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Changing Rituals: A Conversation with Nancy Jo Sales

There’s perhaps no one more qualified to discuss the state of American adolescence and its changing rituals than Nancy Jo Sales.

In 2010, Sales wrote “The Bling Ring,” a true story about a group of upper-class, fame-obsessed teenagers in Los Angeles who robbed the houses of celebrities. (The Vanity Fair article, which she turned into a book, was also turned into a film directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Emma Watson in 2013.) More recently, in 2016, she turned out a deeply reported book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Knopf), which dives into the way that social media affects today’s young American women.

A frequent contributor to Vanity Fair and a former reporter at People and New York, Sales has always been a few years ahead of the time. Her work centers largely on America’s fame obsession, the American desire for affluence, and, most recently, the way in which social media and technology has lent itself to new forms of fame-seeking, anxiety, and misogyny in the West.

Sales spoke with me about generational shifts brought on by new economic policies, technologies, and social expectations, filtered through the lens of one of the classic American adolescent rituals: the high school prom.

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How has the American concept of high school prom changed in light of modern media and technology?

Nancy Jo Sales: Nothing really is as it once was. Prom is a really good example. The thing about social media now is the phenomenon of self-branding around these events. There always was “the picture” right? There always was the picture that your mom or your dad would take of you and your date in the living room when they arrived, and you’re all dressed up to go to the prom. That picture would be something that would be shared with family, perhaps with friends. (Sometimes it was a source of great embarrassment for those of us who had really big hair in those days.) And that was it. Maybe there would be some pictures at the prom, but even though it was a public event, this documentation was essentially private. It was something for your family and close friends to share. Now, as you’re probably aware, there’s the “promposal.” There’s this whole build up to the prom, which serves as an opportunity to promote one’s self on social media through one’s brand. I say that because I’ve talked to kids and even pretty young kids. As young as thirteen I’ve heard referring to their “brand” on social media. This is one of the really troubling effects of social media—that it has given the young children this idea that they have a brand to promote.

So prom has become an almost capitalist “promotional” opportunity for oneself?

NJS: The prom has now become one of these events around which you can promote your product: yourself. The “promposal,” as I’m sure many people are already aware, is one of those opportunities. This is way before we even get to the event—it’s where you ask someone to the prom. This involves a whole lot of staging and sometimes filming. Sometimes these things are put on YouTube or the video’s put on Instagram. Sometimes it’s live-streamed. I would say Instagram is probably the most popular—and SnapChat. But this is where you ask your date to the prom, right? It also involves this very elaborate forethought about how you’re going to ask them. This is all this performance of romance. We can say that proms have always been performing romance in some sense. It’s true, but this is now for the public consumption. Not just the immediate circle, but whoever your many hundreds—or even in some cases thousands—of followers are to consume it. The whole point of it is to elicit this reaction on social media, the “aw,” like, “awwwwwww” with lots of “w”s, heart eyes [emojis], and “you two are so sweet” comments. It’s not necessarily about how you actually feel about this person; it’s about how “your public” will perceive your relationship. It starts with that. That’s just step one. Then it goes on from there, to all the many moments that lead up to it, and during it. It’s a whole thing.

Has prom shifted then as American “fame culture” has become increasingly mainstream?

NJS: With the prom you can see this intersection of social media culture as we know it now and fame culture. The prom is to kids now the way the red carpet event is to celebrities. There’s so much hoopla around these red carpet events. Our culture’s given young people the idea that this is the height of glamour—to appear at one of these events in your gown with your hair and makeup done or in your tux or whatever and have your picture taken by everyone. This is just the most glamorous thing that could ever happen to you—walking into this party or this award ceremony, whatever. Social media has exacerbated the problem I think. I just see it as a problem of this notion of any sort of milestone event in your life as a child or a young person, as being an opportunity for self-broadcasting.

To what extent then is this desire for “self-broadcasting” tied up in changes in the outside world, like rising socioeconomic inequality?

NJS: We’ve had rising income inequality in the country [the United States]. You have these jumps in the lines on the graph as of the last decade or so. You can chart it back maybe thirty years ago to when we started to see the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer in this country around the time of, I would say, [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan. It’s very interesting because that is exactly around the time when you start to have this fascination with wealth as well. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” is a TV show that was on even when I was a kid. It started in the early ’80s [in 1984]. Another show was called “Dallas” [premiering in 1978], and it was about rich people in Dallas. Another was called, “Dynasty” [1981]. These were very, very late ’70s, ’80s shows that were all about these rich families and their trials and tribulations.

