With Homecoming just weeks away, we students brace ourselves for an inundation of Instagram-worthy Homecoming proposals (colloquially known as Hocoprosals). From puns on poster boards to elaborate fruit loop arrangements, students engage in public—and oftentimes absurd—stunts to ask a partner to the dance. Yet, this phenomenon did not originate at Lawrenceville; elaborate school dance proposals have been a national trend for over a decade.
2001 saw the first mention in a major newspaper of a high school dance proposal, when The Dallas Morning News ran a promposal story in their May 21 edition. The story detailed a high school senior’s elaborate scheme, which included an Adam Sandler song parody, a guitar, a long-stem white rose, and a video camera to capture the event. Since then, dance proposals—and the means for recording them—have persisted and evolved.
Meanwhile, Lawrenceville Hocoprosals entail a careful and detailed procedure. Every proposal is captured through image or video via iPhone and submitted to @lville_studentlife on Instagram. The result is a multitude of permanent photographic and video evidence of upcoming Homecoming dates. These stunts necessitate at least some theatricality; they are, by nature, performative. But this performativity can distill a complex human relationship into a one-sided image—as if we need an objective and public affirmation of an emotional connection between two individuals through a floppy poster. The highly public, performative nature of such proposals creates pressure to make one’s date a spectacle; the event itself falls to the wayside as all attention shifts to flashy signs and wordplay.
Nevertheless, the nature of these proposals reflects a general shift towards a more performative culture across all areas of student life at the School. For many individuals, especially those at the selective and competitive enclave we lovingly call Lawrenceville, college admission is one’s overarching goal. An increasingly competitive college admissions landscape calls for a new type of student—one who can not only present objective evidence of their success and initiative, but also fit these accomplishments into the Common Application’s format. Encapsulating one’s identity within 650 words and achievements within the incomprehensibly short Activities Section blurbs reduces the high school experience to a list of 100-character titles and 150-character descriptions. Students increasingly spend more of their time manufacturing a complete resume that shows their initiative and leadership—regardless of whether these qualities and activities actually exist or are meaningful to them.
Just look at Lawrenceville’s bloated club list. Instead of spending time engaging with existing clubs and organizations, students often create near-duplicate clubs that end up doing little more than appear on the bottom of one’s Common Application. Many of these clubs rarely even meet. Their function is performative—much like a Hocoprosal. You don’t need an elaborate proposal to ask someone to Homecoming to prove the strength of your relationship with someone or be president of a club to demonstrate passion for a hobby, but the modern world increasingly demands objective evidence to justify the existence of each of our experiences.
This same mentality of performativity and falsity carries over to the classroom. Why read a book when you can just skim the great SparkNotes summaries? Stretched thin by sports and club leadership, many students reason that as long as they appear as if they have read an assigned text, they will earn the same Harkness grade as their peers. As long as we perform well enough—or, display enough of our robust vocabulary and Harkness fillers—we believe that we can cover up our utter lack of knowledge and understanding. We have succumbed to a culture of sustenance on superficial, performative engagement.
We must concede that there is no way to completely eliminate performativity—it pervades all cultures, not just Lawrenceville’s. In our current age, where empirical evidence and data govern our perception of truth, objective markers and performativity are essential in establishing credibility. Still, we can reap the benefits of performative culture while mitigating its drawbacks. The modern age requires some level of self-marketing and performance, whether it be for college admissions or presenting oneself in the professional world. High school’s performative culture—superficial as it is—prepares us for this reality. As long as we are aware of this fact, we can turn our performances into something genuinely meaningful by engaging deeply beyond the surface. A goal-oriented Lawrentian may start a philanthropic club to pad his or her college résumé, but they can truly enact positive change through these efforts—what starts as a performance can become a genuine passion, or, at the very least, create some sort of impact.
Performativity’s ability to extend beyond just appearances can actually spark genuine engagement. Despite the triviality of Hoco proposals, the Board is by no means calling to revoke this tradition, nor dismissing previous Hocoprosals. As long as we realize the absurdity of our performances and maintain honesty about our intentions, performative culture can be a vehicle of good. If we can make our performative culture realize the optimistic interpretation of writer Kurt Vonnegut’s statement, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” we may be able to see our desires to look good translate into real change.