In some ways, proposals do seem to be changing, but in the opposite direction. They’re becoming less egalitarian: less conversation-like and more elaborate and fantastical. Ellen Lamont, assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, interviewed 105 people about their proposals. “The women needed a story to tell their friends,” Lamont said. “There was more interest in the proposal being a public spectacle. If it was more of a conversation, it didn’t have the same impact.”
She attributes this to social media. Now, when a couple gets engaged, the Facebook or Instagram post is an essential part of the process. “Women want that perfect picture—him down on one knee; her, hand on cheek, surprised.” Lamont says that most of the men in her study, on the other hand, professed to not caring about the details. “They were like, ‘Whatever, I was going to propose anyway. If this is what makes her happy, I’m going to do it.’” For gay couples, these norms—and the larger, gendered roles partners are expected to enact in their relationships—are in flux.
This particular conception of a proposal is solidified by American pop culture. There are hundreds of memorable proposal scenes in modern TV and movies, most of which follow a familiar script. Lamont says the opening scene of Sweet Home Alabama best encapsulates the “quintessential proposal:” Reese Witherspoon walks into Tiffany & Co., blindfolded—her boyfriend uncovers her eyes, reveals the dozens of jewelers standing at attention, and tells her to “pick one.” “Oh my god,” she says, mouth wide open, stunned. “Oh my god.”
When I asked why the proposal has been so slow to modernize, Lamont credited a phenomenon she calls “symbolic gendering.” “Now that we expect women to be equal to men, women are looking for ways to distinguish gender in their lives.” Within heterosexual romantic relationships, Lamont says, there is still a strong sense that women and men want different things and, by extension, should behave in different ways. As more women assume traditionally male roles at work, the traits that distinguish men and women in relationships become harder to see. “A symbolic act, like a proposal, is a way to reenact those differences.”
Of course, many couples perform this particular ritual because it’s fun and romantic. When a man plans an elaborate scheme to ask his girlfriend to marry him—when he builds a telescope, or rents out a stadium, or presents his partner with a seventeen-carat diamond hidden inside a Ring Pop—a person is going to feel special. While many of the men in Lamont’s study professed indifference to elaborate proposals, there’s reason to think they appeal to men, too. Several recent studies show that men, particularly young men, feel intense pressure to hide how they’re feeling. According to Judy Chu, a sociologist at Stanford who studies gender, young men today are so fixated on “being a man” that they “end up missing...what they each really want, which is just that closeness.” A proposal is an occasion when it’s socially acceptable, even encouraged, for men to be emotional—to lay it all on the line, and show their partner how much she means to them.