Now, you go thirty years later and you have this constant obsession with people like the Kardashians. There’s “The Real Housewives” and all of these. I wrote a book called The Bling Ring, which is very much about this as well. It was about this group of kids that stole luxury items from celebrities in Los Angeles. It’s a little gang of thieves. But it is also about this rising interest [in wealth] among young people—adults as well, obviously, but my focus is on youth and wealth and on the concept that if you can’t have it, then there’s a performance of wealth.

The iPhone came out in 2007 and the Android in 2008—we’re talking about a very short time ago really. If you think about the vast, vast changes that have happened in our culture because of it, it’s really quite astonishing; but it’s just a tiny, tiny little blip historically, which is alarming because whenever you have these seismic shifts in culture take place in such a short time you have a whole lot of, I think, dysfunction, especially because we don’t have time to process—emotionally, even psychically—and adapt to these things. They just happen so quickly.

Everything has changed from banking, to travel, education, communication. Just to understand what it means to be a teenager—to what it means to grow up, to come of age—it’s all just changed so very rapidly. One thing, I think, is that misogyny has certainly been exacerbated by social media. That’s a whole other conversation, but if you’re going to talk about the fascination with wealth and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” then that predates the technology. It predates it, but I do think that it’s wrapped up in it. This is all based on images right? One of the things that this technology, these phones, these iPads, and everything—it’s an image-based culture. People are using language less and less. Now, people are just communicating with texts and memes and all this kind of stuff and just publishing images of themselves all the time.

In your recent book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, you discuss changes in American youth culture partially along gender lines. Are young women more susceptible to these cultural shifts than young men?

NJS: It’s all how you frame the question, and it’s all how you frame the discussion. I don’t think that if poor people or women or people of color were in charge of Hollywood we’d be seeing the same shows and movies that we see. It’s not like, “Oh what is it that they want?” It’s more like, “What is being given to them?” To us, what is being thrust upon us and what is engulfing our cultural space, how does that affect what we want and what we think we want or what we think at all? I never look at it like, “Kids these days,” or “All they want to be is famous.” It’s true, but I don’t see that as something that arose naturally or because of some defect in them. They’re products of our culture. They’re responding to what the kind of values are being given to them. Instead of “What do girls want? What do boys want?” it’s more like, “What are they being told to want?” What are they being pressured into wanting?

Does this top-down pressure—from Silicon Valley, ostensibly—help explain the seismic shifts in adolescent attitudes, desires, even cultural “rituals,” like prom and such?

NJS: If you have a kid, you begin to really see how affected they are by media. The studies on the effects of media on children and very young children go back fifty years; it’s been well established and well documented for fifty years, maybe sixty years—ever since the appearance of television—that what kids see on screens affects what they think and how they behave. It sounds so obvious to us, but when these things first came out—when these screens first started appearing in people’s homes, we just went, “Sure, let’s test it and find out.”

So yeah, in fact, it’s true. This is how people are even brainwashed in some countries where there is such a thing as brainwashing. Maybe there is here [in the United States], I don’t know. If you are a little girl, and you are growing up in a culture where you see images, it used to be on a daily basis [with magazines and television shows]. Now, it’s, I would say, on an hourly basis with cell phones. You’re a little girl and you’re growing up, and you see images on an hourly basis. Sometimes it’s a minute-by-minute basis, where you’re seeing on your phone women in glamorized, sexualized poses with a certain body type, certain type of styling suggesting, what I would say is, a more and more a kind of porn aesthetic.

You’re not thinking that that’s what it is when you’re a little girl, but that is what it is. This is giving these women rewards and giving them attention and so forth. Your little girl mind says to you, “Well that’s what I want to be. In fact, I have to be. I need to be. I must be that thing in order to be rewarded, and in order to fit in even.” This is what I’m talking about. You’re getting the idea that what matters about you or about women is your body and your appearance. Social media plays into this because it is so very much about the physical image, and more and more we’re seeing the effects of it.

Is social media therefore rigged in a way to change these adolescents and these rituals? 

