Tag Archives: gender roles

“Goody! A Man At Last!”

1 Mar

February the 29th is almost over for another four years, and here I am tapping away madly at my keyboard to finish this post while it is still relevant. Before anyone starts excitedly hat shopping, no, I did not take the opportunity to act all feminist and propose. Even though Chem was in a suit today, which, in his opinion, was a strong deciding factor in my thinking that jumping in his lap was a good idea in the first place, but that’s another story…

Let’s start with some history – after all I’m a history student, and the popular appeal of this tradition is, well, its traditional-ness. It’s a day in which the tradition is to go against tradition, but interestingly, it’s not British – how untraditional! According to this brief podcast by Katherine Parkin of Monmouth University, the custom originated in America as “a safety valve for women’s frustration at being dependent on men and deciding their marital destiny,” but was really only “a form of false empowerment” as it only happens once every four years. In waiting for the day of socially-acceptable female proposals to come around, we are in fact, still waiting. Choosing not to wait makes you both impatient and desperate – perhaps the reason no-one has proposed to you yet, dear, is because you are too fat, old, and ugly?

We can see such viewpoints in the, what I find rather charming, custom from the early 20th century of sending leap day postcards. [credit to this post for finding these]

In this first example we see two rather coarse and dowdy women exclaiming over their prize catch – a tamed leap year husband. The suggestion is that the husband has been emasculated [he is after all silent in this exchange], and has been “caught” as if prey to a predator. From Chrétien de Troyes to Mills & Boons, we all know that the man is meant to be the hunter, and the wife, his trophy. Traditional gender and sexual roles have been reversed, and the artist signals a clear warning to the unattached man – run, before you, too, gets caught!

This message is found in many guises in the postcards, but if this isn’t caution enough, here is an example that reminds men of the companion they can expect if they are caught.

Another pokes fun at the idea of female desperation.

I particularly enjoy this one, which depicts an unsuspecting gentleman about to be overrun by “ladies in waiting,” and which reminds me somewhat of the moment when a male specimen steps out of the love lift in Take Me Out.

Many of the post cards are light hearted, and even, to my eyes, encouraging and sympathetic in tone. I like the following examples which seem to celebrate the act of stepping outside of gender roles, each in different ways.

The custom of sending postcards does not seem to have survived, but the attitudes which they reflect evidently do. I am advised by Cadet that there is a thorough discussion on the topic in Grazia, but since I have Cosmo to hand, their input will have to do. In an article from the March 2012 issue, entitled “Proposing – His Job or Yours?” two women speak out with opposite views on the matter.

Anabelle Allan leads with the tale of her meticulously planned proposal, which sees her position herself firmly in control of the situation – “I like to be sure of my decisions. If Greg has asked me, I might have had to say “I’ll come back to you” – not because I didn’t love him, but because I like to think things through.” She further remarks that “I’ve known women who have waited years for their boyfriend to get their act together. Some are still waiting. In all other ways, they’re modern, progressive women, but when it comes to marriage, they think only the man can decide when the time is right […] Marriage is a partnership and you should be able to tell him what you want long before you say “I do”.”

Anabelle’s attitude to the modern proposal clearly reflects attitudes to modern marriage – why should we follow a tradition whose merit is to perpetuate the gender and power roles which, for most people, are undesirable and unacceptable. Greg was apparently “bowled over by the idea that his “hot woman” wanted to marry him. He jokes I stole his thunder, but it made him feel like a real catch, so he loved it really.” Here, Greg doesn’t seem to mind much that he has been “caught.”

In contrast, Lucy Ball regales us with a grim cautionary tale: she proposed to her man after six weeks. He said no – but proposed himself, two years later. The major difference between Lucy and Anabelle’s proposal is that Lucy’s was spontaneous – “I hadn’t thought of it until that moment, and was crestfallen when he didn’t immediately say yes.” This seems self-evidently unsurprising, but Lucy goes on to argue that the “first time around, I hadn’t stopped to think how Ronnie would feel about not asking me. He’d been brought up to believe that the man proposes, and I hadn’t known him well enough after six weeks to understand that. If he hadn’t had the chance, he would’ve felt he’d missed out.” For Lucy, proposal is clearly a male prerogative, a right to which she foolishly and in a highly irrational [ironically feminine?] way made claim. She continues: “Also, he asked my dad first, which I realised was a big moment for both of them […] It worked for me too. It was exciting that it was out of my control – after all, what woman doesn’t love being pursued? […] If he hadn’t done it, I never would’ve experienced that head-spinning feeling of being asked to marry the man I love.” The very feeling of being out of control of the situation fulfils Lucy’s fantasies, as agency is given to her father in the very traditional, patriarchal way.

But, the emphasis of this fantasy is on the act of being asked – and, although Lucy was clearly desperate to say yes, it is still the act of being asked to make a decision which she finds so powerful and seductive. In Anabelle’s case, her feeling of order and control would doubtless have been majorly undermined if Greg had refused her.

I think what comes out of these two tales – and I have to make a judgement myself, as Cosmo does not provide one – is that in any proposal scenario, neither party is entirely in a total position of power. This has been enabled by the fact that women are not dependent on marriage for economic livelihoods or social acceptability, and marriage itself is an equal partnership. No matter what historical gender ideology is at play within the act of proposing itself, the question is, more often than not, simply one of love – and I don’t think any woman can admit to not enjoying a bit of good old fashioned gender roles now and then, when we have the freedom to enjoy them as traditions, not fetters.

I’m equally sure that all women [well, at least the ones in my house] are “guilty” [but why should we feel guilty??] of speculatively imagining the moment in which we will become “the future Mrs so and so.” I won’t embarrass anyone by discussing myself directly here, but I will indulge you all with an anecdote. We were discussing [as you do] the order in which we would all get married. Nurse Bliss assured me most vehemently that it would be me: and furthermore, I was to eschew a traditional horse and carriage and travel to my wedding in a life-size replica Tardis. I’m confident that advertising my proposal with this suggestion will ensure no man can resist me next leap year, and I’ll accrue at least twenty Doctor-Who enthusiast fiancés.

As you may have noticed, I have cunningly overcome my lack of proposal and engagement life-experience by discussing other peoples. For my final example, let me introduce my mother. Feminism is definitely in my blood, as she proposed to my dad – and it wasn’t even a leap year!

I rang her up to ask for a reflection on the matter. Her first response was that it was yonks ago and she could hardly remember it. Her second: “to all those ladies out there with men who won’t, come up quick and pop the question before it’s too late!

She then prevaricated, denying that she’d proposed at all – it was more of a roundabout, hinting remark [at this point I can hear Cadet in the background, sounding indignant at mother’s lack of romance and/or memory]. She tells me the tradition of male proposals is “old fashioned,” “a bit ridiculous really” – “why does it matter who asks?”

Gran and Gramps were pleased, Dad was nearly thirty by then, they wanted him to get on with it!” [Dad had actually already been engaged once, but that’s another story.] “And then it was all off then! Meet the parents…” At this point Cadet interrupts in outrage that they hadn’t already met, and mother defers the phone to my father, a less reluctant story-teller.

They were staying in mum’s flat in Beckenham, when an Argentinian business associate of my father, whose name was Philip [my scribbled handwriting has unfortunately made his last name illegible], invited them to dinner in London. It transpired he had recently gotten married, and was bringing his Mexican wife over for their honeymoon.

They ate dinner at a restaurant which my father called the “Citada” or “Cicada” [mother was no hope at verifying this], and later that evening, were sat abed talking. My mother mentioned something about getting married. “I said what do you mean, and she looked at me and said, well, shall we get married then!? And well, the rest is history.”