I grew up with some funny ideas about proposals. As a fan of Sleeping Beauty, I was horrified to learn that my parents hadn’t got around to making sure I was betrothed to someone at birth. Making someone love me sounded an awful lot like hard work and my steady diet of animated fairytales seemed to confirm that being chosen by a man was the ultimate goal. I dreamed of fireworks, an orchestra, a grand ball and a lantern-jawed fellow bending before his many subjects to ask for my hand as I reached the bottom of a sweeping staircase. What if someone told me they wanted to marry me in a location where there was no staircase for me to descend from? To this day, I get a bit panicky whenever I’m in a bungalow.
Happily, by the time I’d reached my twenties I was slowly starting to realise that I didn’t need a man to publicly endorse me in order to approve of myself. My old fantasy – a huge, public proposal, featuring songs and dances and friendly villagers – became my worst nightmare. I started to think that if the person who professed to love you needed to perform that love in front of an audience, maybe their need for attention was bigger than their need to be with you.
Chinese silver medallist He Zi was just on the receiving end of a very public proposal. Immediately after she received her medal, her boyfriend, Qin Kai, got on one knee and asked her to marry him, in front of a stadium full of sports fans, a bank of TV cameras and a global audience. She said, "Yes." But then, how can you say "no" if you know the exchange is being broadcast to billions of people?
When your proposal goes public, it’s not just your partner who wants a 'yes' – it’s the whole, watching world. In a worst-case scenario, it’s a way to rob women of their autonomy
For all we know, He Zi had told her fiancé that this was exactly how she dreamed of being asked. But, from where I’m standing, I see a woman at the peak of her professional powers, getting celebrated and recognised for achieving something spectacular – and then I see a man rushing in, blocking her light and forcing the focus back to him. It’s as if he’s saying, “Now that you’ve claimed your prize, I am claiming mine – it’s you!” He Zi will not be remembered as a brilliant Olympian, but as the medallist who is going to get married. I’d put money on the fact that interviewers will ask her about wedding planning before they ask her about future Olympic goals. And I don’t think they’ll do that to Qin Kai.
We’ve seen another public proposal earlier in the Games. Rugby player Isadora Cerullo was proposed to by her girlfriend, stadium manager Marjorie Enya. It might seem hypocritical to criticise Kai and not Enya, but while I’m not sure I’d personally want an on-pitch proposal, Enya didn’t hijack Cerullo’s moment in the spotlight when she was, effectively, at work. She didn’t take advantage of the fact that everyone was looking at Cerullo, in order to ensure all eyes are on her. And, while no one should feel obliged to politicise their relationship, I found it powerful that Enya and Cerullo were making a significant statement about LGBT rights, allowing the world to share in the joy when there are gay viewers and participants who can’t get married in their own countries. As a heterosexual man, Kai doesn’t need to hijack public spaces to make a point – he’s already welcome in most of them.
Thank you for signing up to The Pool
I’m sure that asking someone to marry you feels serious and scary, even when you’re pretty sure of the answer. I think the heteronormative tradition we have, in which men ask and women wait to be asked, is unfair to both genders and puts pressure on each in a different way. Also, I understand that most of the men who plan elaborate public proposals probably do so with the best of intentions. They want a moment that is romantic and memorable, and perhaps they feel that they need to put in a level of effort that reflects the significance of the question. But I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that, potentially, there is a dark side to it. When your proposal goes public, it’s not just your partner who wants a "yes" – it’s the whole, watching world. If your answer is "no", or "not sure", it’s much more difficult to leave the relationship when it’s on everyone’s radar. If your partner uses the public to make you feel obliged to do what they want when you have misgivings, what else might they be capable of? In a worst-case scenario, it’s a way to rob women of their autonomy.
When it comes to weddings and marriage, our hopes, dreams and ideas are often based on an odd mix of love and logic. I have no doubt that some people think Zi and Qin are the most romantic couple in the world, and they have dropped unsubtle hints that they would like their partner to ask for their hand by organising a TV crew, then hiring the whole of the ExCel centre and filling it with dancers dressed as bears. Truly, I wish Zi and Qin a long, lovely life together filled with happiness. But I hope we call all remember that this weekend wasn’t about Zi getting her happy ever after, but about achieving something incredible on her professional journey – as women rarely get the attention we deserve for brilliant work, and we often find ourselves sidelined as accessories to men. This can’t happen any more. To paraphrase Aladdin’s princess Jasmine, we win prizes – we are not prizes to be won.