"Mom! I Have Great News"--Prank Engagements:
Subverting and reaffirming a bastion of BYU culture
A few weeks from now, Elder Anthony Selino, a missionary in Venezuela, will open a package to find one of his best friend's engagement photos and announcement. She is marrying an ex-convict who happens to have "LOVE" and "HATE" knuckle tattoos--which just happen to be visible in the photos. In the spring of 1979, a freshman girl blows out a candle and announces her engagement--to the custodian, lovingly nicknamed "Man on the Floor." On the Ballroom Dance Company, one suspiciously close couple suddenly appears with a ring. And yet none of these beautiful couples has any intention of marrying. They are all fake engagements at Brigham Young University.
Why do these students take perverse pleasure in tricking their friends and relatives? Why do they delight in mocking an event so happy, an institution so sacred? And why the turn toward the ridiculous in the pranks? Could it be that so many students are embittered by their own lack of luck in dating?
As with all jokes and pranks, there must be some degree of truth in the joke. That truth, I believe, stems from the students' real desire to marry. The pranks, then, become a subconscious reaffirmation of the social norms, reasserting their importance in the lives of both the pranksters and their victims. The thesis seems to hold true for all pranks of this type, but especially engagement pranks in a predominantly LDS setting.
B-Y-Woo: Marriage in LDS Theology and Culture
As William R. Bascom said, "The folklore of a people can be fully understood only through a thorough knowledge of their culture" (285). By extension, it seems obvious that LDS culture must be the first focus of study in this area.
Marriage holds a particularly prominent role in the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As Melvyn Hammarberg explains it, "For both young men and young women, marriage becomes the next transition toward full adulthood in the church's culture" (11).
However, marriage is more than a just transition or rite of passage into adulthood. The highest leadership of the church, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued a Proclamation to the World on the subject of the family in 1995. In the very first paragraph, they state that they "solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children" (1). In addition to the key role marriage plays in this plan, the LDS church believes marriage is essential to attain the most exaltation possible in the post-mortal life.
Clearly, a heavy emphasis is placed upon marriage in LDS theology, which quickly spills over into LDS culture. As Melvyn Hammarberg explains it, "for those who do not marry, there is a burgeoning crisis of identity, mitigated somewhat by the church's development of singles' wards and special programs, and by the hope for marriage in the postmortal world" (11). In any largely LDS environment, there is pressure to get married as soon as possible, and those who fail to do so often are made to feel as though they have failed at the greater purpose of life.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the sponsoring institution for Brigham Young University. As such, its student body is 98.6% LDS at the time of this writing ("Demographics"). With such a preponderance of members of the Church, it is clear that LDS culture becomes the dominant ethnoreligious influence in the local culture of Brigham Young University. With the heavy emphasis upon marriage in LDS ethnoreligious settings, and therefore BYU, marriage and, therefore, engagements play an important social role. This fascination with prank engagements stems from the real fixation on engagements and marriages so prevalent at BYU. The marriage impulse is directly related to the dominant ethnoreligious culture at BYU--that of the LDS church.
To me, the classic incarnation of the prank engagement is one performed mostly on a whim, intended to shock one's friends, and requiring a minimal level of preparation. However, there are many other incarnations of the "classic prank."
The intention behind the pranks varies greatly. My own prank was an example of a classic prank (Items 1 & 2), where I tried to shock my "brother"/friend. However, pranks are sometimes orchestrated to discourage unwanted suitors (Items 7 & 8). No matter what their intended purpose, the pranks send a powerful message to their victims.
Additionally, the participant's level of involvement can vary greatly. Jessica Eldredge tells of her husband's experience of being roped into an engagement prank quite unwillingly (Item 14). For the most part, however, both parties consent. Sometimes the pranks require elaborate photography sessions (often on BYU's campus) (Items 1, 2, 5, & 8), while other photos are taken as an activity for a first date (Item 13). Some use real people, letting the irony of the engagement (if any) be situational (Items 6, 8, 9 & 10), where other pranks manufacture characters (Items 1, 2, 3, and 4). These fake fiancés can take the shape of a normal, wonderful guy (Item 3) or an ex-convict with knuckle tattoos and a goatee (Items 1 & 2).
