Professor Laurie Puchner is the Director of the Culture and Society Program in the Department of Educational Leadership. In this post, she recounts her recent exposure to the rituals associated with the Homecoming dance and thinks about the ways they replicate–and contribute to–gender inequities.
I recently witnessed a small piece of the Homecoming celebration in my town, and would suggest that it provides a salient example of how sexism is reinforced and internalized among girls and boys in our culture. Part of my discomfort and disgust toward the homecoming dance scene likely comes from lack of familiarity with the tradition. My high school had no homecoming celebration, so until my daughter attended her school’s homecoming dance last year, I had had no experience with the rituals that are apparently involved. When my daughter told me about this year’s pre-homecoming dance schedule for her group of friends, I was sort of incredulous. I thought: “Really? It’s normal to find a location away from the house to go to just for taking photos prior to the dance?” I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of formal photos to begin with, but even taking that into account, the activity seemed silly.
After experiencing now two Homecoming dances I have to admit that it infuriates me that the norms require that girls have to be so physically uncomfortable in order to comply with rituals of the male gaze. While I obligingly took photos at the selected special photo location, I obviously noticed how the girls’ dresses sexualized them. To that end, my daughter’s dress probably consisted of about four square feet of fabric total. But what I would like to focus on here, because it’s the part that angers me the most, is the comfort factor. Or rather, the lack thereof.
The worst, of course, is the shoes. Both this year and last, in the group of five or six girls that my daughter attended the dance with, she was the only one in flats. One of her friends this year clearly could barely walk around during the photo shoot, and I heard another one complain to her parents about how uncomfortable her shoes were. At that point they were still almost three hours away from the dance itself!
Last year, one of my daughter’s teachers kindly mentioned in her weekly parent email update that the girls should remember to bring flip-flops to the dance because they would not be allowed to go barefoot during the dance. Even though my daughter wore flats, I was still worried her dress shoes might be uncomfortable, so at my suggestion she took a pair of flip-flops with her. My daughter’s shoes felt fine, but the flip-flops saved a friend of hers, who wore them throughout the dance.
Forbidding the girls to go barefoot at the dance is a good example of a rule that can seem perfectly fair on the surface – boys weren’t allowed to go shoeless either, I’m sure – but whose disproportionate impact makes it oppressive and inequitable. I just asked my daughter how many others at this year’s dance were wearing flats. She said that she didn’t look at all the girls’ feet, but she admitted dryly that all the boys were indeed wearing flats. She also said that this year girls were allowed to be barefoot. (Thank you so much to the reflective individual(s) who brought about that change). The rule change explains why my partner saw a girl’s shoe lying in the parking lot when he was picking our daughter up from the dance. He asked her about the shoe, and she reported that some girls had discarded their shoes for good once they got to the dance. I knew the dresses were almost always purchased for a one-time usage, but hadn’t realized that went for the shoes sometimes too. (The dresses at least get worn during the three-hour dance, as opposed to just during the pre-dance activities).
This leads to the second discomfort issue, which relates to the dresses themselves. Some of the boys (who although unwittingly complicit are not themselves to be blamed for these phenomena) may have bought a new item of clothing for the dance – a new pair of shoes, for example, or a new dress shirt. Maybe a new pair of pants. But these items of clothing can and will be reused, and, most importantly for the issue at hand, they are reasonably comfortable. It’s true that buttoning all the way up and wearing a tie and belt can be a bit uncomfortable, especially if it’s warm out. But the boys don’t have to keep pulling the bottom of their skin-tight dress down in back to make sure it completely covers their buttocks. They don’t have to keep their legs closed tightly together while sitting. They can walk with their natural stride because their legs can move freely. They also don’t have to keep pulling their shirts up from the top, like some of the strapless girls do. Yes, the girls choose these dresses. But look at the range of choices they are provided, and compare what they have to do to fit in to what the boys have to do.
Then of course there’s the temperature factor, an important one for me since I get cold easily. Fortunately, the weather during this year’s dance was pleasantly warm. So often I’ve seen dressed-up teenage girls and women covered in goose bumps, since they have no clothing above their bust or below their buttocks, shivering as they get photographed, or walk to and from fancy events in cold weather. I agree it’s no less ridiculous that males often need to keep jackets and ties on in scorching heat. But the homecoming dance is a fall dance, so it can be cool out in the evening, and the boys don’t seem to wear jackets to this dance for the most part.
Finally, there’s the mild inconvenience that comes from the perceived need for women’s clothing to lie smoothly and seamlessly over the body. Yes, I should have bought my daughter a little matching clutch purse, which she could have stored in her locker once she got to school. Without one, she couldn’t take a phone, and she had to clutch her dance ticket and dinner money in her hand. (I tried to convince her to stick them down her front, but she refused, citing the awkwardness of retrieving them when needed). During the dance, she apparently stored her leftover ten dollar bill in her shoe, which I guess worked fine. But wouldn’t it have been nice to have a pocket, or even multiple pockets, like the boys did?
None of the issues I’ve raised here is new. And of course even as I critique I recognize my own complicity in the structures that shape these traditions. But the homecoming dance, as generally implemented, is an extreme showcase of sexism and heterosexism. We really shouldn’t tolerate it.