Engagement Rings

Engagement rings are bullshit, guys.

I don’t want to turn my half of the blog into Alison Complains About the Sexism Inherent In Wedding Culture, but for whatever reason this has come up a few times recently in real life, and I never feel like I articulate all the problems I have with them well enough, so I figured I’d try to organize everything in the written word. So, let’s give it a shot.

Disclaimer: If you have or gave an engagement ring, I am not attacking you. If you have a monstrously huge diamond that cost you or your significant other four months’ salary, I am not attacking you. I am not calling you shallow or sexist. This right here is a criticism of the culture itself. At most, I am suggesting you may have been an unwitting participant in an inherently shallow and sexist practice, but maybe not even that! I can’t speak at the individual level, obviously, all I can do is try to get everyone to take a step back and think a bit more critically about the culture we all live in.

Okay, here we go:

1. Sexism. Engagement rings are sexist. They are a big expensive thing that a man bestows upon a woman at his discretion. She waits passively and eagerly, and once she gets it she can’t wait to show it off. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this moment since she was a little girl, well before she had any man in mind who might give her one. Maybe she wants one so bad, she’s been dropping little hints to her man, and speculating with her girl friends about when and where the proposal is coming. Obviously this scenario isn’t reality for plenty of people, but it is basically the only version of events we see in media like film and TV. This is the story we tell ourselves over and over again. This is our version of what is ‘normal’.

Now, why doesn’t a man get one? Obviously because men don’t gain status from being engaged or married. It’s not a measure of a man’s worth that he’s managed to secure marital bliss. If anything, an engagement is jokingly referred to as a prison sentence for a man, but that’s a whole other can of worms. A man gets status from his career, from his ability to earn money for himself and his family. A wedding, however, is exclusively something a woman wants. And, of course, an engagement ring marks a woman as “taken”. Why bother marking a man as taken when men are the takers, after all?

The whole proposal set-up in general is designed to take autonomy away from women. Hell, men still ask a father’s permission before getting engaged-my own parents have insisted on this, and it’s just this outdated relic from when women were ultimately some man’s property, and a wedding was a transfer of ownership. If it were anything else, I’d be the ones asking my parents, but no, this is a conversation being held by two men.

You might be saying, “But the woman is being asked a question! Surely she has ALL the autonomy?” Well, yes and no. On the surface it certainly seems so, but what does she really have? Only the power to bail on everything. She has, ostensibly, no say in when the proposal occurs; all she can do is, at a time she has no control over, say yes or no. And a no is death to a relationship, isn’t it?

It occurred to me recently that this is very similar to the problems with the power dynamic of sex in a relationship as well. Traditionally, men are expected to be pursing sex at all costs, and women are the ones who have to put the kibosh on things, because heaven forbid a woman actively pursue sex and be labeled a slut. Those are the established roles, even in this day and age. So when a couple is getting hot and heavy, a woman’s subtle hints that she isn’t comfortable with what’s going on are all too likely to be ignored. Men have been told to stop when they get a clear NO, but they haven’t gotten a lot of direction other than that, and they don’t know the difference between a woman holding back so she doesn’t get a ‘reputation’ and a woman holding back because she honestly doesn’t want to go forward. So while a woman may have the power to say NO, she doesn’t necessarily have any other power, and she probably fears that saying NO will amount to saying NO to everything, not just going further. With this kind of skewed power dynamic a woman could easily feel pressured to go further in a relationship, either physically or with an engagement, simply because she fears losing what she has, not because she actually wants it. And a man might never be able to tell the difference. This is why the idea of active consent is so important (and why men whining that “feminists think everything is rape” makes me see red), and why engagements need to be restructured to be a decision that a couple comes to as a team. And I think most couples actually do do this, to some degree. But with that engagement ring, there is still this pressure to have the final word be a classic, picturesque proposal scene, where the woman is totally surprised and delighted because she had no idea, and thus no say, in when and where it occurs. Sure, surprises are nice, but isn’t having an active role in shaping your own life better? The engagement ring may have lost most of its power over a proposal, but it is still a throwback to a power dynamic we fancy we left behind decades ago.

Subclause: Engagement rings are heteronormative. You’ll notice the only kind of relationship I described is the heterosexual one, and that is because it is really really difficult to talk about how our culture feels about engagements in same sex relationships, because same sex relationships get practically NO face time in film or TV. I honestly can’t think of a good example of a same-sex proposal in the media, can you? Honestly curious here. Anyway, as with all other things that reinforce a skewed power dynamic in a relationship, engagement rings reinforce the idea that every couple has a “man” and a “woman”. Never mind if it is a same-sex couple, OBVIOUSLY there HAS to be one man and one woman, or how else could it work? Again, if you are in a relationship that actually does fit this, that’s totally cool, but the bullshit idea here is that’s the ONLY way a couple can work. And WAY too many people, including people I know, still have this idea.

