By Amy Guth
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are engaged, and blog posts and tweets are doing the virtual equivalent of gathering around the newly engaged couple to get a glimpse of — what else? — the ring.
At the admitted risk of sharing a highly unpopular opinion and the backlash that’s sure to follow, it’s time to rethink our attachment to engagement rings, this last bastion of dowry and bridewealth culture in the west, especially when presented by a man as a token to a woman.
DeBeers unveiled their “a diamond is forever” slogan in 1947 to solidify the notion that the rock on an engagement ring was somehow symbolic of the durability of the marriage between the ring’s giver and receiver. But the origins of the engagement ring can be traced to ancient Rome, when betrothal rings were presented and worn on the left hand’s ring finger, in which a vein, the vena amoris, was believed to begin and run straight to the wearer’s heart. Later, in 1477, Archduke Maximillian of Austria presented Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring, which allegedly secured her hand in marriage over a competing suitor, and set the style and bar for western engagements since.
History aside, modern culture does a fine job of socializing us early on, training us to believe we should want and aspire to be the kind of woman a man selects and validates with his proposal, that the ultimate “proof” of being enough-ness as a woman is to be presented with this iconic, expensive bauble by a man, and the ultimate victory is that the diamond is a big one.
While the engagement ring’s role may have morphed into something seemingly innocuous, it behooves us to be clear about what rings really represent: a downpayment. Specifically, a downpayment on intimate access to a woman, rooted in the act of securing an heir to privilege and property.
Which is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that there’s very little romance underscoring this act that we’ve idolized as the ultimate in #RelationshipGoals. Not to mention it fails to recognize that women, too, are sexual and cognitive creatures, just as men, with desire and preferences, with, of course, opinions and hopes. This notion speaks to a social determination that leaves the ultimate partner choosing (i.e. presenting of the ring) to men, ostensibly following a cultural cue that the decision to enter into a lifetime of togetherness is about his wants, his preferences, his desires, his hopes, which are given far more import than hers.
Beyond the ring itself, so too has our hyper-consumerist culture adopted expectations around the presentation of the ring itself. Technically, when two people agree to marry, they move into the space of engagement; the ring is, or at least should be, but a gift, if used at all. But, the shift which has occurred has created an expectation of verbal agreement to marry, the formality of “ring shopping” during which time the wearer shares expectations and preferences, then, at some later time, the proposal will take place and the ring will be presented. Dowry or bridewealth holdover aside, what’s romantic and surprising about that much planning and orchestration? Wouldn’t a private, heartfelt conversation be more romantic than a knew-it-was-coming-but-didn’t-know-when carefully planned production centering about the presentation of a ring?
To be sure, jewelry is pretty, and sparkly, and receiving a beautiful gift from a loved can be downright lovely. But, diamonds are still an over $70 billion industry mired in human rights issues, which consumers may seem hesitant to completely boycott, or at least, willing to occasionally overlook in the name of tradition. But, even beyond the ethical considerations associated with the diamond, the ring itself still remains a symbol of extremely defined gender roles: I will give you this ring, and you will be mine.
Not only is the engagement ring potentially a holdover from a time in which marriages were about property exchange, but the rings and their presentations also enforce a consumer-culture mindset that the ring, and its presentation, play a key role in a love story. Focus is hardly on the new chapter, but on the ring; hardly on the marriage, but on the wedding and whether or not it incorporated all the latest ideas from Pinterest.
In a time in which the spirit of revolution is in the air around gender roles, workplace discrimination, and street harassment, it’s also a good time to reexamine our traditions, even sparkly and pretty ones that may have become synonymous with romance, and gut-check our way through them. Indeed, often long-held traditions quietly uphold the very structures we aim to topple.
And while, culturally, we have perhaps allowed the bended-knee presentation of engagement rings to become synonymous with true love and with being treasured, it’s time we stood on equal footing with our beloveds, face to face, and agreed to do this life together as partners.