In May of 2015, a girl I went to high school with got engaged, and the video went viral. That’s not really special; at this point, a lot of us know someone in at least one YouTube sensation. But for me, this proposal video—which involved two teachers, a school band, a principal, and a class full of teenagers—sparked a debate in my relationship and among my friends over the tradition of a proposal.
I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition. I question it every chance I get, causing frustration and irritation in many of my friends. I can’t stand when the answer to any question is: “Because that’s the way it’s done.”
Marriage proposals are at the top of my list of Traditions I Do Not Understand at All (other items include sororities and fraternities, rules about engagement rings, and pledging allegiance to a flag). It’s never made sense to me why a proposal happens at all, unless the two people in question have never discussed getting married—and why anyone would be proposing without having talked about the possibility of marriage is beyond me. But if you have talked about it, it seems to me you would just say, “OK. We’ve decided. We are getting married.” And continue eating your dinner.
I couldn’t believe I was hearing correctly when a friend of mine said, “We’re definitely getting married. I’m just waiting for him to propose.” What?!?! How can you say “we’re definitely getting married” and not immediately follow with “so, yes, we are engaged”? Why does the act of one person strategically asking a question they already know the answer to have to signify the start of an engagement?
In my very practical brain, this does not add up. And no one else seems to think it’s weird. I have trouble grasping why proposals are still so commonplace when I know that most of these people are talking about marriage beforehand. Proposals are no longer a surprise, just as engagement rings are no longer a representation of male ownership of a woman.
This conversation came up with a male friend of mine after I shared the viral video with him. He said he regretted not having made a bigger romantic gesture out of his proposal. I couldn’t imagine why. He couldn’t believe I was thinking of it as a practical event.
And then I managed to put my foot in my mouth. Telling my boyfriend about all this, he said, “Well, when I propose to you, I’ll make sure to do it in front of everyone.” (He knows I hate the idea of public proposals over all others.)
“Ha,” I said, “don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to propose if we decide to get married.”
He looked crestfallen. “You don’t think I would propose? You think I’m that unromantic? Of course I would propose.”
I was baffled. It had nothing to do with romance, couldn’t he see that?
I’d never expected a proposal. But I found myself, during that conversation and over the next few days, strangely pleased. Did I suddenly want one?
And then I was annoyed with myself. Was I just falling into the trap of wanting the fairy-tale story we’ve all been sold since we were kids? Where can I draw the line between romance that means something to me and romance that feels based on a package we’ve all been sold?
I have to cut myself a little slack. My world won’t fall apart if I let myself be swept up in a romantic gesture every now and then. Allowing for, or even just considering, participating in one tradition does not mean I’m a bad feminist who has sold out to the wedding industrial complex.
Because let’s be honest, if I get married, my wedding will be anything but traditional. If I want to wear an engagement ring that’s not a family ring, I think I should buy it. Or at least pay for half. If I get married, I will not change my last name because I don’t believe a committed relationship equals an identity change. If I have a wedding, I do not want to be “given away” as if an exchange of property is occurring. If I have a wedding dress, I don’t want it to be white.
So if my partner wants to inject a little romance into our day-to-day lives by planning out a memorable moment for the two of us to share—well, I suppose I’m okay with being a part of that tradition.
But I just might propose to him first.
Genie Leslie is a Mississippian living in the Pacific Northwest and getting used to gray skies. She writes and edits for a marketing agency, and spends her free time reading, singing showtunes, and finally watching The Wire.