2. Expensive. Engagement rings are expensive. This might be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed. Engagement rings are OBSCENELY expensive. And to tie this into Point 1, is there anything more obnoxious about consumerism than that it has managed to equate Women’s Liberation with Having Pretty Things? I submit that there is not. And, as mentioned in Point 1, getting an engagement ring is not particularly liberating.

What’s wrong with an expensive ring? What’s wrong with spending money on LOVE? Well, spending MONEY on love, that’s what. Money=love is a really really stupid idea, guys. It’s just exceptionally classist, and has basically nothing to do with whether a relationship is a good one or not. And I know, I know, we live in a capitalist society, so EVERYTHING gets equated to money, that’s just how consumerism works. But it’s just so blatant here. Maybe because I am a woman I just notice it more. I suppose it’s not so different from selling men expensive cars by equating them to power and virility, but at least nobody is saying a man with a fancy car is ACTUALLY more virile-quite the opposite, in fact, there is a running cultural joke that men are overcompensating with fancy cars. That’s obviously got issues too, but just imagine living in a world where someone saw a huge engagement ring and made a similar comment. That might actually be a nice change, but no, God forbid anybody be cynical or even practical about engagement rings because they are symbols of LOVE, and NO cost is too much. Any man who spends less than two months’ salary, or four months’, obviously doesn’t even DESERVE to be accepted.

Ugh, can we talk about how messed up it is that in a discussion of how much an engagement ring should cost, the unit of money is MONTHS OF SALARY? Ugh, it makes me sick to my stomach to think of people spending MONTHS of SALARY, especially in our current economic state. And it’s just the cherry on top of how much people are supposed to spend on the actual wedding. Are young lovers just supposed to be in debt for the first ten years of their marriage? I’m at a marrying age, and practically everyone I know is already in student loan debt, and will be for a very very long time. They are struggling like hell to get a job, and the jobs they do get are not the jobs they thought they’d be getting after four years of college and the aforementioned mountain of debt. Now we’re supposed to pile huge, unnecessary wedding fees on top of it? On the other hand, I guess if you get through that you can get through anything.

The other thing loaded into the idea of an expensive wedding ring, other than being the fiscal expression of exactly how much love is worth, is that a man is in some way proving how fit he is to support you financially. Look at this expensive ring he can afford, looks like YOU won’t ever go hungry married to him! To which I say, so the hell what? What century is this? Because last time I checked, it was the century where women were allowed to support themselves. What was the fucking point of all those years of school and higher education, of working so hard to get a job, if at the end of the day I still have to worry about being supported by a man? Was it all just supposed to keep my pretty little head occupied until a man swooped in to rescue me from it all? It is baffling to me that so many people who otherwise are totally on board with feminism still insist on thinking of women and their potential husbands in these terms. Is the connection between the two really that hard to make?

3. Immoral. Can we all agree that diamonds are creepy? I thought we had as a culture, but when engagement rings came up at lunch the other day and I started my Engagement Rings Are Bullshit argument with this, the whole table went, “OH, OOOOOH, I see, it’s about BLOOD DIAMONDS” and then half the table ignored me like I was some kind of nutjob, or maybe that my views were to adorably naive to have any real-world weight? I don’t know, but it was really irritating. Anyway, I know things have gotten a lot better in the past ten years or so, but it’s still really hard to get past the diamond’s incredibly horrific history. You have to actually do RESEARCH to get a non-creepy diamond, and if the reaction of my coworkers the other day is any indication, not a whole lot of people are bothering.

4. Hideous. Am I the only person who thinks engagement rings are hideous? Like, just on a purely aesthetic level, putting aside all the sexist, consumerist, racist bullshit they’re loaded with. Diamonds are hands-down the most BORING looking gem imaginable. I admit, they became a little more interesting when I took physics and learned about indices of refraction and how they are the toughest stuff on earth, but somehow I don’t think that’s what’s enchanting people. Everyone thinks they are pretty because they are expensive, but they’re NOT. They’re GAUDY and DULL at the same time, how is that even possible? De Beers has somehow convinced us to accept the most boring stone for engagement rings, just like Queen Victoria convinced us to accept the most boring color for wedding dresses. An engagement ring should be unique! It should be clever and meaningful to the specific couple, or bride-to-be at least, but they all look the same and it sucks. Brides have started taking back other colors for wedding dresses, and I think it’s high time we start doing the same for engagement rings as well.

I think that basically sums it up. I reserve the right to add things via very long comment, though. Will I get an engagement ring? Yeah, I probably will. That’s just the culture we live in, and I can certainly see the appeal of having an outward symbol of one’s romantic bliss. But it’ll be one I pick out, one I probably at least half finance, and it definitely won’t have a diamond. Time to start pushing the envelope, guys!

Oh, right, this is a rating blog. Um, okay, engagement rings: D+. Not completely worthless, but miles of room for improvement.



