In an age when fewer young Americans express interest in marriage, public engagements are more prevalent than ever — and social media isn’t entirely to blame.
Late last year, a grand romantic gesture went horribly awry. A Dutch man in a town near Utrecht hired a crane to use in a spectacular marriage proposal — the plan was for him to be lowered into his girlfriend’s garden as he sang to her, and for him to then pop the question. Alas. The crane fell over and smashed through neighboring roofs, resulting in the evacuation of 32 homes, international news coverage, and the amused pity of readers around the world. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and she said yes.
As someone who has watched a lot of romantic comedies — they were the subject of my doctoral dissertation — this story caught my eye. In order for a romantic comedy to come to a “happy” ending (that is, with the couple united, and presumably headed for monogamous heterosexual marriage), they must first be reunited, having been parted by the various obstacles to their love. Then she writes an article about him and stands on the baseball field in front of a huge crowd, waiting for him to show up and accept her apology, or he drives to her apartment in a white limo blaring La Traviata out the sunroof and climbs up her fire escape to declare his love. Or he stages a flash mob in Grand Central Station, or stands outside her window with a boom box, or interrupts her at her place of work to propose in broken Portuguese, or shows up at her press conference to ask her a big non-work-related question. You know the drill.
The unnamed hopelessly romantic Dutchman is an extreme example of how the ways in which many of us experience and express love have changed in recent years. Our collective desire to make a spectacle out of our love, and our unprecedented ability to broadcast and share that spectacle, have produced a visible and dramatic shift in the culture of romance. Today, we perform love, and consume it, as never before. And yet, the popularity of marriage is fading among young Americans. It’s a fraught and fascinating paradox, one of several that mark contemporary romance culture.
Romantic comedies, which teach us that the truer a true love is, the grander and more public the public grand gesture will be, have been around for a long time. So have public proposals. But the arrival of the internet, and the fact that we now live so much of our lives online, means that when we hear about them, it’s no longer in the abstract. Now we don’t just hear about our friend’s sister’s roommate’s cousin getting engaged when her fiancé staged a music number at Disneyland — we see the video. Lots of people see the video. Now that everyone has a video camera and a television in their back pocket, we can all get engaged on the Kiss Cam. And we can all watch as other people do too. And that video lives forever online, instead of slipping away after airing on the 11:00 news. These performances of love are more public, and more permanent, than ever before — even though the popularity of marriage, particularly among straight Americans between 18 and 29, is waning.
Certainly, public proposals aren’t entirely novel: Growing up in Sydney, Australia, I’d often see banners strung up along the overpass that spanned the road between my house and the local public pool — “Marry me, Kylie,” “I love you Mel.” Nor is there anything novel about spending lavishly on a wedding and on the events and items that surround it, or about the appeal of the grand romantic-comedy-style gesture. But new notions of public have fused with old ideas about romance to change how many of us experience weddings and the constellation of events around them — whether the weddings in question are their own, or those of others. If romantic comedies tell us that the truest and most special love is performed in grand, public ways, then the advent of social media has increased the pressure on all of us to stage those performances in our own lives. Now we can all prove that our love is special and true by putting on our own romantic comedy happy ending — and now more people than ever before will be able to watch it.
The capacity to easily record, upload, and broadcast videos has propelled visibility of public proposals — explicitly made with the validation of strangers in mind — but these performances happen without video too, and they owe their virality to the social media saturation of 21st-century life. One potent example of how social media has changed our relationship with the performance of love is the engagement photo shoot. Before so many of us were living a proudly curated, Valencia-tinted, inevitably performative life through social media, engagement photo shoots were a relatively niche pre-wedding ritual. Few people had them taken, and if you did do them, they were seen only by those who received your save-the-dates and those who happened to walk past your friend’s fridge or your parents’ hall end table. Now they’re seen by all your Facebook friends, whether they’ve been sent a wedding invitation or not. And even if you never considered hiring a photographer to take photos of you and your betrothed before the wedding, you know lots of people who have done it. You’ve clicked through their albums on Facebook and seen your engaged friends dressed up and dolled up, posing in parks and on bridges and at the beach, transformed for an afternoon into models and movie stars as a professional photographer — usually a virtual stranger — tries to capture the unique intimacy of their love so that it can be splashed all over the internet.
This sense of ubiquity — everyone is having engagement photos taken! — creates a perception that this kind of public performance is necessary, a standard part of the ever-expanding process of getting married. The combination of new social media and the decades-old American urge to keep up with the Joneses has been a boon for the wedding industrial complex, and professional photographers are profiting from the new perception that this costly but once-rare part of the marriage ritual is expected. About half of heterosexual couples getting married in the U.S. now opt to do it, and a session with an “experienced professional” will run you over $800 (figures aren’t available on what proportion of gay couples do it). And while some wedding photographers include the engagement session for no extra cost, many don’t, adding to the ballooning price tag of the entire affair — the average wedding in the U.S. now costs $25,200. The urge to perform, and the opportunities and expectations to do so, have expanded far beyond proposals and pre-wedding photography. For many years, the usual public exchange of vows has been supplemented by various other performances of coupling, like the bride and groom’s entrance at the reception and their first dance. Now we have choreographed dance numbers for the wedding party, which are recorded and posted online, where they can go viral.
That these declarations of love are staged and public does not suggest that the love is not real, and some of these grand public gestures are incredibly touching. Three years later, I still cannot watch video of the Home Depot flash mob proposal without a box of tissues nearby (and I’m clearly not the only one, as it now has over 12.5 million views on YouTube). And, of course, for people whose love is still threatening to the status quo, treated as second-class or hidden away and kept secret, there’s enormous political and personal power in the kind of visibility that a spectacular public display provides. But for everyone else, even when the love is real, there’s something unsettling about all this performing, and it’s not just that a man surprising a woman with a public proposal — and that’s almost always how it goes — places her under an enormous amount of pressure to say yes, or that some men, as the writer Elizabeth Weingarten puts it, see the “extravagant proposal as an act of virility, a palpable way to exert dominance over the marriage process.” Indeed, watching some of these public proposal videos, it seems that the men are not so much proposing to women as at them.
Viewed in this light, public proposal videos can be read as a reactionary response by straight, cis couples to reclaim marriage as their own, insisting that marriage is great – and that marriage is straight. But marriage is evolving in a way that is historically normal, even if it feels unprecedented at our close range. This is just one of several paradoxes at the heart of how we perform and consume love today: As marriage becomes less popular, the performance of it becomes more insistent. Another paradox: Despite the intimate nature of romantic love, straight, cis couples seem more intent than ever on displaying it in public. And, though we talk about romantic love as priceless, declaring to the world that you’re in love, and declaring it in the manner that romantic comedies and our new public square have taught us is desirable, is awfully expensive — and many twentysomethings are broke.
The most vexing paradox of all, of course, is that even those of us who are critical of this new romance culture are not immune to it. I myself am currently dating someone to whom I once publicly (albeit jokingly) proposed. Even among those who find other people’s public proposals nauseating and everyone else’s engagement photo shoots irksome, there are plenty of women who want to be publicly proposed to, and plenty of men who want to stage a spectacular public proposal. That is, plenty of us want to perform our own love. Because our love, as romantic comedies teach us so well, is exceptional. Strangers in restaurants will want to cheer for us when we get engaged. Commuters won’t mind when our flash mob disrupts their evening commute. Our love is true, and when love is true, we want to tell the whole world about it. And here’s the thing: Now we really can.