[Trigger warning for coercion.]
When I think of romance, I picture thoughtful gifts, candlelit dinners, and two (or more) partners forgetting their cares as they simply enjoy the company of one another. Romance is a wonderful thing, for those interested in participating. However, more and more, I'm becoming aware of how the word has been co-opted by the patriarchy and used against women in disturbing ways.
Liss' post, "Your underdog lovelorn romantic may be my rapist," has certainly demonstrated this in several ways. The celebration and excitement over grand romantic gestures can be, and sometimes is, exploited by a cunning stalker to gain access to someone. People like that security guard can be talked into doing something unsafe – even contrary to their very job descriptions – for the sake of romance because we love these gestures so much and especially love it when we can participate.
In this post, I want to address the removal of women's agency inherent to public romantic acts, specifically in Western heterosexual relationships, where this trend is most visible by virtue of media attention that both encourages and rewards "fairy tale" romances.
Most of the straight married men most of us know will have "popped the question" to their girlfriends to become engaged. I've sat at many a table, usually during wedding receptions, listening to women take turns telling their stories about how their fiancés/husbands proposed. This paradigm irks me to no end, and doubtless it irks some of you.
Despite being one half of a couple, women are not presumed to have an equal say in when they should become engaged, which reinforces the patriarchy's disdain for women having control over their own lives. Consequently, we have scenarios in which women wait and wait and wait for their boyfriends to propose, they give their boyfriends a deadline or ultimatum, and/or men feel immense pressure to plan something spectacular and elaborate. They can't just discuss the matter rationally and make a decision together because then
Public proposals are even worse, and this was touched on a few times in the post and comments section of the above-linked "lovelorn romantic." In private, though it would be a very hard conversation to have, she can say no. In public – is that even a realistic option? Here, a woman not only does not get to decide on when or how it happens, but she doesn't even get to decide how to answer. Not really. Not free of the obligation to give the "fairy tale" its happy ending. Naturally, public proposals are considered far more romantic than private ones and invoke more excitement and story sharing.
Finally, we have la pièce de résistance and the main reason for this guest post: The surprise wedding. It is the first time I've ever heard of such a thing, but it was the natural consequence of the way men making important decisions for a couple has been celebrated as romantic.
This is a life-changing event in their lives in a more immediate way than an engagement date is. Everyone who was invited, and everyone who saw the website planning the event, participated in this romantic conspiracy: Literally hundreds of people withheld information from this woman pertinent to the rest of her life, apparently without thinking that she should be part of this decision and that he does not automatically speak for the both of them.
According to the news article, they had previously talked about marriage and he knew what she wanted regarding details of the wedding. We are supposed to regard his planning their entire wedding without her active input as romantic and enviable, but it plays into the trope of a woman's commitment being a reward for good behaviour, a trophy earned by Romantic Guys whose efforts entitle them to coupledom.
Even though they were already in a relationship; even though she told him what dress she wanted; even though she seems happy about the whole thing, he tricked her into showing up to a wedding into which the overwhelming pressure to marry him right then and there would have made saying no to the event difficult, and there's no way around that. A woman can want to marry a man but not want to do it like that, under the duress of matrimonial shock and awe.
If they had agreed to have children someday and then he decided to secretly sabotage their birth control so that he could surprise her with the pregnancy, we would be outraged. Apparently, if we gave reproductive coercion a better euphemism it would be applauded.
Not only does this version of romance allow stalkers or rapists to recruit unwitting co-conspirators, it clearly also entrances us into cheering on a man subverting a woman's agency in important decisions about her life.