If you don’t spend much time around teenagers, you may have missed the emergence of a new adolescent rite of passage: the “promposal.” The promposal has only been around in its current form for a few years, but it has already altered the American high school experience indelibly, and raised the stakes on one of the most important social milestones of adolescent life.
For those just catching up: a promposal is a marriage proposal, but for prom. In a promposal video, a high schooler (usually, but not always, a boy) surprises another high schooler (usually, but not always, a girl) with an elaborate, public display of affection, ending with a simple request: “Will you go to prom with me?” A tearful “yes!” and an awkward hug almost always follow, accompanied by applause from the onlooking friends and classmates.
Promposals are captured on video and uploaded to YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, often with titles like “The best promposal EVER” or “EPIC promposal 2016.” The unstated goal of promposal videos is to go viral, and many do—”Daniels PromPosal,” a four-minute video of a promposal posted by a high school senior last April, has more than 13 million views.
In almost every variation, promposals are extremely cute. There are Pokémon-themed promposals, and Disney promposals. There are football promposals, twerking promposals, and promposals on rollercoasters. There are funny promposals and heartwarming ones, low-budget ones and ones that look like Hollywood blockbusters. There are cheerleaders promposing to their autistic classmates and straight boys promposing to their gay best friends. There are compilations of promposals:
Viral pressure and old-fashioned teenage one-upsmanship have created a promposal arms race. Every teen knows that in America’s high schools, it is no longer good enough to simply ask your crush to prom with flowers or chocolate. You have to go over the top. Skywriting. Flashmobs. “Hamilton”-level musicals involving dozens of conspiring classmates. These oversize efforts increase the magnitude of the eventual payoff—after all, those YouTube videos aren’t going to share themselves.
I started watching promposal videos several weeks ago, and I’ve gotten obsessed. The videos perfectly capture what it’s like to be a teenager exploring the first, nascent feelings of romantic love. The butterflies. The sweaty, debilitating fear of rejection. The thrill of total infatuation, undiluted by memories of past heartbreaks. Promposal videos capture teens in their thirstiest, most desperate state, and I love them.
The most popular variety of promposal video is the perfectly creative, maddeningly elaborate production that seems to have been scripted by bookers on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” An example of this subgenre is this 2012 promposal video by Kaelen Walsh, in which he stuffs his girlfriend’s locker with 500 ping-pong balls, all of which he’s inscribed with the word “PROM?”
Or this one, of a 2012 promposal that ended in a choreographed, One Direction-soundtracked flashmob.
These mega-viral videos are fine. But what I love most of all is sorting the list of YouTube promposal videos by upload date, and watching the newly posted ones with 12 or 19 or 31 views. These videos will probably never be seen by more than a few dozen people, but they’re where the real, golden pieces of unscripted teenage honesty are found.
Like this one, “Becca’s Promposal,” which features a girl named Becca promposing to a guy named Curt, who plays her high school’s basketball team, with a series of adorkable basketball puns. (“I don’t want to OVERLOAD you, but I wanted to take a SHOT and ask if you’d ASSIST me in having a BALL at prom because you are quite a STEAL.”)
Or this promposal video, shot at Mountain House High School, which features a teen singing and playing guitar for his would-be prom date in an empty gym, wearing his nicest shirt and tie. His voice is shaky with nerves, and the song goes on for far too long, but I defy you not to cheer at 8:20, when he hoists his guitar overhead to reveal the “PROM?” written on the back and she explodes with joy.
It would be easy for adults to see something a little weird about the promposal—a chivalrous premarital ritual co-opted by upvote-hungry teens.
But I’m here for promposals. They’re honest depictions of teenage life, unfiltered by the prism of the adult media apparatus. They’re opportunities for teens to make earnest, risky declarations of their feelings, and have those feelings affirmed. They’re a signal to teenage boys, especially, that being emotionally vulnerable in public is okay.
Promposals also contain displays of this generation’s effortless tolerance. There are hundreds of same-sex promposals on YouTube—none of them show teens reacting with anything other than sheer delight. And no teen ever titles his promposal video “black guy asks white girl to prom.” It’s just “Justin asks Michelle.”
I know it sounds weird, but I promise: watching promposal videos will make you feel better about today’s teens, who still blush, gasp, and cry when presented with evidence that the person they like may like them back, just like we did. The viral spectacle may be a product of its times, but the emotions are as old as romance itself.