“To Cover My Daughter”: Symbolic Incest and the Purity Ball
Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies, penetrated the myths of everyday French life in order to contemplate their—often unconscious—social implications. This semiological analysis reflected upon spectacles of entertainment, gendered professions, the “national symbolism” of food, objectified intelligence and the ubiquitous family of humankind (64). Frustrated by the mainstream confusion with “Nature and History,” Barthes decided to target “the decorative display of what-goes-on-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in [his] view, is hidden there” (11). Barthes’s examples, even fifty years after the text’s original French publication, offer insight into the workings of a culture, and signify the necessity to critique the American system of values as a new creation of mythologies. A recently debated phenomenon is the purity ball, a father-daughter cotillion in which the child pledges to remain “pure” until marriage as her father promises to guard both she and the vow. Such events have become increasingly popular among Evangelical Christian families who fear for their young women’s safety in what they consider an increasingly dangerous world of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and moral failure. These individuals see the purity ball as a way for fathers both to bond with their daughters in a formal atmosphere and to psychologically re-assert control over their household, thus upholding their own masculine identities. The elaborate details of the ceremony inscribe a mythology of female purity and symbolic incest as a means of social control.
Keywords: Barthes, Father, Daughter
Graduate Student, Florida Atlantic University