Can our economic collapse cause more questions about sexist traditions?
Here’s a piece that really benefits from being well-timed: “Two Months’ Salary” by Lee Gainer. The concept is simple but pretty profound, in that it challenges a genuine sacred cow of our culture—the engagement ring—by showing a depressing display of what two months’ salary of various professions can buy when it comes to marking your newly acquired female property. The message of the piece will resonate more now than it would have a year ago, and not because the nation has had a feminist awakening that allows people the intellectual and emotional space to think critically about wedding customs. It’s the “two months’ salary” thing, an invention by DeBeers to expedite the channeling of money from people who work for every penny up the chain into the pockets of the owners of DeBeers. Now we’re in a depression and thrift is already seeing a resurgence in popularity, and folks are more attuned to the obscenity of dropping that kind of money on a diamond ring, instead of saving it, or spending on something that’s more of an investment in your future. (Though I suppose that an extravagant gift like that creates a debt that the giver might consider an investment.) Could the economic realization lead to a more feminist understanding of the problems of the engagement ring? I think it’s possible.
As Conor Friedersdorf once wrote:
In a way, it’s bizarre that women given engagement rings don’t respond by saying something like, “I’d love to marry you.” (Beat.) “And thank you so much for this ring. (Eyes welling up.) I cherish the thought behind it, and I’ll keep it forever if you’d like. (Happy tears.) On the other hand, we could take it back and use the money to spend several months together in coastal Italy.
Or couples (of any gender) could mutually decide to mark their engagement with an affordable weekend holiday, or the mutual exchange of meaningful gifts, and then call their friends and family to “make it official.” In a time of recession, the “two months’ salary” tradition just makes less and less sense.
It’s unsurprising that Conor felt the need to couch his critique in ridiculous, insulting romantic imagery, because that reassures the audience that he’s questioning the value of the ring, not the value of romance itself. Which is to say, he wants it to be clear he’s not questioning the patriarchal implications, just the financial ones—the role of the woman is still passivity, and she still has the job of being the person who runs everything while also being way too emotional to be taken seriously as the person who makes the final decision. The whole fiction of romance is a way to claim that erotic love cannot be separated from oppressive gender norms, and therefore questioning romantic traditions that turn women into chattel feels way too much like questioning love itself, and no one wants to be that asshole. Well, except me. I’ll be that asshole.
Why is the engagement ring so popular? I’m sure that people who filter everything through an anti-capitalist lens will say that advertisers convinced us it was, and so it became that. And really, there’s a lot of truth to that—if you put something up as a status symbol, people will baa and run after it, no matter how ridiculous it seems if you take a step back for a moment. It’s relevant to me that the engagement ring rose in popularity as America became more urbanized. Think about it: For rural and small town people, people already know who you’re marrying and what he does for a living and where he falls in the pecking order. For urban people, the engagement ring substitutes for having that knowledge. It does so in stark terms that are hard to misrepresent—size (of the diamond) is everything. Form follows function faithfully in engagement rings.
The other reason engagement rings are popular is that they have goodies for everyone involved in the giant waste of money. For men, it’s obvious that marking someone with a symbol of your status is a pretty blunt way of saying that now her esteem and status depends on you, which has got to feel powerful. For women, you get to have other women enact what is actually a form of professional jealousy. Women are socialized from the crib to be man-pleasers, and if you please a man well enough that he picks you to leave the wretched swarm of unpicked single women, then you did a good job. Therefore your colleagues in the profession of man-pleasing are going to do what colleagues have always done when one of their own makes good—congratulate them, often fawningly, while seething with jealousy.
Trips to Italy where you have nothing to do but enjoy the culture and each other’s company pales in comparison to this for many, many people.
And really, if you start questioning the engagement ring, questioning other traditions is close behind. And then you end up questioning the value of the institution of marriage itself, and start asking if an institution that was set up more to oppress women than celebrate love is something that can be salvaged. That sort of questioning makes people nervous, so even starting down the road by saying, “The engagement ring is like stamping your butt with your loyalty to the capitalist patriarchy,” and people are going to think you’re straight on the road to hell. But fuck ’em. The trip to Italy would be a lot more fun.