Debutante Ball

MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day, a day when middle-class women, like myself, squat over mirrors and reflect on how far the sisterhood has come and what challenges lie ahead. My two cents worth? It’s 2008 and we still have debutante balls. How wrong is that? And on how many levels? The answers are a) very b) stacks.

Debutante balls, the tribe has voted, and it’s time to go. OK, the tribe hasn’t voted, it’s another case of what I reckon. Let’s remind ourselves that this page is called Opinion. In that respect I believe in democracy; all voices should be heard. But as far as deb balls go, I say shove your civil liberty and personal choice. Ban debutante balls. Yes, Aunty Funbuster is on the job this week. Don’t like it? Tough. Read sport.

Allow me to get you up to speed on this one. Debutante balls were traditionally a coming-out rite of passage for “young ladies”. The concept originated in England just after the Industrial Revolution. It was an opportunity for the affluent middle-class to eat their way up the food chain by shacking up with aristocracy, and for the aristocracy to shag the new money and stop inbreeding by slumming it with the plebs. Got to hand it to those Poms, they can’t cook but they sure knew how to create an empire.

Let’s unpack shall we? When girls reached maturity (read: were considered old enough to put out) they were paraded around like cattle in wedding gowns to be judged by prospective husbands and their families.

Imagine the muttering at the tables as the young ripe visions of loveliness glided around to the Viennese Waltz. “That Lilith has a face like a hound but some jolly good breeding hips what!” “Not good enough for our Gordon though, he’s 678th in line to the throne. Jocelyn appears fetching but not lively. We can’t be having lively. Lively can lead to feisty. Put a red sticker on Jocelyn.” I don’t know if they poked the girls with sticks or looked in their mouths; if they didn’t I’m sure they would’ve liked to.

Here on Planet 2008 this bizarre and demeaning ritual has 16-year-old girls volunteering to be reduced to nothing more than gender stereotypes and sex objects judged on their looks, not their brains, creativity or ability. The debs frock up in white wedding dresses, carry bouquets and even have pageboys and flower girls. It all smacks of “here’s one we prepared earlier”. This is what she’ll look like when she’s a bride, just add the veil. You like? You buy.

The debs of today are still “escorted into society” by a young male and presented to an old, middle-class white male to give his approval (!), more often than not with his wordless wife at his side looking more than slightly mother of the bride. Then you know what the girls do? They curtsy.

That’s right. Curtsy. Handshake? Nup. Bow? Not very lady like. That’s another thing that needs to go. The curtsy. And if I have to explain why I suggest you go back to Gender Studies 101. The only difference between debutante balls then and now is fake tan, tart fuel and tiaras. Yes, my friends, for those who think I’m joking about the tiaras, I wish I was.

In the world of the debutante there’s no room for the ugly, the fat, the poor or the gay. Well, there is room: room to point and laugh and yet again be the last one picked for the team. Another case of “Am I Not Pretty Enough?” Frankly no. Or rich enough, thin enough or straight enough.

For those of you who roll your eyes and say “It’s just a good reason for a party”, I say have the party. Just party like it’s 1999, not 1783.

By all means frock up, just drop the anachronistic, degrading image of females as wordless princesses needing to be escorted by young men, approved of by old men and judged on their looks.

And no. I didn’t do my deb. At the time I proclaimed to anyone who would listen that it was nothing more than a meat market. Truth be told I didn’t think any bloke would partner me. Thank God for my teenage angst and poor self-confidence. If I were 16 today I’d be an Emo.

Deb balls are a mole on the face of the progress of equality. Do these kids really understand what kind of a cultural celebration they are taking part in? Sure, it’s a link with the past. But so, too, would be foot binding and witch burning. This is not a link with the past we should be keeping.

It’s time the fat lady sang on debutante balls. And if she doesn’t, I will. And the song I’ll be singing is Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

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