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Why men pop the question

By Kay S. Hymowitz, Special to CNN
  • Kay S. Hymowitz says across the nation men will be proposing on Valentine's Day
  • In a culture that seeks gender equality, she asks, isn't it odd that this ritual persists?
  • Hymowitz says it represents the reassertion, however brief, of repressed gender roles
  • Hymowitz: Proposal lets men show they're thoughtful, loving, sincere, good potential mates
  • Romance
  • Relationships
  • Marriage
  • Weddings

Editor's note: Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal, where she writes extensively on American childhood, family and culture. Her forthcoming book is "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys."

(CNN) -- It's Valentine's Day and a good time to ponder one of our country's more mysterious customs: the marriage proposal.

This evening all over the country young dudes will pry off their Mets or Giants hats, pat down their hair, fall on bended knee and gaze up adoringly at the treadmill-enhanced lawyers or surgeons or account executives they have been sharing morning breath with for the last few years to ask, "Will you marry me?"

Women, in turn, will gasp, tears will well up in their bright eyes, and, in most cases, it seems, they will say yes.

It's odd, isn't it, the persistence of such an archaic and, as the women's studies professor would say, gendered ritual? In the post-feminist world, women can propose a dinner date, a raise or a hookup. They can suggest making child care 50/50, an IPO plan or a threesome. But they can never propose marriage. Ever. Unlike line repair, truck driving, running the House of Representatives or the State Department, question popping remains a man's job.

To be sure, in matters of marriage proposals, as in war, there are strategies short of a direct attack. Some women hint, some just look sad for a really long time. Some give ultimatums, though there's such a thing as going too far. A report on told of a Chicago woman threatening her boyfriend that if he didn't propose, she would call 911 to say he was attacking her. She made good on her threat, though she remains single.

Why does the way of proposal continue to matter? The proposal temporarily reasserts instinctive sex roles in our egalitarian, hyper-civilized age. In their daily lives, young men and women live androgynously, even competitively. The knowledge economy workplace is now filled with offices where women are on top. They manage companies and run meetings while male secretaries take notes and maybe even fetch coffee.

But there comes a time when even the most stubbornly unisex brain rebels. That's when males must pursue and female play coy just like their less evolved animal relatives do. In that felicitous Freudian phrase, then, the proposal is "the return of the repressed."

Darwin also helps explain why the proposal is no longer just a private, intimate moment between a man and woman, (and, for the stalwart traditional, the father of the bride-to-be.) It has swelled into a major production to be funded, produced, directed and created by the young dude.

Don't think you can get away with a white tablecloth dinner with the ring-embedded chocolate mousse. Forget about the cheesy JumboTron at Yankee Stadium. Some websites even dismiss skywriting -- "Will you marry me, Megan?" (or Samantha or Jessica) -- as a clichéd no-no. A man in love, it seems, must impress the female with his vigor and startling display, like the peacock strutting before a lady hen.

And as in animal kingdom courtship, so in the human proposal, size matters. Disneyfied mega-proposals now clutter YouTube. These productions often include choruses, dancers, original choreography and musicians.

They always culminate in the suitor's knee bending, question popping, and the damsel's (feigned?) surprise. If you have any doubt that some unconscious force is at work here, watch the women in these videos. They always -- always -- gasp and then bring their hands to their open mouths in an unlikely exhibit of female modesty from the spring-break-at-Daytona-Beach generation.

Men who prefer a more intimate approach still must find a way to demonstrate wit and intelligence, qualities that are also good predictors of success in today's world. One author who achieved brief internet fame proposed to his girlfriend by asking for her hand in the preface of his latest book. It was a cunning trick, simultaneously showing off his impressive status for his beloved and letting him find out whether she actually reads his stuff.

A young man of my acquaintance staged an elaborate scavenger hunt involving a movie theater, strangers bearing instructions, airline tickets and several flights before he greeted his exhausted girlfriend with a ring at a Puerto Rican resort.

Some readers will doubtless rue the tired gender rules and status displays that define the contemporary proposal. But growing up in a culture whose idea of asking for a date is a midnight text message asking "u free?" a young man doesn't face many opportunities to demonstrate manly initiative in the romance department.

The proposal provides a ritual forcing him to show that he is thoughtful, capable, loving and sincere. In other words, that he will be a good husband and father.

And willing to accept his wife's proposal that he fold the laundry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kay S. Hymowitz.