The Uncomfortable Exhibitionism Of Public Proposals

Between the broadcasting to the masses of what should be a private, intimate moment between two people, the public pressure exerted on the proposee by the proposer, and the forcible injection of the public into the affair, like an unwilling voyeur having his head forced through a velvet sash curtain he would otherwise have no desire to look through, there is an uncomfortable exhibitionism about public proposals. I have been that passerby caught up in a public proposal, thankfully just the once. But even then, once is two more times than anybody should have to endure.

It was during a time in my life when I was living and studying abroad, though I have to add that ‘studying’ is used in the loosest sense of the word. The university was hosting a fair, some annual Mayday thing that it did. In the middle of the university’s grounds there was a big stage, on which several local bands–all of whom were terrible–were playing (not at the same time), and dotted around the outskirts of thie stage were the standard stalls for food, drink, and some little activity things for the kids like face painting and that one with the ducks and the hooks. 

As it was getting closer to the evening, I noticed that the attendees of the festival, those whom had spent the several previous hours on the edges of the field milling about their day with food and beer, were beginning to walk over to the stage, and were arranging themselves in an oval sort of shape several feet away from some smaller platform directly in front of the stage. Next, a group of half a dozen or so women all wearing white dresses and barefoot made their way through the crowd, escorting some confused looking woman wearing a red jacket. A female vocalist began singing The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice. A few bars later, a male voice joined in. Evidently it was meant to be a duet, but even to my tone-deaf ear, I could tell that, one: the man wasn’t a good singer; and two: he had missed his cue and was singing one note behind where he should have been.

While I was making note of this musical anomaly, I kept my eyes on the red jacket, who herself didn’t appear to have too much of a response to the spectacle going on around her. She was quite stiff, arms down by her side, her head focussed directly ahead at the stage. I couldn’t tell if she was if she was just in deep concentration and taking in the moment, or if she was trying to keep her body and eyes from shifting to the side and seeing the mass of people staring back at her.

I wondered what was going through her mind. Did she want to run? In any case, there was no escape route if she did. The stage was to the north of her, and to the east, south, and west she was surrounded by people at least three or four rows deep. Sun Tzu had the courtesy to offer his enemies an escape route, to offer flight over fight, yet this woman was made to face her fate. The song reached its crescendo, or as close as one can come to a crescendo when sung by someone who would make a UK Eurovision act compelling. The man stepped off the stage, approached the woman, got down on one knee, said the usual spiel about soulmates and wanting to spend the rest of his life with her and all those other base sentiments about love and affection, and popped the question.

The audience was braying in anticipation. She stood there, silent, frozen. To me, it looked like she was on the verge of fainting. Instead, she raised up her hands and screamed “Yes!”. The newly-engaged kissed. The crowd cheered. Some cried. I stood on looking confused at why others would have an emotional reaction to something that had no impact on their lives. Different kinds of people, different kinds of emotional empathy.

I consider it a shame really that she did say yes. Not out of spite for people’s happiness, but because the moment was filmed and clearly the proposer was expecting the moment to go viral. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t. However, a quick glance at YouTube shows that ‘public proposal fails’ get far more views than the successful ones. In exchange for happiness, he traded visibility and ad revenue. I suppose overall he might be happy with that trade. But that in itself should be a reason to never do a public proposal: when more people are clicking a video to see someone have their world fall apart in full view of people and a camera, that ought to tell you something about the human psyche.

Of course, subverting a public proposal can have its own consequences too. There is a fountain in Rome–I don’t know its name but it has a reputation as the romantic centre of the city and an area in which many proposals are made. To showcase its popularity, I personally know three people who have proposed to their partners in front of this fountain. I also know a fourth person who took his partner of eight years on a trip to Rome. He took her to this fountain. As they were walking past, he, as he told it to me, motioned at her to stop and got down on one knee. Other tourists and members of the public stopped too, no doubt expecting another proposal. His partner stood waiting. The friend rearranged his shoelace, stood up and carried on walking. When they returned from holiday and he told this story to me, he looked pleased with himself and she looked–well, she looked less happy to put it simply. Two weeks later, she had left him, specifically citing that moment as one of many where it showed to her that he did not take the relationship seriously enough.

That’s what he gets for not bowing to social peer pressure. 

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