The XX Factor

Why the Sexist Marriage Proposal Won’t Go Away

Insecure woman who berated her commitment-phobic boyfriend for years finally gets him to ruin his life to complete hers


UC-Santa Cruz researchers have a new study out about gender norms and marriage proposals that, remarkably, avoids theorizing that women are hard-wired to like shiny things in velvet boxes because something something caveman days. That alone puts this gender study above and beyond most that get media attention these days, even though the results are unsurprising.

The researchers found, after interviewing a couple hundred college students, that when asked to imagine a hypothetical marriage proposal, the overwhelming preference was for men to propose to women. 

Two-thirds of the students, both male and female, said they’d “definitely” want the man to propose marriage in their relationship. Only 2.8 percent of women said they’d “kind of” want to propose, but not a single man indicated he’d prefer that arrangement. Notably, not a single student, male or female, “definitely” wanted the woman to propose.

These results are unsurprising because not only are college kids getting their ideas about marriage from TLC shows and the experiences of their parents’ generation, but because, as the researchers point out, women’s advances toward equality still stall out when it comes to our cultural norms about love and marriage. Some people still think it’s romantic for a man to ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage, though at least we’ve abandoned the negotiations of how many cows he will offer in exchange for his bride.

Laura Beck of Jezebel is disappointed in everyone, and suggests we overcome, through force of will, this benevolent sexism that leeches women of much of their autonomy beyond just the right to say yes or no. (A right that is often compromised by the public proposal, a format rigged to guarantee a crowd to boo you if you decline.) “Heterosexual ladies,” she says, “let’s get out there and just start asking dudes to get married, it’ll help us ease into it.”

She’s joking around, of course, but the whole thing really points to a larger issue of why it’s not so easy to overcome sexism just by force of will. In the case of proposals, it’s not just unquestioning adherence to sexist gender norms in play, but real concerns about what happens to people who step outside of those norms.

Women are routinely told by the culture and media that men are reluctant to get married, that men are usually interested in women only for sex, and that women are desperate to get validated by a ring on the finger. Women are well aware that people believe that if a man actually wants to marry you, he’ll ask. Given the choice between two stereotypes—the passive princess whose charm and beauty brings a man to one knee or an insecure needball who nagged a reluctant man into marriage—women will pick the former every time. In order to change that, we’d have to dramatically restructure our cultural understanding of gender and romance, away from stereotypes of promiscuous men who love only reluctantly and overeager women who just want to put a ring on it.