Through the Looking Glass: Reconciling Debdom With Feminism

by Maeve Lentricchia | 5/8/14 3:57pm

I am a far cry from a Southern belle. In fact, I think this notion of a genteel, white and elite Southern lady is something of an imaginary, unique regional phenomenon, more rooted in ideology than in reality. Wrapped in flowery femininity and shrouded in gracious, thoughtful manners, she has the ability to survive in a man’s world.

In the spring of last year, I, the daughter of two university professors, received an invitation from the Durham Debutante Society. It was whispered that a 21st-century debutante could make up in brains what she lacked in pedigree. So when my friends accepted their invitations, I pursued it tenaciously until my parents gave in.

The Debutante Ball is a rite of passage rooted in 17th-century European court rituals. At these ceremonies, young women of a marriageable age were presented for court’s approval. As a symbol of wealth, the debut amplified differences in social class. As a rite of passage, it brought a select group of young women into the matrimonial market.

When America began to prosper in the late 19th century, the concept of the debutante was extracted from European court life and absorbed by the American elite. For this class of Americans, the significance of the debut derived from the social recognition it afforded. The Westernized version of the ceremony bore resemblance to its European referent insofar as it formalized the coming of age of a privileged young woman and her entrance into society. Family wealth, social status and lineage were symbols reincarnated into “American Debdom.”

Historically speaking, the ball had metamorphic qualities. The debut signified the alteration of a young girl’s identity and orientation to society. It was the crowning achievement in her process of socialization to elitism. Despite retaining these traditional components, the contemporary debut has lost some of its significance. While tangible rites of the ball loudly proclaim its vitality, behavioral changes for debs no longer last. Debutantes do not drop out of college and get married after having made their debut.

Why does this ritual endure if young women no longer need public recognition to marry?

The same daughter who had once paved the way for a family’s public recognition is now celebrated as a symbol of successful parenting. Though family ties and wealth were once the sole sources of social recognition, modern debutantes are selected based on achievement. The self-discipline, dedication and personal publicity associated with the first-generation debut acknowledge not only the individual merits of the debutante, but commend the persistent and expensive private educational efforts of her parents. She is an investment, and the debut is the return.

I thought it would be possible to separate Maeve from “Maeve the debutante.”

I adopted a kind of “grin and bear it” mentality during parties and rehearsals, when my compatriots and I wise-cracked about starting a feminist blog about being a 21st-century debutante. I was fluent in irony during the entire experience. I convinced myself that I was immune to the negative elements of the ritual — the role of both old, family money and exclusion. In the face of country-club luncheons and painting lessons, I denied the ball’s celebration of the cultural myth of the Southern belle. And though at times I considered the ramifications of my involvement, I was scared to give up the ball, fearing that somehow the worst part of me was actually all of me. Who was that girl who had desperately begged her parents to let her be a debutante? That girl I’d done everything to distance myself from at Dartmouth?

Was it possible to find a kind of independence? To valorize and honor my achieved self-concepts — good grades, respectable behavior, athletic achievements and an Ivy League acceptance? To transform the old notion of the debutante with a new cadence? Certainly, to debut in 21st-century America no longer constitutes quite the announcement of a young woman’s availability for marriage that it originally did. Yet the debut cannot be wholly isolated from its inception.

The Debutante Society inherits its position as a profoundly patriarchal institution, which hearkens back to the father’s management of property and mimics much of the rites and regalia of a wedding ceremony. No matter how hard I worked, the women who administer these organizations and events bolster traditionally gendered categories. If anything, my experience as a 21st-century debutante reveals a remarkable capacity for compartmentalizing my engagement in a ritual whose basis is at odds with my education, independence and general political outlook.

I could traverse the labyrinth of “American Debdom” ad infinitum, and I’m not entirely sure how much would come of it. Since the antiquated notion of the debut embodies patriarchal power, my involvement seems like the ultimate hypocrisy. But something happened on Dec. 3 that silenced the relentless self-evaluations that had plagued my being from the start of my involvement with the society. Everything ceased when several weeks before the ball my dad suffered a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, a mini-stroke.

He’d always been older — older than the other dads, at least. I learned when the age of our parents came up in conversation, I wouldn’t disclose his age — 73 — not because I was embarrassed, but because I didn’t want to entertain the inevitable line of questions that followed. My dad was married twice before my mother, and I have only met one of his two other daughters. She didn’t like me very much. Though my mother had told me, in passing, details of him when he was their father, I didn’t know that man. I know my dad loves me. And yet, he carries with him over 50 years of life that preceded me, 50 years of a man whom I’ll never know. In the hospital, my dad spoke to me as if he were surely on his deathbed. And though he wasn’t, the effect was still the same.

The event turned my brain off and my heart on. I stopped resenting my father for the life he had had before me, and I understood, for the first time, that this life, with me, was the one we had.

My dad may never dance with me at my wedding. But as I walked down the stairwell at the Christmas Ball to meet my father, tails and all, he reached out his arm to me. My carriage shoes rubbed against the open blisters on my heels and I could hardly breathe from inside the corset. But my father held me. He walked me down the center of the ballroom floor and guided me around, pausing to let me kiss my mother on the cheek. To the sweetly sad lyrics of Harold Arlen, my dad and I danced the father-daughter waltz.

Oh somewhere over the rainbow

Bluebirds fly And the dreams that you dream of

Dreams really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star Wake up where the clouds are far behind me Where trouble melts like lemon drops

High above the chimney tops That’s where you’ll find me

It would be easily justified for me to regard my debut with self-disdain. It would be equally justifiable to posit the experience as some anthropological experiment of Southern culture, one performed without meaning. I hadn’t explicitly broken down any patriarchal foundations, and maybe I had even supported some.

But as we danced, my dad supported my back and held my hand. Tears slipped out of his eyes as he mouthed the words of Arlen’s song. And in this moment, the ball and the society — in all their rites, regalia and implications — were completely worth it. They gave a debutante her father.