Today is Proposal Day, a made-up biannual holiday with a very janky website. The holiday, which falls on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, was dreamed up by a Texas man named John Michael O’Loughlin who wanted to encourage singles to put a ring on it on one of “the two days in the year where day and night are of equal length worldwide, symbolizing the equality of the two who comprise the successful marriage.” (Every Proposal Day, O’Loughlin also anoints a new pair of eligible celebrity bachelor and bachelorettes to serve as the holiday’s unsuspecting mascots; this year, the honor goes to Prince Harry and Taylor Swift.)
It’s interesting that O’Loughlin would paint his proposal stunt with the imagery of equality. While, in the U.S., the institution of marriage is more egalitarian than ever—for one thing, same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia—wedding proposals are still a lopsided tradition. That’s most evident in the trend toward proposing in the form of an elaborate, highly publicized, surprise performance, wherein the asker (typically a man) puts his beloved (typically a woman) on the spot on live TV, stadium Jumbotrons, or social media. Think of the pilot who proposed by faking a horrifying mechanical failure in a cockpit outfitted with a hidden camera; the man who tricked his girlfriend into believing that the Today show wanted to hear about her work with the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, then announced, “You’re actually not here to talk about the amazing work that you do … will you marry me?”; or the cameraman who recruited Tom Cruise to deliver the message for him.
These proposal stunts, and the inevitable viral videos that follow, are incredibly annoying. But why do weddings—which are also public declarations of love and often over the top—bring me joy, and public proposals strike me as exceedingly gross? I asked Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College, to help puzzle this out. First, a bit of history: It was not too long ago that arranged marriages were de rigueur throughout the world, and “even if young people knew they wanted to marry one another, proposals were channeled through parents,” Coontz says. “In 16th-century Protestant countries, parents could actually annul marriages if the parties didn’t have parental permission.” By the 18th century, “it was pretty common for the man to propose directly to the woman, but often, men would still ask the father’s permission to propose,” she says. “Only in the last hundred years or so has the proposal process evolved into more of a conversation that goes back and forth between a man and a woman.”
That means that modern public proposals, which paint the question as a shock to the female party, “end up feeling so retro,” Coontz says. “These days, a proposal is rarely really a surprise. After all, it’s unlikely for a man to declare his intentions in the middle of a Seahawks game if she wasn’t going to say ‘yes.’ ” These stunt proposals are really selling an illusion, and one that relies on an outdated image of a desperate woman waiting for her man to graciously extend his approval. “I love weddings, but these proposals can make me uncomfortable because they imply that the woman has no agency in the decision. The image is of a woman who is sitting there passively, and when the man finally asks, she cries in gratitude,” Coontz says. And by publicizing that image, “the implication is that, for women, this is the equivalent of getting your Nobel Prize—it’s just that you’re getting your M-R-S prize awarded to you in front of the world.”
As the American marriage ideal has evolved from an economic compact between families and into a testament of love between two individuals, many partners have come to view both proposals and weddings as unique expressions of themselves. But while increasingly personalized weddings, which are (ideally) mutually planned and performed, can come from a “real understanding that marriage is no longer a set of pre-assigned roles,” Coontz says, elaborate stunt proposals dial back the clock on gender relations and “give this very retro sense that marriage is much more important to the woman, and also that men are in charge of the relationship.” But, Coontz continues, “that’s just not how marriage works anymore. At the weddings I’ve attended, you see both men and women cry.”
Couples are free, of course, to pick and choose the traditional gender roles that they want to incorporate into their own marriages. But that doesn’t mean they should expect the rest of us to be bowled over by every romantic gesture. “I don’t want to blame the people who do this—I understand what they’re searching for, which is a desire to please and demonstrate their commitment to the world,” Coontz says. “But it does reinforce some ideas that could backfire in a modern couple.”