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The strange hell of the school formal

We used to call it the f-word. The formal took over the whole year in year 11. It was all anyone talked about, the only thing anyone was planning for. And for a lot of girls, it was a source of constant panic. *

I was lucky that I had a long-term boyfriend, so I didn’t have to go through all the anxiety of finding a date. And it was a full-on stress-fest for a lot of girls. Parties were thrown specifically for the purpose of finding someone to take to the formal. One girl was talking about just bringing a suit jacket to put over the back of the chair next to her, and pretending her ‘date’ was always in the bathroom or off talking to someone else.

And it doesn’t stop there. Having a date is one thing; then you need a dress. And not just any dress- a dress that’s in fashion without being predictable, that stands out without looking weird, that’s sexy without being slutty. Then you have to sort out with your friendship group who’s going to sit on what table, and, believe me, that is not as simple as it sounds.

And then you have to worry about the fact that they’ll pick one girl out on the night as the ‘belle of the ball’ (or ‘queen’ of some description), which feels pretty much the same as if they said, ‘This girl looks better than everyone else here- so despite your effort to look your best, you’re still not as good as her.’

Part of the reason the formal was such a big deal at my school was because it seemed to be the one occasion out of six years where we were allowed freedom of sorts. Freedom to socialise with boys, to wear makeup, to wear anything other than our ugly green school dresses- things that were usually so rigidly forbidden.

But there were, of course, rules. Rules about showing too much cleavage, rules about how ‘affectionate’ you could be with your date. Rules that said anyone who attended an after-party would not be allowed to run for prefect the next year. And although it was never mentioned, I’m sure there would also have been a rule that your date could not be female.

Last week, as Erin has written about here, 16-year-old Hannah Williams made headlines when she claimed that Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar discriminated against her for her sexual orientation by banning her from taking her girlfriend, Savannah Supski, to the formal. This points at a deeper problem of intolerance and conservatism that unfortunately seems to run through a lot of high schools, resulting in discrimination that largely goes unreported, or even unnoticed.

Which is why I’m wary of demonising Ivanhoe Girls Grammar itself- in a way, it is somewhat unfair that the school has been singled out and the principal is now being slagged off by many as some kind of Nazi. Because this is not a problem that is specific to Ivanhoe Girls. I have no doubt my school would have reacted in the exact same way, and so would most single-sex, private, and in particular, Catholic, schools. In fact, I’m sure there are plenty of schools that have dealt with situations like this in the same way. The only difference is that the students haven’t taken it to the media.

I think it’s amazing of Hannah and Savannah to be brave enough not only to want to go to the formal together, in an environment where I imagine there would be a lot of judgment, but to actually fight for it and be willing to put themselves out there in the media, turning it into an international news story.

Unfortunately, the way Ivanhoe Girls has justified the decision is somewhat typical as well. It would be one thing if they would just admit that the problem was the girls being in a lesbian relationship. But they way they keep making up excuses (‘oh no, it’s actually because of this…’) is just insulting to everyone involved and comes across as kind of pathetic.

When it comes down to it, the formal is hell for a lot of people. But at least it’s a hell that we were allowed to experience together. As much as I complain about how bad it was,  I was allowed to take the person I loved, and that means something to me. So I applaud Hannah and Savannah for taking a stand and fighting for their right to do the same.

*Of course, I’m cynical by nature, particularly when it comes to reflecting on high school. For some of you lucky creatures, the formal might have been the highlight of your school life, and I don’t mean to devalue that experience at all.

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