Stratification on the Dance Floor: Prom Night in America

Prom may be a right of passage, but it is also a place where stratification is observed. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how stratification related to race and sexual identity are reproduced on prom night.

Group Of Teenage Friends Dressed For Prom

Prom night is big business, but also holds important meaning to individual participants and American culture overall. This right of passage makes regular appearances in film. Consider the importance of prom in movies like Grease, CarrieAmerican Pie, and more recently, Prom.

In my own life, I devoted the night before taking my ACT, not to preparing or resting for the exam, but instead had a friend over who practiced styling my hair for the big night.

We can think of prom night as a fun, expensive evening in formal wear, but this is not the only way to think about prom. As sociologists we can see so much more going on; and most clearly we can see a lot of stratification.

By stratification, sociologists mean inequality. A strata is a group within a hierarchy of groups. Think of a ladder where the space between each set of rungs is a strata. The higher up you go the more privilege, opportunities, and resources you have at your disposal. So why don’t sociologists just call stratification inequality? Good question. The answer is, stratification describes how inequality is structured in a society.

In the book, Prom Night (2000) by sociologist Amy Best, she points out how racial divides are recreated at the dance through decisions made regarding the music played during the dance and in more extreme cases, holding racially segregated proms. More recently, Morgan Freeman paid for a Mississippi high school’s first racially integrated prom as documented in the film Prom Night in Mississippi (watch the movie’s trailer below), while other communities continue to hold racially segregated proms.

For gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) students, attendance at prom with a same-sex date may prompt the school to cancel the prom altogether. In 2012, a student body president was removed because he proposed allowing gay and lesbian students to compete for prom king and queen, while other schools have elected gay and lesbian king and queens. While straight students may stress out over who they might ask to the big dance, GLBTQ students face the additional difficulty of wondering whether their schools will allow them to attend with their date of choice.

For many high school students, prom is a rite-of-passage. For others, prom is a rite-of-passage fraught with obstacles. Will they be allowed to attend the dance? Will they be allowed to be royalty? Will they be able to dance with their date? Will the event itself reflect their cultural practices?

  1. Did you attend prom or another school dance? Describe what it was like. Does it conform to popular portrayals? How? Consider how the dance was stratified based on race and sexual identity. Describe.
  2. For other students, religious beliefs may prevent them from attending their school’s prom. Read about an all-girl prom that took place in Michigan in 2012.
  3. Due to the expenses related to prom, how is prom stratified by social class?
  4. What changes, if any, would you suggest to make prom less stratified and more inclusive of all students? Explain why you these changes should be made.