Margaret Mead in a corsage

Sometimes it takes an outsider to cast a fresh eye on the familiar cultural landscape and, in de Toquevillian style, offer new insight into our oddball behavior.

Londoner Felicity Paxton first encountered one quintessentially American tradition as an exchange student staying with a Philadelphia family. "The daughter showed me her prom pictures and it was an absolute mystery to me — it looked just like a wedding," she says.

Now, as a post-doctoral researcher at Emory University's center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, she's approaching the penultimate high-school social event much as a social scientist might study native tribes in Samoa.

"The prom has some classic ritual elements," she says. "The decoration of the gym or hall so that its normal use is unrecognizable is what an anthropologist would call 'creating sacred space.' "

Paxton, who calls herself a "world-class prom crasher," has eavesdropped on 36 of them so far, mostly in the Northeast; now in the midst of Atlanta's prom season, she is still fascinated and confounded by an American institution that, in its blindness to class status, has no direct equivalent in European culture.

"This is an all-American moment, a romanticized part of the national heritage."

And there's the implicit danger to the teenage participants as parents and schools waive curfews and relinquish control for one dizzying night.

"With rites of passage, there's almost an intrinsic element of risk, with the elders willing to tolerate a certain level of boundary-pushing," she says. But, above all, the prom is a mating ritual; more specifically, a tool for teaching heterosexuality as the correct social norm by encouraging rigid conformance to traditional gender roles. Boys are supposed to look like boys and girls like girls; schools in some cities have barred cross-dressers and even had them arrested.??

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