Content note: this post discusses on coercion in relationships
Recently, I had the abject misfortune to find myself part of a captive audience to a public proposal. I veered between burning mortification, obsessive checking that the woman was in fact definitely happy about this, and fury because I really needed a wee and this public proposal was going on right in front of my route to the toilet.
Public proposals have been discussed a lot in feminist circles, often viewed as coercive, rooted in insecurity, and not giving the person being proposed to a decent chance to say no. In short, they’re not romantic, they’re manipulative. This additional social pressure, with all eyes on you, makes it incredibly difficult to refuse, especially if the relationship you’re in already has overtones of coercive control. If you’re on TV, on a crowded street, on a packed aeroplane, you know that everyone is expecting you to say “yes” so everyone can feel good–and for women in particular this is the sort of situation where we’re socialised to avoid letting everyone down.
And of course, it’s almost always women being proposed to by men. You may have the odd same-sex couple or woman proposing to a man, and these are so remarkable they appear all over the bloody news (thus furthering the pressure).
Public proposals are, in short, dire. I don’t believe in carceral measures for massive social problems, but if I did, I’d make public proposals punishable by death.
However, what I want to talk about is wider: the notion of the proposal itself. This, too, is unnecessary and actually rather weird when we drill down into it. Many couples, when deciding to get married, deploy the following format: one partner “pops the question” to the other, with a little bit of pomp and ceremony, perhaps kneeling and a bit of jewellery. The words uttered are usually a variation on the theme of “will you marry me?”, and the proposee will then say either yes or no.
Getting married is a major life decision, and yet it is the only major life decision I can think of which involves a bizarre ritual in making the decision. We do not buy a ring while figuring out whether to go to university or not. We do not book a fancy restaurant to have a think about buying a house. We do not get down on one knee when deciding if we want to have children. We do not put a cute little question in a fortune cookie when working through the various treatment options for an illness.
All of this would be ludicrous, and this is because all of these major life decisions are not just simple questions, but rather discussions that need to take place in an ongoing process, which include all affected parties. They can be boiled down into a blunt yes/no question, but we know it would be ridiculous to do so.
Now, I don’t doubt that people who decide to marry have these discussions after the question has been asked: I fervently hope everyone talks it through absolutely thoroughly and doesn’t just dive into planning the wedding. Some might even have these conversations before, rendering the proposal itself a strictly performative gesture.
There is something distasteful about the framing of the question itself: “Will you marry me?” as opposed to a more mutual “Let’s get married”, which could grow organically from conversations about your relationship, where you want it to go, and so forth.
The nature of the proposal as a ritual is rooted, perhaps, in traditional heterosexual patriarchal expectations of how romance works. There is assumed to be an opacity to your partner’s thoughts, needs and feelings, which must somehow be elucidated. This is unnecessary: just by communicating, you can know, always, which page your lover is on. The veil of uncertainty of their intentions within the relationship needs not to be pierced if it is not there in the first place. If we all simply talked to each other, there’d be no need for all the rigmarole.
Capitalism, too, no doubt plays its own part: diamond rings became a part of the ritual for real people following a marketing campaign in 1938 when the Depression had flushed the price of diamonds down the toilet and diamond cartels wanted to get rich. As with Christmas, yes, there were some ancient traditions (the rich sometimes used diamond rings from the Renaissance onwards), but more importantly, capitalism saw it as the opportunity to profit. Along with the marketing for the rings, there was a marketing for something else: the proposal as an occasion, rather than an idea that comes into being mutually, with little ceremony.
Until recently, it was fairly traditional to ask the woman’s father’s permission to get married. Thankfully, this tradition has decayed and continues to wither. This is good, because it is grossly patriarchal in the most literal sense. Perhaps in the future we will see this happen to proposals themselves: an utterly unnecessary tradition.
Some people like grand romantic gestures, and I suppose, good for them. YKINMKBYKIOK. Just please, please, communicate rather than pop a question.