It’s not a hard word to interpret: promzilla is clearly the schoolgirl equivalent of bridezilla, the once-normal woman who mutates into a power-crazed satin-clad dictator once the diamond is on the finger and the date booked. Everything must be glossy-magazine perfect and everything must revolve around her, no matter what the cost (financial and human). If you’ve ever read the Dear Prudence advice column on slate.com, you know the type: women like this one.
I used to be an editor at Seventeen and the late-lamented YM, both magazines for teenage girls, so I’m familiar with prom obsession. The Seventeen prom issue was once the magazine’s second-biggest of the year (after the back-to-school issue), and occupied pretty much every page of it, from readers’ prom-disaster funny stories through pages of violently colored tulle dresses and advice on everything from what to do if you didn’t have a date to choosing a corsage to unusual places to go for the after-party (where everyone knew all the sex and drugs and drinking occurred). (I also put a couple of my own children—boys, luckily—through prom, and even when all you have to find them is a rented tux and a date, it can be surprisingly anxiety-provoking.)
All this, though, was vicarious. I grew up in postwar austerity England, where prom was a word of mystery and glamour in American books, like faucet or popsicle or even sneakers. We did have occasional school dances, lame, embarrassing occasions where my all-girls school got together with some boys’ school and most of us giggled near the walls or snogged some spotty lad behind the gym. We wore a nice dress and some blue eyeshadow and went home on the bus. If you were more advanced you might go to a pub afterwards, smoke No. 6 cigarettes, drink gin-and-orange and be sick in the loos.
I can’t recall any celebration of arriving at the end of high school at all, let alone anything resembling a prom. During the three weeks between the end of my A-level exams and the summer holidays, I took the free typing class the school laid on and sneaked out every lunchtime with another girlfriend to meet boys in a pub and smoke more No. 6. We didn’t sign yearbooks or pledge to get together again in 10 years or break up dramatically with the boyfriend we’d been with all through high school. We’d never even seen a limousine, let alone ridden in one.
It was because of the entirely non-prom culture I came from that I was startled to learn recently (thanks to the invaluable site Word Spy) that the term promzilla had recently become popular in the U.K.—because, it seems, the prom phenom has finally crossed the Atlantic and wrapped its tentacles around British maidens. A piece by Kathryn Knight in the Daily Mail goes into excruciating detail about the groups of 15- and 16-year-old girls who now pile in excited bevies into emporiums with names like the Fashion Factory, where they spend upwards of £250 on dresses. Dresses that are “registered,” apparently, so that no two girls going to the same prom inadvertently show up wearing the same one. Girls are already booking their dresses for prom 2012!
Along with the dresses has come the rest of the culture (except, possibly, the ridiculous corsage—none of the girls in the picture I saw was wearing one): professionally done hair and makeup, designer shoes and clutches, official photographers, stretch Hummers in which to arrive at the ball. The mums interviewed for the Daily Mail seemed divided into the “It’s-a-lovely-once-in-a-lifetime thing-so-who-cares-if-it-costs-as-much-as-a-small-wedding” camp vs. the “how-can-this-be-good-for-kids-when-they’re-supposed-to-be-studying-for-their-GCSEs?” lot.
The sources of this newfound obsession, it turns out, are of course movies and television—specifically, hugely popular American productions like the High School Musical films and, especially, the TV show Glee, where the focus is on performance and spectacle. “It’s the fairytale these girls want,” says the manager at the Fashion Factory. But maybe not the prince? One thing these girls don’t seem to be obsessed with, unlike all the prom princesses I remember from Seventeen, is their date—whether they’ve got one at all, and if so, whether he’s sufficiently prince-like. In the Daily Mail, the girls in all their glory are crowded, with huge smiles, into their limo—and not a boy in sight. Perhaps England’s promzillas haven’t completely bought the myth after all.—TAMARA GLENNY