Jilly: Public Proposals–Swoon or Cringe?

Where do you stand on public marriage proposals?

I’m a sports fan, and I had the England v India cricket match playing in the background as I sat down to write today’s post. Normally I find cricket commentary provides the perfect background for writing, but today there was a break in the action, the cameras focused on a tense-looking young man in the crowd, and the TV presenter said “That’ll be Martin*. He’s here today with Suzanne*, and I believe he has something to say to her…” Martin went down on one knee and fished out a ring box. The giant TV screens said DECISION PENDING. Suzanne cried and kissed him. The screens switched to SHE SAID YES! The crowd went bonkers.

The whole episode made me cringe so much I turned the coverage off. Then I started wondering if I’m a grouchy curmudgeon who’s incapable of appreciating a heartfelt romantic gesture.

What do you think?

I’m not talking about a spontaneous proposal that occurs in front of other people because Circumstances. I love those, in life and literature. My problem is with a carefully orchestrated piece of showmanship set up with the intent to share a serious, potentially life-changing decision with as many strangers as possible, without the decision-maker’s knowledge or consent.

Why might you do that? The best answers I could come up with were:

  • The young man, his beloved, or both, are narcissistic exhibitionists;
  • The young man sees the public proposal as a grand gesture, a demonstration of the strength of his love;
  • The young man is afraid the object of his affections might refuse him, and he is relying on public pressure to tip the scales in his favour;
  • The young man is so thrilled and giddy at the prospect of marrying his beloved that he wants to share the moment with the whole world.

Which brings me to my next question. Generalizing here, but do you think a public proposal of marriage is something the twenty-first century bride dreams of? I ask because although it appears to be increasingly prevalent in real life, it doesn’t seem to be much of a trope in romance literature, or at least not in the books that I read.

There are public proposals a-plenty in historical romance, but they’re usually the consequence of Our Girl being discovered in a compromising situation and thus forced into a marriage of convenience. They don’t count. The only contemporary ones I can think of are:

Bobby Tom, the hero of SEP’s Heaven, Texas. His proposal, over the public address system at a grand fundraising event, is a demonstration of his breathtaking arrogance in assuming that the decision is entirely his to make, and that the heroine will be thrilled and honoured when he informs her. (Spoiler: to his utter mortification, she turns him down. Yay, Gracie!)

Johnny, the stodgy middle aged mother’s boy in the Oscar-winning movie Moonstruck, whose unromantic proposal to Loretta (Cher) in front of all the regulars in their local Brooklyn Italian restaurant establishes without a shadow of doubt that he’s the wrong man for her.

Romance novels are primarily written by women for women, and I’d have thought that if a spectacular public proposal was a popular female fantasy, you’d see more of it on the page. If the only examples I can think of are scenes of embarrassment, misunderstanding or comedy, surely that’s significant? And if a camera crew and/or multiple witnesses is not many a young girl’s dream, somebody should do today’s young men** a favour and tell them to take their beloved for a walk on the beach instead.

What do you think? Is the public proposal the ultimate authentic twenty-first century expression of True Love? Or is it more of a Bobby Tom and Johnny option?

Swoon or cringe, I’d love to know where you stand on this one 😉

* names changed to protect the exhibitionists.

**or women, I guess, though all the proposers I’ve seen so far have been male.

11 thoughts on “Jilly: Public Proposals–Swoon or Cringe?

  1. Hmmm. Well, when a public proposal goes wrong, it’s very cringe-y. I don’t like it, but I suppose it’s better that the pair figure out things. But when it goes right, the voyeur in me is grinning like an idiot.

    In one of my favorite books, the heroine makes a public proposal that shows a great triumph over her own baggage, and it clears the hero’s name from some scandals. The hero is definitely an exhibitionist, though (-:. (I will add that in the same book, the hero makes a drunken, panicked proposal at a large dinner party, and he’s shot down. So, the heroine making her proposal public is hugely satisfying for many readers.)

    I will add that if the couple can get ahold of the footage, it makes for a very nice anniversary tradition. Recorded for posterity! And I’m sure the video will bring back all the emotions that made one say, “Let’s” and the other say, “Yes”.

