~ An Anthropological
We're coming out
We're having a fling!
Debs dressed in yards of white,
Waltzing we sing—'cause—
Beaux flock around tonight,
Flowers are part of the scheme;
Tomorrow may be just another day,
But tonight we are part of a dream!
—from The Coming
Although variations of the debutante
ritual have existed in every culture around the world for thousands
of years, the Euro-American debutante ritual, as it's known today,
has its origins (not surprisingly) in Europe. The ritual began in
the 17th century, when young nubile women ("nubile" meaning "of
marriageable age") were introduced to court gentlemen, ladies and
the monarch. The debut marked the transformation from girl to woman,
specifically, to a woman eligible for marriage. It let everyone
know (most importantly, marriageable men) that a hot new property
was on the market, so to speak.
It still serves this purpose. However,
a question that frequently arises is, "Why are women the only ones
announced to society? Why don't men have debutant balls?" Well,
it's possible that in some societies they do, but in the U.S., the
debut is largely a ladies-only affair. This may seem to some like
a ridiculous throw-back to the whims of a patriarchal society, but
this cultural ritual also has some biological components.
Speaking strictly from a reproductive
standpoint, for men, women are a "resource" for which
they must compete. So one way a man can increase his level of assurance—his
reproductive fitness—is to court and/or marry the woman he desires,
thus taking her out of the ring of competition.
'Within the context of
the upper-class life, the debut provides the opportunity to emphasize
a family's social position, the adult status of a daughter, and
finally, her marriageability' (Knudsen, 301).
But things aren't that easy. First
of all, any woman who has a lot to offer doesn't want just any man.
She wants (if she wants one at all) the right man—someone who can
bring as much, or more, to the table as she does. What this means
is that men—but only the healthiest, wittiest, wealthiest and/or
most intelligent ones—become the scarce resource. This is where
the debutante ball, and its relatives, the sorority and the dowry,
come into play. Pierre Van den Berghe explains:
The case of the dowry, where it
is the woman who brings property into the marriage, is exceptional
and more characteristic of complex, highly stratified societies,
such as those of Europe and Asia. Only 2.6 percent of the societies
in the Murdock (1967) sample had the institution of dowry. As
women are the scarce resource for men rather than vice versa,
it makes little sense for women to 'buy' men, unless they can
improve their fitness by catching a high-status male. Indeed,
in the few societies where the dowry exists, such as much of Europe
and China until recently, it is most prevalent in the upper classes,
and its effect is to secure for women a husband of equal or higher
status. Furthermore, the dowry does not so much transfer property
from the kin group of the bride to that of the groom, as from
the bride's parents to the bride. In that sense, the dowry is
not the opposite of the bridewealth, but a means of passing property
on to daughters before one's death[.] It is thus an investment
in the fitness of daughters (99; emphasis mine).