Emma Shealy ‘22
“Granddaddy said he’s staying alive to see you be a debutante.”
That is what my mother told me at the beginning of 2019. Despite several years of protesting, I was going to be one of about 20 debutantes or “young ladies from age 16 to 21 [presented] as official members of society” as defined by Maggie Burch of Southern Living. Burch identifies the original purpose of debutante balls as “a family’s announcement that their daughter was of good breeding and of marriageable age.”
Today, their purpose is unclear to say the least, as Dr. Cynthia Lewis, a professor of English at Davidson College, points out in her essay, “Secret Sharing: Debutantes Coming Out in the American South.” Besides being an excuse for social networking among fellow white and wealthy Southerners, debutante balls have “the capacity to keep secrets from those within, as well as those outside […], enabling the justification of elitism by the elite,” Dr. Lewis writes.
I got to experience this fragile rationalization firsthand, not only in conversations with my family, but also in my own justifications for “willingly” being a debutante. My parents had been hinting at my participation in this event for several years, and my grandfather’s ultimatum seemed to have decided my fate. My opinion on the racism, elitism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that are inherent to these debutante balls did not matter. I had to participate because being a debutante was not about me.
Before my first ball (I ended up attending four), my father tried to explain to me why I should not be ashamed of being a debutante. I was told that I would have fun and that this would be an opportunity to meet important people and learn how to act so that I could succeed in my career aspirations. But the part he was missing was that I did not want to have a career reliant on my ability to act polite and look pretty. Furthermore, being presented to society as a woman in a white dress on the arm of a man didn’t accurately reflect my queer identity.
Though my first debutante ball was not until the end of November 2019, preparations for the event began at the beginning of the year. I had to find an escort who was 21 or older (so that he could legally drink, though I could not because I was 19) and who would be willing to drive to my home state and participate in a rehearsal and a debutante ball (about a 27-hour commitment) on two separate occasions. I managed to convince a friend from Davidson to do this. At the other two balls, I was escorted by a guy my mother picked out for me (she thought we’d hit it off “because his aunt is a lesbian”) and a friend of mine from high school.
Then I began the process of finding the iconic debutante attire. The basic costume of a debutante includes essentially a wedding dress, long white leather gloves that go past your elbows, white heels, and, in my case, a cream-colored shawl borrowed from my aunt. Because the dress code for the event is white tie, women who are not debutantes must wear floor length ball gowns with long white gloves, and men must wear tails. Not only does this dress code require those attending to conform to an elitist display of wealth, it also forces everyone into rigid gender performances.
Though the folks attending these balls would probably argue that uniformity is necessary for maintaining some sort of standard—a standard that many of them would argue is lacking in American society—uniformity and conformity can never account for the complex nuances of human expression. This required display of wealth is both a dismissal of poverty and an erasure of individual gender performance and gender variance. In other words, I didn’t get to feel like myself at these debutante balls. I wore makeup (my mother was thrilled) and a dress that I didn’t like, and I pretended to be someone else, someone my parents and their friends would like. At my first rehearsal for my first debutante ball, I started to cry. Despite following the dress code and doing everything I thought was necessary to fit in, I still felt different. I felt my mother staring at me, and I was reminded that I would never be able to meet this standard that, for some reason, everyone around me could meet.
At each of my debutante balls, after being presented and escorted, I danced and ate multiple courses, including filet migon and a pallette cleanser, all served to me by the only non-white people at the event. Though all-African-American debutante balls do exist, no one at the balls I attended seemed to be bothered by the fact that the only people of color in the room were members of the band or the wait staff. Rich, white Southerners (or at least the ones I’m related to) can’t see white supremacy, even when it is right in front of them. Dr. Lewis’s essay centers on the secrecy surrounding debutante balls, and I can say as an ex-debutante that the people who run these things tell us not to post anything about it on social media. I was told not to publish anything about debutante balls. I think it’s because the people putting on debutante balls and participating in them know that they’re doing something wrong.
In addition to making a queer person like myself (who greatly benefits from white privilege) feel unwelcome, these debutante balls reinforce a social hierarchy that has taken hundreds of years to deconstruct, and we’re still not close to living in a just society. The fragile rationalization for racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia, and transphobia that is necessary to participate in debutante balls is part of a greater problem in American society. When I pointed out to my mother the lack of diversity as one of the many problems with debutante balls, my mother responded that “black people wouldn’t want to come” to these events. I reconciled my queer identity and the inherent hate and prejudice of debutante balls and my participation in them by ignoring my own feelings and the harm that these events bring to others. The point of making your debut isn’t about presenting yourself to society, it’s about projecting a pretty picture to those who reap the benefits of an unjust society.