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Formal Dullness

January 26, 2009

Chaperoning the high school formal recently has inspired much contemplation on the topics of ritual, sexuality, feminism, and drug-induced escapism. (Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like without this almost compulsive desire to deconstruct and otherwise critically analyze the majority of experiences in my life. I’m going to go with the theory that my life would be much less interesting and leave it at that.)

Though it’s been many years since I last delved into Huxley’s Brave New World, I can’t help but note the similarity of this event to the orgy-porgy of the World State. These young adults are ostensibly forbidden from natural sexual exploration and experience but expected to participate in this ritual of pseudo-release that is more about group assimilation than authentic sexual connection and pleasure. Luckily, their lives have centered, since birth, around rites and observances guiding them to become participants in dulled, mass customs, rather than to explore life with any sense of depth, their teachers and clerics focused on fleeting emotions or the legality of gay marriage and abortion while largely disregarding the fact that they are producing thought-avoidant adults willing to imbibe whatever metaphorical Kool-Aid offered. (On second thought, perhaps this is actually the goal, though perhaps subconscious, of both religious and public education – to dull desire and promote apathy.)

Both the subjugation of females and heteronormative attitudes are present in this ritual, as in all good examples of the persistence of the patriarchy. Ignoring decades of feminism, the process leading up to the ceremony for girls seems to be taken straight from the Future Repressed Housewives of America handbook: wait for a boy to ask (and base self-worth on this), choose dress and painful shoes to please the male eye (revealing or modest, depending upon the ideals of the boys or on the father), spend hours painting face and manipulating hair (to please boy), take pictures in heterosexual couples with parents, go to dinner (eating little and letting him pay). Wait, I didn’t mention the possibility of non-heterosexual couples? Oh, right, well that’s because they are not part of this equation. Almost worse than being overtly rejected, they remain invisible, condemned to non-existence.

Upon arrival, the gyrating mass forms where girls assume their submissive positions (slightly bent over in front of the boys), and the orgy begins. For the next three hours, the mass tightens as the boys grind their pelvises on the girls, careful to never concern themselves with even the possibility of a feminine desire for physical, sexual pleasure, for the girls are merely objects. Occasionally, the boys will simulate such behavior on one another, in an attempt to emphasize both the absurdity of homosexuality and their won heterosexuality (odd, considering this entire affair is a shining example of heteronormativity; one wonders why they feel such a need but then remembers the societal implications of being labeled anything else). The chaperones stand blithely by, representing a range of reactions from apathy to frustration at the display before them.

The pill-popping that takes place in the bathrooms at high school dances further emphasizes the desperate desire to avoid any semblance of the truth, even when it means limiting physical sensation and pleasure. Chemicals, like social conditioning, can keep participants from potentially painful experiences, and this is a major impetus behind the societal structure in Brave New World (which looks less and less like the future and more like the present). People (myself included, at times) miss the fact that this dulling of consciousness requires sacrificing the pursuit of truth – first temporarily but often permanently, which is disturbing on several levels. After all, if people are trained to be happy-ish with their dull lives, the dominant paradigm remains in place, thinking stops, and, in my estimation, life ceases.