The traditional marriage proposal was male domination dressed as chivalry distilled: He controls when and how, and her only power is to say no. And even that power is undermined by the immense social pressure to say yes—or else be taken for an ingrate. But nowadays, women have too much at stake to leave marriage proposals to chance, and so marriage is actually a mutually agreed-upon decision. Yet the patriarchal proposal is still seen as "romantic," and women still want it. So the compromise reached by our culture has been to create a charade proposal, complete with feigned surprise from the bride-to-be.
Having described the stakes, she goes on to describe what a lot of people must be imagining as the contradiction:
From a certain perspective, pretending to be surprised when he whips out the ring after you guys sat down and mapped out the proposal seems like the silliest thing in the world.
Well, I don't know. I'm not sure Amanda is giving people as much credit as she might. She does point out that this could be a coping technique for women to get to have a voice in marriage negotiations, as well as getting some of the traditional "romance."
But I wonder. I wonder because the original Wall Street Journal article describes a situation for fake wedding proposals that's very familiar to me: "Ms. Miller says some women script the proposal first, telling their boyfriend something like: "I'd always wanted to be proposed to on Christmas morning in front of family."
My husband and I first got engaged during our senior year of college. I asked him. We bought little jade rings for each other, and decided not to tell people. We were planning to wait a long time to get married, so it was just a gesture that meant we wanted to someday. Then, after college, I started feeling like I'd settled down too soon, and I wanted more flexibility--so we put away the jade rings and went back to "not engaged."
A couple years later, we decided we wanted to get married after I finished graduate school (he'd finished the year before) and that we wanted to buck my family's traditions by actually having a wedding. My family is a bunch of inveterate elopers, and I think that's fine--there's no problem with standing in front of the justice of the peace and saying your bit. A lot of my relatives lived with their partners for years, unmarried, before tying the knot for insurance reasons, and that's fine, too.
But I wanted a wedding. I'd say "we" did, but Mike was pretty chill either way. I wanted a wedding because I've always had a thing about wanting to have my loved ones in one place, however briefly. I didn't get married for the dress (I wore a bridesmaid gown in purple) or the flowers (we went to a farmer's market and made our own bouquets)--I got married for the gathering. Some people came to town between one and two weeks before the wedding, and stayed for a couple of days afterward. My friends are scattered all over the globe, with the woman who was my maid of honor living in Australia for the past 8 years. My family is also scattered, and doesn't do things like reunions. So it was kind of amazing to have everyone in one place.
Anyway. Mike and I decided we wanted to get married, and when we wanted to get married, and what we wanted to do for our marriage. We told some of our friends we were planning to get married, for various reasons. The only people we didn't tell were my parents, Mike's mom, and Mike's sister. Because we decided to stage a proposal for them.
On Christmas Day, in front of my parents and Mike's mom and sister, Mike proposed to me, and I pretended to be surprised. About ten minutes later, I'm pretty sure all the details about how we'd already made this decision were on the table, at which point my father said, "I figured; it's stupid to propose without knowing the answer in advance," which I love him for.
We had a fake proposal, but it wasn't for "romance" and "spontaneity"--it was a stage play put on for our families. When I first saw the "fake proposal" thing, I wondered how many other people were doing that... and when I saw that one of the descriptions of how the proposal went was basically a one sentence description of how ours went, that's when I figured probably a lot of people were doing that kind of thing.
As a couple of feminists, Mike and I didn't want to get engaged based on surprise, which can backfire. We wanted to have time to ourselves to work out what we wanted. Our decision to get married was slow and organic. Not only did we both have equal voices in how the decision was reached, but there was no external pressure on either of us as there often is in surprise proposals that are done in front of an audience--it's humiliating for both of you if the answer is no when the man is asking in front of your family, or in front of a restaurant full of people, or on national tv. That kind of pressure is awkward, and seems like it could be problematic in some cases.
But with a yes in hand, and equal contributions from both partners, Mike and I felt free to spring a surprise marriage proposal on our relatives.
That's not to say we were totally feminist about the matter. Why didn't we interrogate the tradition of having the man propose to the woman by reversing that in our fake proposal? I could have asked him as easily as he asked me. But we didn't do that, and we didn't talk about doing that. There was definitely a bowing to social norms in what we did, and many of them are shaped by sexism, or are directly sexist. But the whole thing didn't take quite the shape that Amanda Marcotte suggests.