In 2004, on an airplane somewhere between Ireland and New York, a 22-year-old Britney Spears asked 26-year-old backup dancer Kevin Federline to marry her. He said no. "He thought it wasn't the right way to do it," Spears told People magazine after the fact. Federline elaborated: "I thought the guy was supposed to ask the girl. So a couple minutes went by and then I asked her." The rest is messy history.
This proposal situation strikes me as even more absurd than the Federlines' actual marriage. Taking a minute to think about a proposal you're receiving from a popstar you've been dating less than three months makes sense. Refusing a well-intentioned offer of marriage only to propose yourself moments later is straight up ridiculous. And yet, the Federline Maneuver is not an uncommon move.
As the institution of marriage changes with a changing society (one that is decreasingly religious, straight, or monogamous, traits that are key tenets of traditional marriage) the proposal as a gesture has remained essentially unchanged: a man on one knee with a diamond. Despite its archaic roots in misogyny and materialism, the proposal narrative continues to occupy a significant role in contemporary culture. Engaged couples share their stories on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube; the standard response to "We're engaged" is a breathless "How did he propose?"
My fiancé proposed to me in our living room. I was working on the couch and he dropped a letter in my lap, outlining the ways we both knew we were ready for a further commitment to each other. It was simple and sweet and lovely, and I felt a bit bad that I was wearing a sweatshirt and hadn't bothered to do up my jeans after going to the bathroom an hour earlier. I said yes and we had a weirdly long hug, then ordered and consumed a very large cheese pizza.
As the institution of marriage changes with a changing society, the proposal as a gesture has remained essentially unchanged: a man on one knee with a diamond.
Relating this story I feel like a bit of a cop out: I had legitimately tried a few times to pop the question, and been laughed off every time. "Just let me do it!" he would say. "It's kind of traditional and stupid but I want to be the one who does it."
After interviewing several women who'd proposed to their partners (or tried to), I found K-Fed and my fiancé were not alone in this desire. Women seeking to buck convention, or move things along, or, I don't know, make a choice for themselves instead of waiting around because of very old traditions rooted in land transfer were often met with resistance from even the most feminist partners. Many of the women I interviewed said their partner found the experience of being proposed to surprisingly emasculating, that watching their girlfriends pop the question made them realize it was something they cared about doing themselves. Despite personal politics to the contrary, to most of the men involved, proposing just seemed like something the man should do.
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This is in keeping with the overall feelings of the population at large. In general, people are unenthused by the so-called "reverse proposal." According to poll conducted by the Associated Press-WE tv, three-fourths of Americans say it would in theory be fine for the woman in a heterosexual relationship to propose to the man. When quizzed about their own preferences, however, respondents overwhelmingly preferred the traditional male proposal model. In a study of almost 300 heterosexual undergrads at UC Santa Cruz, two-thirds of students said they'd "definitely" want the man to propose in the relationship. While a small percentage of women (2.8) said they'd "kind of" want to propose, none of the male respondents wanted this. Not a single student of either gender said they "definitely" wanted the woman to propose.
In Irish folk legend, women can propose to men only on February 29th, aka Leap Day. The idea is connected to medieval festivals of misrule: Leap Day serves as a disruption of social order, a weird, extra day in the regimented calendar year. But the tradition was more a joke than a day for women to take control; historical cartoons and images about the tradition show desperate, hag-like women clawing at men to take them back to some kind of matrimonial sea-cave. In some areas of Europe, men who accept a Leap Day proposal must buy their bride-to-be twelve pairs of gloves-to hide the shame of not having an engagement ring.
Obviously, the institution of marriage has changed significantly since a time when folk legends dictated people's actions. Fewer American couples are getting married than ever, with marriage rates hovering around 50 percent in the 2012 census. Marriage rates among low-income communities are even lower. When people do get married, they're doing it older, when both parties are financially solvent, and after having lived together first. In short, marriage is looking more and more like a middle-class partnership with an expiration date of eight years than a romantic decision to spend one's life together. Yet the predominant mode of engagement somehow remains a man on one knee with a diamond; despite the last few decades' radical changes to the institution of marriage (the prevalence of divorce, later-life marriages, gay rights), the proposal remains, for all practical purposes, rooted firmly in the past.
Katherine, 32, proposed to her now-ex-husband in classic mid-2000s style, which is to say via Jumbotron at a baseball game. "My only hesitation was doing it so publicly," she said. "I don't think I would have planned it if I was unsure about the answer, but looking back I didn't seriously consider that he might say no until, like, two minutes before."
He said yes, and the two were married several months later. "Everyone thought it was a cool story," she said. "It wasn't until years later that I got a negative reaction-never from friends and loved ones, just strangers." Most commonly, Katherine said she gets teased for having been "desperate" or for having a "pushover" for a husband. Some have even gone as far as to link the atypical proposal with the couple's divorce three years later. "People have the mindset that an ended relationship is necessarily a failed one, so there must have been some reason that it failed," she said. "Maybe they think the reason is that I was too desperate or pants-wearing."
A reverse proposal doesn't even do away with the most conspicuously materialistic part of the affair: the ring.
Reactions to that one simple gesture (a marriage proposal, from a woman) contain sexist multitudes. After all, women are conditioned from an early age-by Disney, their families, the wedding industry-to hope for marriage, but simultaneously discouraged from taking any initiative in making that marriage happen. And men are expected to fear-or at least resist-matrimony. Should they decide they'd like to wed, they're required to spend an enormous amount of financial and emotional capital to create a (preferably public) display of atypically masculine vulnerability and emotionality. The sheer popularity of YouTube proposals complete with flash mobs, tear-y eyed assembled family, and the bride's shocked gasps caught in three angles is a strong indicator of the pedestal upon which we place these stories. With the reverse proposal, all this fanfare is still required, but both partners face the prospect of a lifetime of ribbing and weird comments from strangers. It seems like a very bad deal for everyone.
A reverse proposal doesn't even do away with the most conspicuously materialistic part of the affair: the ring. Despite the fact that this tradition was literally invented by an advertising company working for De Beers jewelry in the 1900s, wedded society can't seem to let go of this antiquated custom. "I did wonder if I was supposed to buy myself a stupid ring that I didn't want, or buy him a watch or something," Katherine said. Engagement tokens for men have been growing in popularity, with wedding mecca Etsy offering hundreds of options under "male engagement ring." In 2009, Britain's biggest jeweler H. Samuel began marketing its first ever engagement ring explicitly for men. A titanium band set with a small diamond, the ring retails for just over $100-much less than the "three months of income" rule many apply to women's engagement rings. While the growth in the men's engagement ring industry is likely at least partially attributable to growth within the gay marriage industry, women undeniably make up a portion of those buying engagement jewelry for men. According to the Associated Press-WE tv study, about five percent of American marriages now begin with a "reverse proposal."
While figures about it are hard to come by, the "reverse proposal" seems to have some competition in the "mutual proposal," an engagement that is the result of multiple discussions about the future between both parties. It's not quite Jumbotron material, and may or may not still involve some kind of ornate men's jewelry, but it feels like a much more modern way to do things while still shouting out to the idea of romance. Plus, if you want to get feminist about it, you can pay for the pizza afterwards.