Friday, December 20, 2013


A Dear Prudence-type question somehow ended up in Dan Savage's inbox, although not for the first time. This one's from a 28-year-old woman who's been with her same-age boyfriend, including living with him, for respectable lengths of time. She wants to get married, and has not made a secret of this. She's told him. She's told his mother. And he... doesn't want to marry her? Or maybe he does, but the script requires a bit of kicking and screaming from the dude, a bit of will-he-or-won't-he from the dudette, and that's where we're at. It's engagement season, I suppose, or at any rate, straight women-asking-gay-male-advice-columnists-when-dude-will-propose season.

From the limited information we get, it's not at all clear which it is. If we all mine our anecdotal evidence, we'll come up with examples of stories along these lines that culminate in by all accounts happy marriages, as well as others where there was an underlying he's-not-that-into-you, and they break up. Either we're at a particular moment in the standard-issue script that leads to marriage, or she should say, as Edina Monsoon does in a different context, "Me and my ovaries are leaving," and return to the dating pool with ample time left to have the bio kids she desires.

Savage's response is basically, oy the heterosexuals, and then he urges the letter-writer to just do the proposing herself. Which is a step in the right direction - this time around, he doesn't just agree that 20-something is too young for such decisions. Problem is - as the commenters point out, and as I mentioned here in response to the similar question there a while back - the woman kinda-sorta already has proposed. Philip Galanes, addressing a slightly different question (this would-be-affianced hasn't spoken up, it seems, but assumes her dude can read her mind), urges a female proposal that's a conversation rather than an ultimatum, although then there's Savage's letter-writer, who had that conversation, kept it open-ended, and got nowhere.

Savage is right that the heterosexual proposal is heavy on the gender roles, but if only it just came down to who generally asks the question! There are assumptions about the age at which men or women have the most options on the dating market. There's biology, but there's also the way that age enters into it even independently of any specific couple's desire to have biological children. There's the bizarre pseudo-feminist performance of independence and of indifference to all that wedding nonsense that women are urged to embrace specifically to inspire a man to propose. (And it gets confusing, because there are also the women who genuinely don't want to marry, this guy or at this moment or ever.) At the same time, even men who do want to get married need to at least resist the idea a little bit, or else they seem some combination of desperate and gender-non-conforming.

Ultimately, some of this isn't gender-specific, but just the common human desire to be with someone who could plausibly appeal to others as well. It's performed in different ways in men and women, but amounts to the same.

But the problem with the female proposal isn't simply that it switches things around at the last minute. It's that, according to the script, every woman effectively has proposed... to any man she'd refer to as a boyfriend. Even if she's never brought up marriage. Even if she's said she doesn't want to get married any time soon, because, heh heh, everyone knows that no women could possibly feel like that. (Hashtag: sarcasm.) His 'proposal' is really just a yes to the one she's already given, just by being female. Which, to repeat, is a problem, because we live in a not entirely scripted world, and sometimes women who give off every impression of not wanting to get married don't want to get married, and it's not actually a clever ruse to seem less needy or clichéd. But because the script demands female passivity, there's no way for a woman to announce she does or does not want to get married until a man has broached the subject.

The ultimatum - much-maligned for its lack of romance - is, in a sense, the female proposal. It brings a relationship to the point it would be in if a man had proposed and the woman had said no. The male proposal assumes a yes, while the female one assumes a no, because every man's answer is no until proven otherwise.

It's tempting, then, to suggest a non-ultimatum female proposal - and totally understandable that those looking at bizarre hetero courtship rituals from the outside would be like, why is this not already happening? - and granted, it's not that this has never happened. But as a rule, a woman who brings up marriage is perceived of as exerting pressure, in a way that a man doing the same is not. Until all these myriad underlying assumptions remain, equality in the kneeling arena doesn't seem imminent.


caryatis said...

"A woman who brings up marriage is perceived of as exerting pressure, in a way that a man doing the same is not."

So, assuming that these social gender scripts have permeated the relationship, what's wrong with exerting pressure? The woman seems to feel strongly about wanting to get married. Sometimes when a decision needs to be made in a relationship, one person pushes harder than the other, and that's okay.

Unless the fear is that he might say no precisely because she is pushing, when he might say yes if she didn't push? That would be pretty petty and self-defeating behavior on his part. Also, she's already spent 3.5 years with him. That's a long time to date, for two people who theoretically want marriage and kids. So, when the not-pushing strategy fails, time to try another, I would think.

Phoebe said...

First off, absolutely agreed that the woman who called Dan Savage should speak up. In any relationship, it's normal for there to eventually be conversations about where the relationship is heading. And for men and women alike to contend with the fact that sometimes being with the person you want to be with means compromising on a trajectory you had in mind, while adhering to that trajectory may mean compromising on who you're with, or being single without wishing to be.

But this is key: "Unless the fear is that he might say no precisely because she is pushing [...]"

Yes, that's the fear. What I'm describing - but not endorsing! - are hetero courtship rituals as they continue to exist, even among many who seem to have otherwise evolved past this sort of thing. And one ritual involves a woman feigning indifference to marriage. I wish it weren't so - in a large part because it makes things extra confusing, what with the other women who genuinely don't want to get married, but will be read as playing hard to get. But my impression is precisely that a woman who makes clear she wants to get married, and soon, is considered less appealing than she, the very same woman, would be if she didn't spell that out.