, she won’t be able to sustain the lifestyle she’s currently leading. In fact, at uni next year, this lifestyle will be brought to an abrupt end.
My guess is that reality will win in the end – the demands of the human life cycle will take over- and dreams will be always be dreams.