Although Sam Clark and Anna Kalafatis have been together for five years, Sam couldn’t avoid the inevitable senior year: He had to prompose. “I’ve been a victim of the system so to speak,” he says.
Knowing his girlfriend loves attention, Sam asked her to Cranford High School’s senior prom at her after-school job, where she happens to be surrounded by cameras.
Anna works at an escape room in Garwood, N.J., where her role includes monitoring live video footage from the game area and stepping in if groups get stumped. Sam’s plan, which took him weeks to formulate, involved one of Anna’s coworkers hiding a sign (reading “When I escape will you go to prom with me?”) in the escape room before Sam and his friends arrived to play. During the game, he grabbed the sign and flashed it at the cameras while one of Anna’s coworkers captured her reaction on video. “Hopefully she’ll come screaming and running,” Sam, 18, said before he put the scheme in motion. The whole spectacle was recorded from multiple angles, a viral moment in the making. (She said yes.)
Partially inspired by the growing trend of interactive and public marriage proposals, high school students are employing similar tactics to ask their dates to prom. From Snapchat filtersto choir singalongs, the bigger the stunt, the better — with plenty of behind-the-scenes coordination to make sure the stunt goes off without a hitch.
What began as a trend with humble beginnings — in 2001, students were promposing over schools’ loudspeakers — quickly ballooned into an aspirational rite of passage, thanks to mainstream portrayals like MTV’s Laguna Beach. Exacerbated by the advent of social media, where most promposal videos are shared, prom seems to be more about the ask than the event itself. Sometimes promposals become wannabe-viral business transactions. Students have made the act a digital stunt — get 1,000 retweets and I’ll go to prom with you — when planning dates. Of course, the trend also extends to teens asking celebrities to prom, often with over-the-top choreographed and produced videos, like last year’s viral La La Land-themed promposal to Emma Stone.
When the incentive for promposing becomes murky — Is it for the ‘gram? To one-up your friend’s promposal? Because everyone else is doing it? To get the attention of Hollywood’s brightest? — it begs the question: has this trend gotten too out-of-hand?
“When I work with teens, it’s asking them what’s the motivation behind you wanting to [prompose],” says therapist Dr. Heidi Schreiber-Pan. “Are you motivated by trying to compete? Or is it that you’re going to have fun and be creative and see what you can come up with?”
Schreiber-Pan largely works with teens and young adults and she’s noticed a sizable uptick in the number of clients she sees with anxiety. Between the pressure to perform well in class and on the SATs, and the added visibility of sharing those life events on social media, a promposal (or the lack of one) can be another indicator of social stature.
“Promprosals are splashy,” says Dr. Bella DePaulo, social psychologist and the author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. “They can feel validating and they can be a lot of fun. But promposals are also important to other teens in a whole other way — they are important to the teens who are left out of those experiences when they very much wanted to be part of them.”
Stress starts to creep in when newly single teens find themselves without a potential date. Seventeen-year-old Emily Regan has a friend navigating such a situation. “One of my friends and his girlfriend just recently broke up,” Reagan, who attends Libertyville High School in Libertyville, Illinois, says, “which leaves them in an awkward position. It makes it too late to find a new date but they don’t want to go together.”
Other students, however, take matters into their own hands. Some girls will plant the seed by dropping hints to friends of whom they hope will prompose, Sam says. “People I know will pursue someone to prompose to them,” he explains. “They’ll seek out a friend of a friend and they’ll strongly ask for a promposal if they really want them.” And many do.
Reagan already knows she’s going to prom with her boyfriend of two-and-a-half years, but she expects a promposal. Last year, he took her out for ice cream and was surprised when a worker passed her a poster asking for her hand to the dance along with her scoops. While she has no expectations on this year’s ask, she hopes it’s something showing “that effort was put into it.”
Other students at her school have been asked at the aquarium — “He did a promposal when he was in the scuba tank” — and at goat yoga — “He was like will you goat with me?” — but Reagan says most promposals are pretty low key with the use of posters, candy, and song.
Sometimes school staff get wrapped into the process. Jeff Boogaard, a history and government teacher at a southern New Jersey high school was propositioned by a student to prompose in his class last year. Boogaard agreed. The boy unrolled his poster and approached his would-be date. Red-faced and shocked, she said yes, but in private after class turned down the invite — she was expecting to be asked by another boy.
Boogaard regrets not investigating the relationship before exposing his students to the embarrassment. “Every single person [in class] saw what happened,” Boogaard recalls. “I don’t know if they knew she wasn’t going to go with him. She was clearly unprepared, whereas some people know it’s going to happen and expect it’s going to happen. It adds to the stress because it’s not just who you go to the prom with, it’s who’s going to ask me and how is this person going to ask me, and is it going to be in front of a group of people? How do you react?”
Because promposals’ success rely on a present audience, this kind of voyeurism can make it difficult for teens to avoid the pressure of acquiescence. If you can assume the exchange will end up online, what is an appropriate response? After a video of a recent promposal rejection began gaining traction on Twitter — the young woman shaking her finger in the direction of a boy with a poster and roses, phones pointed from all angles — a Twitter user who identified herself as a friend of the girl posted a clarification for those on social media who insulted the girl who denied the promposal. She wrote that the boy had previously attempted to ask the girl to prom in private, and after she politely declined he still proceeded to ask her in front of their classmates.
Both Clark and Reagan agree most prom dates are pre-determined, some as early as the first quarter, so the only surprising aspects of promposals are usually when it’s going to happen and the creativity of the ask.
Despite Boogaard’s students’ in-school promposal, many occur outside of class. Amy Lizarraga, 17, came home from a day at Tucson’s Cholla High School to find her boyfriend had sprinkled rose petals throughout her room, hung string lights, wrote “Will you go with me to prom?” on her closet mirror, and created a Brockhampton lyric-themed flipbook. To pull off the stunt, he enlisted the help of Amy’s sister and cousin to prep the room day-of and consulted her friends to ensure the promposal would exceed expectations. “He would always talk about how he felt pressured,” Amy says of her boyfriend’s promposal mindset. “He made a group chat with some of my close friends and they were trying to help him out.”
She, of course, posted photos and video on Twitter. Without social media, the spectacle of promposals would be moot. “They're not successful if no one sees it,” says Laurie Essig, sociology and women and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies professor at Middlebury College. “It’s not about you seeing it or your family seeing it. Strangers have to see it.”
With videos of successful and over-the-top promposals shared across every social platform, it’s easy to see why some students would think it's an inevitable practice: the reward is often twofold. “A big part of promposals [is] half of it is making your date happy and the other half is the attention on social media,” Sam says. “I love to get all the attention and ... I want the gratification of that good idea.”
So for media-savvy and attention-seeking students, if that means putting your poster-making skills to the test in the name of prestige and romance, it’s well worth it.