What Movie Prom Scenes Can Teach Us About Relationships
By Jeff Lemberg
Prom season is upon us and millions of high school students are thinking about the big night. Some are sweating over what to wear. Others are figuring out pre- and after-party plans. But for most everyone, the biggest stressor revolves around who they are going to prom with.
Teens have long learned about romance (and prom) through the movies and shows they consume. It’s among the many reasons evidence-based relationship health and media literacy education, such as One Love’s free workshops, should be a requirement for every middle school and high school student in America. The ability to analyze and unpack fictional films is essential to effectively navigating real-world complexities.
To that end, let’s look at three films that feature prom scenes, and identify what healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors look like. The quality of your prom experience will likely come down to the person or people you go with, so make good choices, kids!
“Pretty in Pink”
“Pretty in Pink” premiered more than 35 years ago, yet it remains a classic for all the reasons many coming-of-age teen films do: most of characters are steaming hot messes.
Andie (played by ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald) is an artsy and quirky high school senior who begins hanging out with Blane, a popular boy from a wealthy family. Blane eventually asks Andie to prom, but then ghosts her after his “richie” friends deem her garbage. Andie’s family has little money, while Blane wears sports jackets and button-down shirts on the weekend. (The wealth gap was an often-used point of conflict in 1980s teen films. Check out “The Karate Kid,” “Dirty Dancing,” and “The Breakfast Club.”)
In a wonderful nod to independence and self-confidence, Andie opts to go to prom alone. So too does her pal Duckie Dale, who desperately wanted to be with Andie himself, but couldn’t find his way out of the friend zone. (To be sure, it wasn’t due to a lack of effort — Duckie wore his heart on his stylish sleeve! But it’s also OK that Andie felt otherwise. Not every relationship involves mutual feelings.)
The pair enter the dance together, and everyone is laughing, talking, and having a great time. Everyone, that is, but Blane, who looks like someone just ran over his dog. Blane offers Andie a lame apology, making it more about himself than what he did to her. He then tells Andie he loves her. “Always,” he adds after kissing her on the cheek.
This is when Duckie shines. He’s at prom with the girl he has long yearned for, yet he still cares more about her happiness than his own. Forever the devoted friend, the Duck-man oozes kindness and independence — two great healthy relationship behaviors — and encourages Andie to go after Blane.
Helping a friend in an unhealthy relationship can be complicated. Among the tips One Love recommends include being supportive, offering solutions, and allowing them to make their own decisions. Whether or not Duckie did Andie right is debatable, but there’s no question he wanted the best for her — and what more can you ask for in a prom partner?
In the 2017 film “Lady Bird,” Christine, self-nicknamed Lady Bird, meets a book-reading, guitar-playing, 120-pound smoke show named Kyle (played by Timothee Chalamet) and a relationship ensues. However, it’s a relationship built on lies. Guided by her insecurities and dreams for a more exciting life, Lady Bird pretends to come from a family of wealth and even later dumps her best/nerdy friend Julie. For his part, Kyle tells Lady Bird he is a virgin just like her. The two have sex, after which Kyle casually admits he previously slept with at least six other people. Douchenozzle!
Public service blog announcement: Manipulation is the act of influencing someone’s feelings or emotions to get what you want, and it is never okay. Kyle’s lie, in addition to being hurtful, doesn’t allow Lady Bird to make an informed decision – a critical part of consent. In a healthy relationship, partners share the full truth about their lives and feelings with each other.
Although Lady Bird and Kyle have endearing qualities, their relationship is rooted in a litany of unhealthy behaviors, including uncomfortable pace and a lack of respect. And yet, she still goes to prom with him! Sometimes, the social and emotional weight we assign to big events, like prom, can cause us to make choices that are less than we deserve.
However, the couple never makes it there. While driving to the dance with Kyle, Lady Bird realizes the relationship she most cherishes is the one with her longtime bestie. Lady Bird ditches the apathetic Kyle and finds Julie sitting at home in an oversized T-shirt. They reconcile, they cry, they laugh, and then they go to prom…together. Lady Bird and Julie have a great time at the dance because their relationship is filled with love, fun, and kindness.
It’s not unusual to find a monster in a movie with a high school prom scene (see “Teen Wolf,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Carrie“). But the first “Twilight” film makes my list thanks to its main character, Bella Swan.
First, and this is probably an unpopular take, I find Bella and Edward to be among the most cringy movie couples of all time. Yes, he’s a vampire. And sure, a group of other vampires are trying to consume Bella. But the constant intensity of Bella and Edward’s relationship is simply too much for this mere mortal to endure.
Case in point: Bella ruins what could have been a great prom scene when she begs Edward to kill her so they can spend eternity together. Huh? They’ve been dating for little more than a hot second, but Bella is ready to commit for…eternity!
“You don’t want this,” Edward says as they slow-dance under a gazebo.
“I want you,” Bella retorts. “Always.” (Anyone else picking up on a trend here?)
“So that’s what you dream about? Being a monster?” Edward asks incredulously.
“I dream about being with you, forever,” she says.
Ugh. Overly attached girlfriend alert!
Romantic relationships are exciting. When you’re with someone you truly connect with, have fun with, and trust, it really does feel magical. However, all good relationships should move at a comfortable pace. Don’t mistake intensity for love, and don’t let your partner or prom date pressure you into anything. That includes alcohol and drug use, and sex.
Take it from Edward. Sure, he was 104 years old and attending a high school prom, but the undead dude knew how to set a boundary. Despite Bella’s best efforts, Edward declined to snack on his date. A true gentleman!
If you’re going to a school prom this year, have a wonderful and safe time. Just remember, it’s not what you wear or how you arrive at the dance that most matters. It’s the people you choose to surround yourself with — your relationships! — that will make it an evening to remember.
Jeff Lemberg, a former journalist and media literacy educator, is the Director of Development for One Love’s Boston region. He is passionate about social and emotional education, as well as building partnerships with nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental entities in support of relationship health.