A couple of weeks ago, my older son and two of his friends had a sleepover featuring pizza and video games.
On this night most of their grade five and six peers were at the school ‘presentation ball’.
Now, there is no attempt to hide the fact that the term ‘presentation ball’ is pretty much interchangeable with ‘debutante ball’ these days. Girls get dressed up in long white dresses like mini-brides, have their hair and make-up done and dance with boys in suits. The ‘couples’ are presented to the attendees, who are made up of family and friends. Hours of dance practice is required to make sure that the ‘couples’ don’t forget their steps on the night.
The debutante ball was developed in high-society Europe in the 19th century for the purpose of helping fathers find suitably-ranked young men to marry their daughters off to. The tradition spread and today these events are still held all over the world.
It is mostly girls in late high school who ‘do their deb’ in Australia. But the ball that was held by my children’s school was for students in grades five and six. Children aged between ten and twelve years old.
I don’t know who had the idea that presenting such young girls essentially as objects suitable for selection by potential husbands was in any way ethical. This is a dubious practice even when it involves older girls. But from where I sit, it is particularly distasteful to subject such young children to a tradition that reinforces the notion that girls are nothing more than pieces of chattel to be decorated and traded.
No doubt all the girls involved would have been under pressure to look as attractive as possible, dressed up and styled to look like adults, and told repeatedly how beautiful they looked. No doubt most would have been insecure about their appearance, worried that they were too fat, too skinny or too flat-chested to look good in their fitted white dress.
In between all of this we have the boys, who were essentially accessories and dance partners. The boy/girl pairs are referred to as ‘couples’, and all ‘couples’ must be boy/girl. There is no room to blur the lines of binary gender segregation and heteronormativity.
Even had he wanted to go, I would not have let my son attend. I will not let his brother attend when his class have the option to participate in two years time. And I hope that in two years time I will have the courage to present an objection to the organisers. To tell them that it is unhealthy to present children as property to be traded. That it is unhealthy to dress young girls up as adults and put them on show. That it is unhealthy to reinforce the notion that girls must be desirable and decorative and that any other qualities they possess are much less important. Unhealthy to reinforce the notion that girls exist to be paired up with men.
There are ways to have fun with your friends that don’t involve sexualising and objectifying girls. And a small group of boys, my son included, did precisely that on the night of the presentation ball.
The debutante or presentation ball is a tradition deeply entrenched in a patriarchal society. It is the precursor to marriage, which is directly descended from a church-sanctioned ceremony for passing ownership of a girl from her father to her husband. It has no place in a society that has any ambition at all with regard to treating women and girls as human, rather than as objects and property.