Subterfuge and Subversion
William Bascom says, "The striking contrasts between folklore and actual conduct [and belief] raise new problems of wider theoretical significance concerning the relations between folklore and culture" (286). Prank engagements are an example of this contrast. The pranks have become a method of subverting the social norms of the dominant culture at BYU. By ridiculing the established system, students are enabled to compensate in some way for that shortcoming which is so stigmatized in LDS culture--failure to marry. Consciously, the students prank because they think it's funny. But on a subconscious level, students at the University create fake engagements in an effort to offset the tension between societal expectations and reality, as if the pranks were steam release valves.
If LDS culture at BYU is taken as the predominant ethnoreligious group, prank engagements become a way to ridicule one's own ethnoreligious group. As Robert Welsch says:
It's okay to make fun of your own ethnic group. Humor is important in America today. On a personal level, it defines our success at being human beings. . . . But humor is gender-, culture-, and time-specific, a living, dynamic organism that changes every day in keeping with the changes in its social context. Laughter is not a universal language, and what one group thinks is hilarious can be totally obscure to another. (23)
Following Welsch's logic, while it is acceptable within this esoteric view of the LDS ethnoreligious group to make fun of ourselves, it would be strikingly less funny to members of other ethnoreligious groups. As I have told non-LDS friends about my prank, they have expressed amusement at the idea, but found it novel, whereas my friends who are both LDS and attend BYU find the pranks hilarious and rabidly ask for more details.
Bascom states, "Amusement is, obviously, one of the functions of folklore, and an important one; but even this statement cannot be accepted today as a complete answer, for it is apparent that beneath a great deal of humor lies a deeper meaning" (290). He claims that although for the most part folklore functions as a normative effect upon society, keeping culture continuous, "folklore reveals man's frustration and attempts to escape in fantasy from repressions imposed upon him by society" (290). However, this effort can also backfire upon the pranksters quite dramatically. The pranks obviously ridicule the institution of engagement, and by extension marriage, but they also reaffirm these bastions of BYU culture.
Reaffirmation and Fixation
For all the subversion the university students achieve in orchestrating pranks, in the end the social norms are subtly reaffirmed. This is true not only because the pranks stem from deep-rooted but frustrated desires, but because they serve to keep the topics of marriage and engagement in the forefront of the minds of victims and pranksters, reasserting its importance. The pressure to marry is relieved very little by performing a prank engagement. Often, prank victims become even more interested in the love lives of the pranksters. I myself have found this to be true from my own experience (Item 1).
But the most important way in which this reaffirmation is achieved is by the subtle reminder that engagements and marriage are, in fact, important to BYU students. The pranks keep love and marriage always in the consciousness of the victims and pranksters alike. It is this original fixation with marriage which prompted the pranks to begin with. In the end, the pranks have accomplished little, because love and marriage are still the social norms and pranksters are still expected to marry, and marry soon--except now they've drawn attention to themselves.
Bascom captures the essential contradiction inherent in the twin laws of folklore. "Here, indeed, is the basic paradox of folklore, that while it plays a vital role in transmitting and maintaining the institutions of a culture and in forcing the individual to conform to them, at the same time it provides socially approved outlets for the repressions which these same institutions impose upon him" (298). With respect to prank engagements, it seems like the converse statement is also true: while this form of folklore clearly affords BYU students "a compensatory escape from 'the hardships, the inequalities, the injustices' of everyday life" (Bascom 298, quoting Herskovits 421), its simultaneously reaffirms that bastion of BYU culture, maintaining the importance and sanctity of the institution of marriage.