There’s Nothing ‘Romantic’ About Public Proposals Like Colton Underwood’s

Rio de Janeiro — Aly Raisman, ginasta dos Estados Unidos, durante final em que levou medalha de ouro na disputa por equipes feminina nos Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

There’s not much that the internet likes to celebrate more than love — even more so when that love is between two celebrities. And indeed, we witnessed celebrations of multiple public proposals at the Rio Olympics over the last two weeks, whether it was American triple jumper Will Claye proposing to his fellow track and field athlete girlfriend, Queen Harrison, or Marjorie Enya asking her girlfriend, Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo to marry her. Even the questionable decision by Chinese diver Qin Kai to propose to his girlfriend, fellow diver He Zi, during her medal ceremony was widely heralded as the pinnacle of romance, with the BBC exclaiming that she had won “an even bigger prize” than her silver medal by getting engaged.

Therefore, it’s no wonder that the internet is abuzz with the news that American gymnast Aly Raisman, hot off her Olympic gold at the Rio games, has accepted a date with Oakland Raiders’ tight end Colton Underwood. People magazine had a write-up on the two, U.S. Weekly called it “sweet,” and even ESPNW posted about it. The “story” is being framed as if they have the potential to be a hot new couple, with multiple outlets noting that Raisman will be in Underwood’s neck of the woods in September, speculating that the pair will have their date next month. More specifically, the date that Underwood proposed would be a double date with married couple Andrew East, who is a fellow Raider, and gymnast Shawn Johnson. Maybe I’m the odd (wo)man out, but I’m not swooning over the news — for a multitude of reasons.

I completely understand how the gesture looks sweet on the surface. During an appearance on Yahoo! Sports, Raisman is presented with a phone where she watches a pre-recorded video of Underwood acknowledging her on her Olympic victory, saying that he “just wants to congratulate [her] on all [her] success.” He then asks her to go out with him “and Andrew and Shawn” if she is ever in San Jose. Raisman replies that he is “very cute” and says that yes, she would in fact go on a date with him.

But here’s the thing about public gestures like this: At their core, they’re not actually sweet or romantic. Romance isn’t about grand gestures or public declarations; romance is about learning what someone likes and doesn’t, and about respect for your partner, which includes giving them the space to say no or make their own decisions about what they want and desire. And so, in reality, these grand gestures are manipulative and coercive. In the same vein as public proposals, they don’t actually give the woman being asked the question a real opportunity to say no. The asking becomes a public spectacle, and that publicity puts pressure on the woman to say yes. If she says no, she risks looking uptight or like a “bitch.”

If at first glance this gesture seems romantic, it’s because this is exactly the kind of narrative we’re sold by pop culture and the world at-large as being romantic. On the big screen, we watch men try and try again, sometimes for years, to “get the girl,” whom he eventually wins over by declaring his love from the stage at a concert, or on the Jumbotron at a sporting event. Elaborate and public prom proposals are held up as examples that boys should emulate and girls should desire (and while this dynamic is often perpetuated in heterosexual relationships, it’s worth noting that queer people are not immune from internalizing these ideas of romance and therefore perpetuating the same harmful dynamics).

Rather than embodying romance, however, this is actually one of the subtle ways that rape culture manifests itself. No, Underwood is not forcing himself physically on Raisman. Therefore, it could seem like it’s a long shot to, even remotely, tie a question asked via video to sexual assault. Yet the attitude that allows men to feel entitled to these grand gestures — which at their core ultimately force a woman’s hand when she responds to them — contributes to the larger entitlement that allows for greater violations of women’s boundaries to occur.

When we romanticize these grand gestures, we’re eroding people’s foundation to consent. Whether it’s the celebration of a very public proposal of a date, or the idea of a man showing up somewhere unexpected with flowers or lavish gifts, holding these ideals up as the pinnacle of romance can have damaging consequences. What these actions really do is render the receiver unable to recognize potential red flags, obscuring the fact that a person might be dangerous — because they’ve been painted as romantic. This allows potential abusers to hide in plain sight or, even worse, have their actions celebrated by society as desirable. As Melissa McEwan writes at Shakesville:

“Part of challenging the rape culture is to ensure we have consent from anyone with whom we involve ourselves romantically, even if obliquely, even if only as a co-conspirator with someone who assures us zie has consent. There is no such thing as second-hand consent. There is only helping someone get access to another person and hoping we didn’t facilitate violence against another human, under the guise of ‘romance.’”

The other aspect of this high-profile date proposal that calls its inherent romance into question is the fact that it was an obvious publicity stunt. Even though Underwood said in an interview that he “sure wasn’t expecting it to go viral and be as public as it is,” this strikes me as incredibly naive, given the current nature of television and social media. If Underwood was genuinely interested in going out with Raisman, he could have asked his mutual friend Andrew East for an introduction — away from the public eye. And, as Raisman notes in the video “[East and Johnson] have told me about [Underwood] before,” which makes this stunt even more troubling. Obviously we can’t know the backstory, but it’s not the beyond the pale to wonder if Underwood had tried to ask her out in the past and she hadn’t wanted to go; perhaps he’d escalated things to this very public level in order to compel her to accept.

A respectful way to ask someone out is one that allows for them to say “no;” when it’s done in a way that puts them in a position to say yes, it’s not only disrespectful, but it’s not fully consensual. And if you like someone, you should want both their respect and their consent every step of the way.

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Lead image: Wikimedia

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