On Friday, a gutsy student in York, Pa., invited Miss America to prom during a high-school assembly — for which he got (a) a polite rejection and (b) a 3.5-day suspension. Newspapers across the country carried the student’s story, possibly because the Internet knows no greater hilarity than a promposal scorned.
But “promposals” — the eyebrow-raising high-school ritual wherein students go to elaborate, terribly public lengths to ask each other to prom — actually aren’t an Internet phenomenon. They’re not even a new phenomenon.
That might surprise parents and pundits who feel like they’ve only heard the term in the past couple years, usually in connection with social media and often in some type of commentary on this generation’s many presumed ills. Tutted Boston magazine’s Marisa Meltzer in 2007:
Everyone who’s not famous wants to be, and teens most of all. Ultrarevealing online profiles on MySpace and Facebook, as well as unabashed exhibitionism as chronicled on YouTube and reality shows like [Laguna Beach] and like-minded spinoff The Hills, point to a generation fueled by gratuitous self-promotion, a need to be noticed.
This is, admittedly, a very tempting line of condemnation — and don’t get me wrong, I can gawk at teen antics with the best of them. But even though promposals are popular on social media, they didn’t start there. Long before the Instagram peacocking and catchy portmanteaus, besotted teens — now safely in their 30s! — were singing songs, scattering rose petals and otherwise making public fools of themselves. Let’s review.
2001: The first promposal
We can’t conclusively say when the first-ever prom proposal went down, but the first newspaper story to use that phrase seems to have been the Dallas Morning News, in 2001. The paper was commenting on what was, at the time, a charming new phenomenon. Kids were asking each other out to prom over the loudspeaker! They rewrote the words to Adam Sandler’s song in “The Wedding Singer”! (A sample: “All I wanna do / is go to prom with you.”)
Both the aforementioned asks were successful. Both were also suspected, even at that early date, as a sign of some sort of generational decline: “Our generation loves doing it bigger and better,” one student rep is quoted as saying, “and prom is one event where you can get to really show off — your date, your clothes.”
2002 – 2005: The promposal goes mainstream
The next prom proposal story doesn’t show up until a full year later, in 2002, but there’s a torrent after that. Boys in Arizona leave trails of rose petals from their dates’ houses to the school. A young man in Idaho somehow sneaks an alarm clock into his girlfriend’s room, where it rings at 3 a.m. and displays a message “Hope its not too late — will you go with me to the prom?” She, for some reason, says yes.
But there are increasingly public displays, too: Billboards, signs hung from overpasses, yards filled with balloons, announcements on planes. In October 2005, the seminal teen reality show “Laguna Beach” airs a prom-proposal episode, wherein some of the show’s young men try to woo their lady friends with tow trucks and gorilla suits.
This, it turns out, is a critical moment in the development of the promposal.Years later, several D.C.-area teens would tell the Post’s Daniel de Vise the episode inspired them and their friends to ever more-elaborate demonstrations of affection.
2006: The backlash begins
Wonders one columnist at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in response to that publication’s story about local proposals, “Has the annual spring ritual of a formal school dance gotten out of hand?” Keep in mind that Facebook isn’t even open to high-schoolers yet.
2007 – 2011: Promposals go viral
Facebook opens to high-schoolers in fall 2006. It, along with Twitter (founded March 2006) and Tumblr (founded early 2007) will become forces for the high school crowd shortly thereafter. But back then, as now, YouTube is the true home turf of the promposal. By 2011, the social media agency Sq1 reports that 20,000 prom videos were uploaded in a one-month period of the 2011 prom season.
“Now you have to write a song and put it on YouTube and it’s this whole [expletive] process,” Gawker wrote that year. “Man, it’s just prom.”
There are currently more than 40,000 videos tagged “promposal” and an additional 900,000 tagged “prom proposal” or “ask cute.” (This video, filmed in Toronto in 2012, remains one of the most popular.)
2011: Someone finally makes the obvious portmanteau from “prom proposal”
While it’s unclear when the term first originated among teens, it doesn’t appear in the press until May 2011 — at the same time, incidentally, that the trend appears in Canada. Zosia Bielski busts it out for Toronto’s Globe and Mail.
2012 – 2013: The celebrity promposal
No longer content with students their own age — or convinced, perhaps, that their antics could win guests of other ages — students began to ask out singers, porn stars, professional cheerleaders and other luminaries who wouldn’t typically look their way.
Leon Purvis of New Jersey apparently kicked off that particular spin-off when he persuaded a committee of “teachers and peers” to help him get the unwieldy hashtag #GuyAsksJustinBieberToPromOnYouTube in 2011. (Suffice it to say, the Biebs did not take Leon to the prom.)
But other social-media solicitors have had more success. An 18-year-old Minnesotan named Mike Stone eventually got adult film star Megan Piper to agree to go to prom after tweeting at dozens of porn actresses; a Texas student named Mike Ramirez persuaded a Houston Texans cheerleader to go to the dance with him, after his tweet about her was shared 10,000 times.
And while Miss America could not go with the Pennsylvania high school student, courtesy her travel schedule, she did write on Facebook that she was “flattered” and kindly asked his school to reconsider the suspension.
2014: Peak promposal
And there you have it: We have, without a doubt, hit peak promposal.
But don’t blame social media, don’t hate on the kids — and by all means, don’t say this thing is “new.” Teenage exhibitionism/senseless romantics are, in fact, probably as old as time. Just think about your prom experience.