The Case Against Performance Marriage Proposals

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Last week, David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, proposed to his girlfriend and she said yes. That’s the short version. The Times wedding announcement version would go something like this: David Pogue, the eminent columnist, somehow found time between writing his newspaper pieces and his Scientific American column, his NOVA series, and his talking head TV outings — all of which he details for nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter — to produce and edit a seven minute ersatz movie trailer (with soundtrack) in which actors playing the roles of himself and his beloved enact a lightly fictionalized version of their courtship and blossoming love.

On August 15, Pogue played the trailer for his girlfriend and other family members in a movie theater at a vacation resort, after making sure the camera hidden in the ficus up front was recording her reaction. When the action onscreen stopped, the real thing began. Before a live audience, the real Pogue proposed. In the best tradition of reality TV, the girlfriend screamed, “Yes!” Applause followed. Then, the very next day, Pogue posted the whole shebang on Twitter and YouTube, causing a viral sensation.

“Creepy,” wrote one commenter on the Daily Intel post. “I really wish this ‘look at me, look at me’ proposal trend would die," wrote another. I have to agree.

Two weeks ago, I started writing about marriage in this space with the following hypothesis: Marriage is a luxury good, increasingly embarked upon by only a few (affluent, educated) people who demonstrate their devotion to an impossible dream with boffo weddings and then, after the wedding night, struggle to reconcile the difference between their expectations and the not unhappy but not always entirely blissful reality that is domesticity. Pogue’s proposal illustrates this case. Though messily divorced, he is back in dreamland, calling his betrothed, “the most selfless, sweet, beautiful, wise, funny woman in the world.” Fair enough. Love happens. The future Mr. and Mrs. Pogue will sort things out or not.

But what’s striking about Pogue's proposal, and so many other orchestrated, public, performance art, Broadway-show-type proposals in evidence lately, is that this time, the impossible dream is dreamed by the man. He may not be Groom-zilla, but he is Cinder-fella, spending his hard-earned dough to create an elaborate fantasy of forever love.

A man’s role in wedding preparations has traditionally been to “show up and shut up.” (Or at least that’s what my father advised my husband-to-be when my mother and I were squabbling over flower arrangements.) But now, when one reads another iteration of the “men are the new women” story almost daily, it’s not suprising that grooms want to have their moment, too. Men like to wear itty-bitty bathing suits, the Times tells us. They like to cuddle more than they like sex. Men are watching their weight, and following faddish diets (paleo, day-vegan, all-white). Men have a biological clock! Men do housework and help with the kids. The tabloids say that Brad has been fanatically obsessing over the details of his upcoming wedding to Angie, micromanaging outfits and inquiring over the provenance of the mushrooms for the beef sauce. The proposal has traditionally been the man’s domain. So why not infuse it with a little modern, glamorous machismo? The performance proposal (proposal performance?) is what the safari is to the honeymoon, the Everest climb to the hiking trip. It’s difficult. Out there. Extreme. Extravagant. A commitment. A demonstration of How Much He Cares.

 I’ve been watching a lot of these performance proposals over the last couple days, because of course they’re all on YouTube. I’ve seen flash mobs of 300 professional dancers, busloads of screaming college roomies, lip-synching in-laws, hip-hop performers, well-wishers on Skype, and marching bands. A very few of them (see: Isaac Lamb) I found actually sweet.

But most I deplored, and I finally figured out why. The wedding is a public event. Before your friends and family — and God if you believe in such an entity — you declare your love. But a marriage proposal, like the wedding night, is supposed to be private. It’s supposed to be about “us.” It’s supposed to be intimate. The performance proposal doesn’t say “I love you because I can imagine you old,” or “I want us to fight and wake up the next morning in the same bed,” or “I love you because you make me laugh when I’m all stressed out.” It draws attention to the groom — his magnificence, his deep pockets — and often makes a fool of the bride. These Vegas-style choreographed proposals go far beyond skywriting. They put the woman on the spot. Who’s going to say "no," or "let me think about it," or even "let’s get a room" in front of a crowd of jugglers? An online wedding etiquette advisor offers these tips to men wanting to propose: Don’t make it public. Don’t do it in front of her family. Don’t make it too complicated. Don’t expect her to say yes right away.

If men really want to be the new women, then let them fight with their mothers and future mothers-in-law over the flower arrangements.