December 9, 2013

On Engagement Rings, Facebook, And The Public Proposal

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What is the issue?

In two weeks, I’m going to Paris. The trip was supposed to be a Congratulations on Handing in Your Dissertation present to myself — alas, my dissertation is a cruel mistress, and she wants to spend a little more time with me before she’s ready for me to, uh, submit. But the tickets were bought long ago, the apartment swap arranged, and so, a week before Christmas, I’ll be heading to Paris. And because he’s a charming fellow whose company I rather enjoy, I invited the man I’m seeing to accompany me. To Paris. In December. Christmas in the city of light. New Year’s Eve in the city of love.

So even though we’ve not yet been dating a year, there’s one question he’s been repeatedly asked: are you going to propose to her in Paris?

He isn’t. He wouldn’t dare. He knows full well that I have no interest in getting married — to him, or to anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with Shmenedict Shmumberbatch. And, he knows that I have even less interest in being proposed to. More than that, I would rather — and I’m only being mildly hyperbolic here — gouge my own eyes out with a rusty fork than be proposed at. I can imagine nothing less romantic, less marriage-inducing, than having an important life decision turned into a surprise performance that only one of us has had the chance to rehearse. There will be no Parisian proposal.

But people keep asking. When they hear the words “Paris,” “together,” and “Christmas,” some switch flips in their brain and they blurt, “Ohmygodareyougoingtopopthequestion?!” He laughed it off the first time it happened; the person asking recently got married herself, so she can be forgiven for having marriage on the brain. Now, he tells me, there’s about a fifty percent chance of someone mentioning proposing — in jest or otherwise — when he tells them about our travel plans.

He and I are 28 and 26 respectively. We’re at that age when questions are being popped. People expect it to happen; that’s just what couples our age do. And Paris is one of the more potent symbols of romance in Western culture. I can’t imagine how many couples from around the globe get engaged there every year. One of my best friends in the world got married this fall after proposing to his now-wife on Île de la Cité, just near Notre Dame. The romance of Paris is hard to resist — the buildings, the art, the French accents, the affordability of wine, which allows you to be slightly tipsy all the time if you so choose. Fortunately, I’m a professional feminist, so it’s my job in life to suck the fun and romance out of everything, and Paris is no exception. Strolling by twilight along the Seine? You don’t want to know how many corpses have been tossed into it in the last few centuries alone. Captivated by the cobblestone streets, the winding back alleys? Cool, picture them running red with blood during the Paris Commune or the Reign of Terror. Romantic, right?

I’m fascinated, though, by the assumption that this event is going to take place, indeed, that it must take place, not only because we’re at that age and have been together almost a year, but because we are going to this place, together. It will be more special, more of an event, if it happens there. It will make such a good story. With the lights and the romance and the cobblestones, it will be so much more spectacular — and a proposal should be spectacular.

That’s increasingly what we’re told, as proposals and engagements because an increasingly visible and public part of wedding culture in America. “How did he do it?” is the first question a newly-engaged woman is likely to be asked, after “Can I see the ring?” He did it in a restaurant full of people. He did it with the help of your favorite author. He did it with a musical number at Disneyland. And he had it all filmed and put on Youtube so the rest of the world could enjoy the spectacle, too. Then comes the “He asked…” photo on Facebook or Instagram — the shot of your hand with your new ring without the rest of your body or the rest of the couple in the frame. Then the engagement photoshoot. As heterosexual marriage rates continue to drop, our performance of the rituals leading up to marriage becomes more insistent. Faced with marriage’s apparent dwindling relevance, this show goes on, bigger and bolder, like the band playing a rousing rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” as the cruise liner sinks.

Marriage is, of course, a very public affair. Elopements and courthouse weddings aside, a wedding requires you to stand up in front of your family and friends (and your God, if that’s your thing) and take those vows. In a hundred other large and small ways, you publicly declare that We Are Getting Married. But as marriage rates shrink and wedding culture grows, as the cost of the actual wedding balloons (the average cost of an American wedding in 2012 was north of $27,000), the practice of making public declarations bleeds into other parts of the wedding process, starting earlier and earlier: the bachelorette party with the sash emblazoned “BRIDE,” the photoshoot, the Facebook countdown until the big day, and, of course, the spectacular public proposal.

I’m not the first to suggest that public proposals create a weird power dynamic, in that they put enormous pressure on women to say yes (are you really going to turn this man down in front of this large crowd of ooh-ing, aah-ing people?). Nor am I blind to how uncomfortable it must be for men to know that they have to plan and execute a perfect proposal in order to properly play the role of Heterosexual Married Adult Man (see also: buying expensive ring). But even when it’s not done publicly, even when it’s not made into a spectacle, the pressure for a proposal to be a story worth telling over and over again, the pressure for each of us to live out our own little romantic comedy moment, is palpable. It’s what drives the blurted queries about proposing atop the Eiffel Tower or in front of the round window at the Musée D’Orsay. And for some women, that kind of proposal story is a dream come true, a romantic fairytale they’d love to recount to their friends and family and Facebook feed. I’m not one of them — but sometimes, it feels as though I’m in a small and shrinking minority.

Because he knows me and loves me, he knows I’m not one of those women. So there will be no Paris proposal. Just in case, though, I’d better pack une fourchette rouillé — that’s French for a rusty fork. TC mark

image – Love, Meagan
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