“Prom” and the bland, creeping evil of girl culture

Disney's wannabe tween hit mixes retro gender politics, impressive hair and empty multiculturalism

Topics: Prom, Disney, Glee, Quick Takes, Movies,

"Prom" and the bland, creeping evil of girl cultureA still from "Prom"

Here’s what I want to know about “prom.” Not the new Disney movie “Prom,” which is a would-be tween-oriented hit so scrubbed and sanitized and not worthy of paying attention to that it can barely be said to exist at all. I want to know when the senior prom, the ritual pre-graduation party involving corsages and limousines and (in my day) hilarious feathered hairdos and tuxedos in unnatural pastel shades of polyester with enormous foldover lapels, lost its definite article. (At my school it was actually called the senior ball — the prom was for juniors — and I don’t think I know anybody who physically attended it. But let’s move on before I start bawling about the girl I didn’t ask who is now a prominent anthropologist.)

Anyway, in normal American speech it was once called “the prom” or “the senior prom”; these days “Prom” seems to have become a trademarked proper noun, and also a subset or metastatic offshoot of the corporatized girl-culture that brought us the princess craze. I suppose if my daughter (who is 7) had heard about Disney’s “Prom” and wanted to see it, I’d let her go, with kind of a sinking feeling just below my solar plexus. First of all, it wouldn’t make much of an impression on her because it’s so boring, and second of all, it would strike her as a story set among a Stepfordian alien civilization, one with similar artifacts to our own but entirely different folkways and hairstyles.

You certainly don’t expect a Disney live-action movie to be ambitious or edgy, but you don’t necessarily expect this degree of sloppiness either. “Prom” was directed by Joe Nussbaum, who’s made a couple of mediocre youth-oriented movies already and favors a musty, hazy look that makes it seem as if Whateverville High in an unnamed Midwestern suburb is enduring a series of smog days, or the effects of a nearby forest fire. His cast comprises pretty girls with perfect teeth and cascading ringlets of hair, improbably spackled with makeup, and pretty boys with perfect teeth and uneasily shellacked hair. (Only, some of them appear to be repeating 12th grade for the fifth or sixth — or 11th — time.) Everyone in the movie delivers their lines in the same bright, presentational style, and behave in every take of every scene as if they have just met but are really glad to have done so and even more glad to be high school seniors in the most awesome land of all.



It’s actually quite an accomplishment to make this cheerfully multicultural and multiethnic cast seem so utterly homogeneous, and almost undistinguishable: E pluribus blandum. Writer Katie Wech spins several familiar rom-com elements and minor dramas around the central problem of Nova (the overcaffeinated, lockjawed Aimee Teegarden), type-A achiever, class president and Prom Committee chair, who gets stuck working on decorations with motorcycle-wearing ne’er-do-well Jesse (Thomas McDonell). Could it be that Jesse is a misunderstood and sensitive soul who cares for his younger brother? Could it be that he looks almost exactly like “21 Jump Street”-era Johnny Depp? Could it be that the guy Nova thinks she’s going to Prom with is a future Ivy League dweeb who’s about 99 times less hot and cool and interesting than Jesse? I’m just asking.

The handsome and hirsute McDonell (who, apropos of nothing, is the son of New York journalist Terry McDonell and the brother of writer Nick McDonell) is actually among the most watchable elements of “Prom,” along with 15-year-old Danielle Campbell, who plays a sophomore siren named Nicole with an absolutely dazzling smile. There’s also an African-American athlete-playa type (DeVaughn Nixon), the foxy lady he is mistreating (Kylie Bunbury), the Asian girl (“Gossip Girl’s” Yin Chang) keeping a secret from her boyfriend, the earnest sophomore music nerd (Nolan Sotillo) and the likable doofus who can’t get a date (Nicholas Braun). It’s pointless to observe that all their stories are totally familiar, since very likely the target audience for “Prom” hasn’t encountered any of them before.

There’s no sex, no violence, not a single cuss word, and only a few instances of closed-mouth, arm’s-length kissing. I would joke that I liked this movie better when it was called “Grease,” except that “Grease” is like Lars von Trier directing Tennessee Williams’ adaptation of “Metamorphosis,” compared with “Prom.” I have no problem with low-conflict movies made for kids; God knows I watch plenty of them. But the creepy, regressive gender politics of “Prom” are more than a little troubling, not to mention misleading. In this world guys do the asking, of course, and if they don’t ask via some kind of ostentatious display — a highway sign, a candlelight dinner, a choreographed pep rally — then they’re not living up to the instant, invented yet somehow venerable tradition that is Prom. Ultimately “Prom” is just too cheap and too lame to get lathered up about, but it exemplifies the strange double or triple bind of American girlhood, whose denizens are supposed to be plasticized sex-objects-in-waiting, nurturers of the male ego, and future corporate attorneys, all at the same time.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>