Is the Surprise Marriage Proposal Dead?

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According to a survey, less than half of women want a surprise proposal. According to TV, there’s no other kind.

According to a Men’s Health study, 47% women want a surprise proposal. According to TV, there’s no other kind.

Just look at our recent programming: in episodes airing within 24 hours of each other, both The Newsroom and The Mindy Project had men popping the question out of the blue. Then come the requisite stages of awe. The women are at first confused, then disoriented, then alarmed. They ask, wide-eyed, “Are you kidding me?” (Mindy) and the HBO-version of the same question, “What in the fuck is happening right now?” (Mackenzie).

In real life, relationships benchmarks are happening much more incrementally, perhaps, methodically. Most couples date for one year and co-habit for two before getting engaged. Whereas Mackenzie and Will of The Newsroom had broken up years earlier. They weren’t even dating, but Will had a $250,000 Tiffany’s ring. In his desk drawer. (Where you and I keep paper clips and granola bars.) At least Mindy and Casey are currently dating. They even live together in Haiti, in a corrugated tin shack. Their bedroom wall is a few planks of plywood, with gaping spaces in between. It is here that Casey has presumably hidden a ring for six months, undetected by his girlfriend or potential trespassers. No big deal. Just an expensive jewel in a rickety open-air structure. Don’t worry about it.

But what about non-fictional ring shopping? Brides Magazine reports that 62% of couples ring shop together, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine a TV episode where the characters debate “The 4 C’s” of a diamond, the merits of gold vs. platinum, engravings, and insurance. Increasingly, getting engaged has become more of a process than an event, but the screenwriting trope of an impromptu, man-woos-woman-with-elaborate-display proposal persists across storylines and genres. 

Whether it’s a Fox Sitcom or an HBO drama, the formula remains the same:

Guy digs the ring out of his pocket + Girl’s shocked exclamations + Speech* that ends in “[Girl’s name], I love you, will you marry me?” = Girl says “yes” a minimum of three times + Embrace.

* If it’s Sorkin show, it’s a really, really, long speech that includes an anecdote which no one understands the purpose of, not even the speaker.

At this point, the scene diverges according to genre. In The Newsroom, the theme track crescendos as the camera pans out. In The Mindy Project, a bit of slapstick prompts the couple to fall out of a tree (the proposal is so unsettling they’re literally unsettled!).

One reason this TV trope persists is because we, as a culture, continue to believe that the guy initiates the proposal. That’s a story we feed into off-screen: In a survey of 277 undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz, not one–not one–thought the woman should propose. The findings, published as “Girls Don’t Propose! Ew!” in the Journal of Adolescent Research, revealed that the majority of the students, aged 18-26, “definitely” want a male proposal. Now, UCSC is so liberal that Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir described it as “a seat of neo-Bohemian culture,” but apparently neo-Bohemia has its limit, and that limit is which gender needs to pop the question.

In A Little Bit Married, a study of Gen Ys and long-term relationships, Hannah Seligson writes: “The proposal story that gets told to relatives, friends, and referenced in many toasts at the rehearsal dinner usually involves a clandestine operation consisting of a wig, a mask, a three-man mariachi band, and a blindfold, but for many couples the secret backstory is that there was most likely a female proposal that prompted the male proposal.”

More and more couples are living together, planning engagements together, and ring shopping together, but when things get official, men are still expected to take the lead. And men overwhelming expect it of themselves. In the Men’s Health study, 76% of men believe they should go down to one knee. On-screen and off-screen, the tradition of proposing demands a significant suspension of disbelief. Let’s break it down: men are kneeling to ask a question the couple has most likely already answered, with a jointly-chosen ring, in a jointly-chosen time period. Oh, and the woman, who is expecting the proposal, is also expecting to be surprised. Yes, expecting to be surprised. Don’t take the recent rash of flash-mob wedding proposals and Youtube surprise engagement videos at face value; they’re conceived on the notion that the literal song-and-dance will be met positively. The modern marriage proposal is an oxymoron.

That’s one of way of looking at it. A less cynical view is that we perform traditional gender roles when we want to become part of a traditional institution. If it’s hard to write TV proposals that are not over-the-top, it might be because those scenes are a performance of a performance. The components—the ring, the declarations, the exclamations, the surprise—might be an artifice, but an artifice created out of genuine feeling. And if you can’t beat the fantasy, you join it.

Unless you're this poor guy. A rare proposal where the surprise is real, for everyone involved.