  2. Do men make public proposals other than at sporting events? It seems like all the proposals I see are on the jumbotron on the sports news. I can’t imagine getting a proposal in such a public venue. I would be furious about it. It feels like it’s all about the guy—HE wants to make the gesture, it’s HIS idea, and possibly HIS venue. I think you’re right that it’s not women’s fantasy.

    • I wonder how public is public? A proposal over dinner at a fancy restaurant, maybe with the mariachi band as witnesses? That seems to be a trope. And since the only filming available would be by the prepared (and possibly narcissistic) fiancé to be, or by security cameras, it would make sense that those public proposals wouldn’t make it to the ten o’clock news. Skywriting is another trope. I recently read a Reddit thread where several people decried proposing to someone at someone else’s wedding as being too tacky — stealing the thunder from the bridal couple. One guy said he’d proposed at a wedding — but not to worry! He did it behind a tree or something, and they didn’t announce the engagement until after the party was well over.

      This Quora answer was full of interesting data points. https://www.quora.com/Should-I-propose-him-in-front-of-everybody First of all, most of the answerers seem to assume it’s a woman asking a man in front of everyone. (Vs. a man asking a man.) Women seemed to be the most enthusiastic about this mode, and men seemed to be the most cautious. (Although most people were qualifying their answers.)

      • Skywriting–eek! That gives me the shivers, and not in a good way.

        Weddings is an interesting one, because it seems to be a Thing that other unmarried but established couples among the guests feel the pressure to address the issue. I don’t know anyone who proposed at a wedding, but I do know couples who’ve broken up immediately after one, because so many of the other guests did the “You’ll be next, ha ha!” joke, and one or other of them freaked out.

        • (-: I think the main thing about a fictional public proposal is that it’s ripe for conflict and humor. So many things can go wrong, and it’s very useful, unless your reader is too embarrassed to continue the book. (-: Misspelled skywriting. That’s hilarious!

    • I think it’s mostly at sporting events, but not entirely.

      Not quite a proposal, but a few years ago I was at a screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, followed by a Q&A with Whedon, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof and I forget who else. Not sure if it was pre-arranged, but some idiot hijacked the Q&A to say he wanted to propose to his girlfriend, and she was a huge fan, so could he please come up to the stage and film them all on his phone telling her to say yes. They did it with grace, kindness, and just a touch of amusing snark, but I thought it was outrageous. There was a large auditorium full of people who’d paid and traveled to hear Joss Whedon speak, not to watch this idiot hijack the event for something that was absolutely all about HIM. Grrr. Still mad about that, years later 😦

      • Ugh. That is kind of icky. But did it lead to some comments and insights that might not have popped up if they guy hadn’t broken the bounds of convention so thoroughly? Probably not, huh? One can always hope that truth can be better than fiction, though (-:.

  3. I’m in the “cringe” camp. I think of a proposal as a very personal, private moment. I can see wanting to shout “he/she said yes” to the world afterwards, but the public proposal part feels very manipulative – who wants to say no, even if they mean it, in front of a stadium full of strangers.

    Then again, maybe that’s just the curmudgeon in me talking.

  4. One of my favourite movies is ‘Bed of Roses’, which has a fairly public proposal – sorry about the spoiler – at Christmas, surrounded by his ENORMOUS and loving family, and she’s an orphan. You can imagine how that goes down…

    Proposals need to be about the person being proposed to, not the one proposing; and if he (because it’s still largely he) gets that wrong, he probably doesn’t know her at all. If, on the other hand, she’s an enormous [insert sport/whatever here] fan – and he might not be – it could be absolutely perfect.

    • Yes! Exactly, it should be about the person being proposed to, and usually I get the feeling it’s not. On Sunday I went to the Wimbledon men’s final (my friend won a pair of tickets in the public ballot), and immediately in front of us was a young couple. He was glued to the tennis. She was very pretty and clearly bored senseless. She pouted, played with his hair, stroked his back, blew in his ear, did everything but strip naked to try to get his attention, all to no avail. I wondered how long they’d been together, and which of them thought it would be a great date. Sorry she had a dull afternoon, but it was bonus material for me 😉

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