NJS: Social media is not some kind of natural space. It’s not like a forest or something or a beach where you go and create things. It’s more like a room in Hawkins Lab [a fictional Hawkins, Indiana-based scientific laboratory that conducts futuristic, largely unethical experiments in the Netflix TV series Stranger Things]. It’s like a room in Hawkins lab and Papa [the alias of the fictional director of the Hawkins National Laboratory] is Mark Zuckerberg. Papa is putting little girls into the rooms in Hawkins lab and exposing them to certain tests and images. But the girls who are coming out of this social media experiment are not powerful with super powers [like in the show]. I’m not saying they’re being stripped of everything, but their power, I think, is being undermined by the fact that Papa is a guy whose whole vision of the world is “hot or not.” Which is why “Facemash” [a precursor to Facebook that Zuckerberg created while an undergraduate at Harvard] wasn’t even an original concept. It’s an insidious concept. Mark Zuckerberg takes that and he bases this whole new social media site [Facebook] on that. I think that that’s the Rosetta Stone of all social media: it’s about “hot or not.” Is your body hot, or is it not? How about your face? How about your whole life? Hot or not? Is it validatable?

So young people are actively giving up their power but being coerced to do so?

NJS: Take the “like” button. I think when we chart the history of social media one of the great milestones will be the invention of the “like” button from Facebook. It’s this whole idea that others are there to tell you whether or not you are to be validated. I just gave a talk to two hundred school guidance counselors on Long Island. This was a big topic among them: how do we get girls—in particular girls, boys are effected by these things in different ways—to feel self-confident? How do we get them to feel self-esteem? We’re having a terrible problem with that with girls in our culture. These are guidance counselors, and they would know. They are the ones that a lot of this falls onto the laps of in these schools; they are seeing the problem. They’re on the front lines.

So how do we get them to feel good about themselves? Because they feel so bad about themselves, and that is because there is this constant, toxic pressure to compare yourself to other people—other women, other girls—on social media. Bringing up your sense of yourself to others in order to be validated, to be “liked,” instead of it coming from within you. The popularity contest of high school now has a number. “That girl, she has 632 followers on Instagram.” It all comes down to these quantifiable numbers, and it’s just a very pernicious way of looking at the world and yourself and your relationships to others—by this ranking of “hot or not,” basically.

Are these shifts in American youth culture being propagated solely by Silicon Valley or are young people themselves complicit? 

NJS: At a certain point, there’s no other choice. We can see that propaganda is pretty effective. Social media is a very, very effective marketing tool—it is essentially a marketing tool, more than anything else. That’s one of my concerns about it as vis-à-vis how it’s used by children. But propaganda is real. Propaganda is effective, and it is nefarious. There’s a very big part of our daily life in this country [the U.S.], but we don’t call it propaganda—we call it advertising. It’s exactly the same thing though in effect. Because what is it? It’s messages and images that are meant to give us ideas about what we should do or give us ideas about what we should think. Mainly, I suppose, it’s to give us ideas about how we should spend our money.

The beauty industry is a giant industry in this country. It’s only gotten bigger and bigger, and bigger. You’d think after the feminist movement, this kind of stuff it would’ve shrunk—but no. It’s gotten bigger and bigger. It’s selling more and more products. Why? How is it so successful? Because it gives women—and now girls too—messages that say, “You need this stuff. You do not look good. You can’t leave your house. You’re not pretty. You’re actually the opposite of pretty. The ultimate good is to be pretty, so you better buy this. You better buy that. You better buy that. You better buy that. Oh, and that, and that, and that.” This, I would say, is a form of propaganda. They have to buy all of these things in order to just exist.

To someone who isn’t the target of that, that might not seem like a big deal. But it’s not like women are passively accepting this. In fact, many do resist. There’s been all this stuff on social media even saying, “Well I’m just going to go bare face,” or whatever. But I haven’t really seen the profit margin of the beauty industry hit at all. I think that’s because we’re just so deluged with this propaganda. It has real-world ramifications well beyond just buying some eyeliner into the very health and well-being and emotional stability of women and girls. It goes to anxiety and depression and eating disorders and cutting and even suicide in some cases. It’s just so incredibly normalized.

So how much of this is top-down? How much of this is people willingly buying into it? Well, of course there’s this interplay, but I do think that if you’re talking about young people and young children especially, they’re very susceptible and they’re very vulnerable to advertisers. That’s why they try to get them young. That’s why we had to have laws passed for the tobacco industry to stop targeting young children. When I was a kid, and you would go to the youth center or wherever it was where there would be kids around, you would see cigarette ads because they were trying to get you to start smoking young because the sooner you start to smoke—the sooner you take up any habitual forming activity—the more you’re hooked for life and the harder it is to break it. Look at what Facebook just announced: Messenger for Kids. It’s just a terrible, terrible idea. It’s Papa in Hawkins Lab.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. A version of it first appeared in Mastermind magazine.

Cover image via Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau.

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