As a writer of historical fiction and a lover of all things vintage, I spend a lot of my time with my head in the past. Admittedly I often fail to keep up on what’s happening in today’s world, especially on its outer fringes, where I consider most celebrity “news” stories to reside. So it should surprise no one that I’m only just now formulating my thoughts on the whole Miley Cyrus fiasco that’s old news to the rest of the planet.
Did you ever wish you could scrub your mind clean of an image or a fragment of knowledge it didn’t contain before? That’s how I feel about the word twerk and everything associated with it. (Even though my word processing software underlines twerk with a red squiggle, I’m refusing to dignify it by adding it to my online dictionary. I’m such a rebel.)
Yet in spite of the nausea, I haven’t been able to get this story out of my head and my heart. Why? I don’t even know Miss Cyrus. I’ve never watched a single episode of “Hannah Montana.” I don’t have a daughter to be influenced by her, or a son who might find that sort of behavior appealing.
After mulling it over, I think one reason (out of many) that Miss Cyrus’s story upsets me is that it equates becoming an adult woman with becoming a blatant sex object. I certainly don’t hate Miley Cyrus, but I hate what she represents: the hyper-sexualization of young women in our society. So much of the commentary surrounding her recent performance had a “little Miley, all grown up” slant. I seem to remember similar comments about another former child star, Britney Spears, when she started flaunting her sexuality. It’s as if acting in this immoral manner is some sign of growth or maturity, some sort of accomplishment, and an inevitable step on the path to womanhood.
That shocking thought sent me scurrying to the 1922 edition of Emily Post to find out what debutantes were all about.
Put crudely, the debutante ball–like the outrageous performances of Miley and so many others–advertised a woman’s sexual availability. But very unlike today’s young celebs, a debutante was, ideally, only sexually available to one man through marriage. What a concept.
The debutante ball (or dance, or party, or picnic) signaled a young woman’s change of status to society. At age 18 or so and finished with school, she was considered ready to be married and start raising the next generation, and young marriage-minded men of suitable caliber would now have permission to call on her. Yes, to those who looked closely, the debutante ritual had pragmatic undertones of placing young women “on the market,” so to speak. But for the most part it was just a fun, wholesome coming-of-age ritual that preserved the dignity and purity of everyone involved–young men and young women alike. The debutante ball also served to introduce this freshly-hatched grown-up to her parents’ friends and acquaintances, who were likely to be relatives of the eligible young men in question. So making a good impression on the “older folks” was important, too.
As feminism took hold, and as college and/or career supplanted marriage as a girl’s post-high-school goal, the debut tradition gradually died out. The expense of throwing a lavish party also contributed to its demise. But even way back in 1922, Emily Post made the case that making one’s debut to society wasn’t necessarily about the party. She wrote:
“Any one of various entertainments may be given to present a young girl to society. The favorite and most elaborate of these, but possible only to parents of considerable wealth and wide social acquaintance, is a ball. Much less elaborate, but equal in size and second in favor today, is an afternoon tea with dancing. Third, and gaining in popularity, is a small dance, which presents the debutante to the younger set and a few of her mother’s intimate friends. Fourth, is a small tea without music. Fifth, the mere sending out of the mother’s visiting card with the daughter’s name engraved below her own, announces to the world that the daughter is eligible for invitations.”
Although the debutante ball persists in some areas, it has largely been replaced by the sweet-sixteen party, the quinceanera, and the high school graduation party. These days the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 26 (28 for men), so these parties celebrate milestones without implying any readiness for marriage.
Emily Post offered this bit of advice to the young ladies of 1922:
“Since the day of femininity that is purely ornamental and utterly useless is gone by, it is the girl who does things well who finds life full of interests and of friends and of happiness. The old idea also has passed that measure’s a girl’s popular success by the number of trousered figures around her. It is quality, not quantity, that counts; and the girl who surrounds herself with indiscriminate and possibly ‘cheap’ youths does not excite the envy but the derision of beholders. . . . Instead of depending on beauty, the young girl who is the “success of today” depends chiefly upon her character and disposition. . . . A gift of more value than beauty is charm, which is another word for sympathy, or the power to put yourself in the place of others; to be interested in whatever interests them, but not to occupy your thoughts in futilely wondering what they think about you. Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindliness, outwardly expressed in good manners.”
That seems to me a far classier alternative to twerking on the dance floor. Don’t you agree?