The XX Factor

Mutant Marriage Proposals

This piece by Hannah Seligson in the Wall Street Journal really demonstrates the strange ways that feminism meets traditional patriarchy and creates mutated traditions. 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.

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. But I’m in a generous mood and want to point out the creativity and flexibility of what I call the “I’m not a feminist but” culture. “I’m not a feminist but” expresses the have-it-both-ways desires of many women, especially younger women. You want the benefits of equality, but you don’t want to abandon the romantic fantasies used to sell male dominance to girls from the cradle. You want to be dressed up in white and presented to your groom like a virgin on offer to a god, but you want to be treated like a partner, not property, in the marriage. The faux proposal is just one of the many ways women have created a compromise between contradictory desires.

Does this work out for them? Being a feminist-feminist, I’m skeptical. I think many women find that they try to have it both ways only to discover that these traditions have quite a bit of power to steal pieces of your independence. But by gum, I sure admire the creativity and willpower that goes into trying to have it both ways.

Photograph of a man putting an engagement ring on a woman by Jupiterimages/Getty Images.