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14 responses to “Engagement Rings

  1. Sarah S

    Alison, I’ve been musing about stuff like this for what, forty years, and you have arguments here I hadn’t thought of before reading this! I have two things to say about this. a) Way to go, girl! Keep ranting and maybe people will listen. b) shoot. ;^)

  2. takinthelongway

    If my boyfriend called and asked my father’s permission … that’d be an automatic “no.” Sure, it’s “old-timey,” and plenty of otherwise cute traditions have horrifying/sexist/etc grounding. But in that case, just … no.

  3. Very cool post. My boyfriend and I just decided last night that we want to get married next year, and that we will chose to not go the traditional route of engagement. For me, it just feels wrong. And totally unnecessary. For us, spending a bunch of money on a piece of jewelry just to consider ourselves “engaged” seems ridiculous & wasteful. I would much prefer to put that money toward something practical. We will also be keeping the wedding small & simple. I feel very liberated by our choices.

    Many of the points here I hadn’t actually considered. Thanks for pointing them out.


  4. First off, I think you’re overreacting, but I see where you’re coming from.

    I never understood the whole “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” thing. They’re beautiful, sure, nice and sparkly, perfect refraction index. (I’m such a nerd.) But so are rubies, and those are a lot more expensive, why don’t the materialistic bitches like rubies instead!?

    Anyway, I’m getting off track. Diamonds don’t have to be expensive or immoral. They can be grown in a lab and are 100% identical to those found in mines. It’s relatively cheap and no blood to be seen. Though it’ll certainly put DeBeers out of business. Not that that’s a bad thing.

    But the lopsided nature of the engagement ring does confuse me. Why should girls have all the fun!? Damn it! I want to be the one to get an engagement ring! We’ll both get a ring!

    I gotta ask, what do you think of the get-down-on-one-knee tradition?

    • Alison

      I do love how lab created gems are cheaper, chemically identical AND unlike natural gems are virtually flawless. Science just turns me on like that.

      Getting down on one knee looks uncomfortable! I think I’m overwhelmingly neutral about it from the questionee’s perspective, though.

  5. Brandon

    While searching for an engagement ring for my girlfriend I came across your blog post about engagement rings. I found myself internally rolling my eyes as I read this. Then you stated that you would help finance the purchase. Rarely have I seen someone express an opinion about a topic such as this and also be willing to accept that equal treatment is a reciprocal endeavor.
    I would offer that a man asking a woman’s father for her hand in marriage has more to do with allowing a father to give approval that the man is worthy to marry his daughter. We don’t live in the 1800s and women haven’t been treated like property (in the US) for several generations. A man who asks for a woman’s hand in marriage is exactly that, a man. I think it takes a person with respect and humility to seek approval from their partner’s parents. Perhaps a better stance is, “He should ask both parents,” when possible.

    • Alison

      Congrats on your engagement! You should get to know some feminists, though, all the ones I know are aware that rights and responsibilites are two sides of the same coin.

  6. fellstorm

    My wife picked out the engagement ring that she wanted. She didn’t believe the proposal was real until I committed to buying one for her (I asked her without a ring in hand).
    I also forgot to ask her father until after he’d been invited to the wedding…
    I think my favorite argument you gave against them was that they are hideous. It took some serious searching to find one that didn’t look like the front end of a Cadillac Escalade or Twilight Sparkle’s magic tiara.

    • Alison

      Right? I feel I must be crazy sometimes, when I see dozens of obscenely expensive rings and they’re each and every one hideous, it’s nice to know it’s not just me who thinks so.

  7. ana

    Boyfriend and I decided to get married few years back and agreed to marry until I get my BFA which is this year. I didnt want an engagement ring. Dont like them, come across as marking territory, When I told a few people at school and work. The first thing they did was glance at my hand. And ask me why I didnt have one. When I replied I didnt want one. They gave this weird look like there was something wrong with me. I’m glad I found your article and that I’m not the only woman that feels that way about them. Thank you

  8. Hannah

    I’ve noticed that guys have a really hard time accepting this kind of thing. They get defensive or dismissive. Why is that?

    • Alison

      Because it’s easier for guys to dismiss women as irrational or overreacting than to accept the fact they might be benefiting from an injust social structure.

  9. Megan H

    Ahoy! This is a REALLY OLD ENTRY, but WordPress directed me to it again when you “liked” my recent blog post, and I feel like I need to throw in an additional comment …

    First of all, AGREED, duh. But here’s a thing I found kind of neat: I know two people who are getting married. He gave her a ring, then she picked one out for him, too, and paid for it. They’re matchy-ish, both claddaghs, although hers has some kind of jewel (not a diamond). They’ll get proper wedding bands when the time comes, but in the meantime, it’s less “I have spent XYZ amount of money on you, so you will give me the Sex now” than a blinking neon sign saying “ask me about the love of my life.” If there’s any implied ownership component, they belong to each other, rather than one being intrinsically subservient.

    I sort of like that symbolism. If I were getting married, I’d probably want to do something along those lines.

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