Here's What's Really Wrong With "Engagement Season"


Guys, apparently it is now "Engagement Season," the time between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day when marriage proposals and their aftermath light up your Facebook feed. What's that, you say? How could an act of love between two people who want to spend their lives together be constrained to just one "season"?

Oh, you beautiful fools.

I'll tell you how. It's just another step in what I am calling the "Consumer Holiday-fication of All Our Ceremonies."

Take the wretchedness that is Black Friday. Once upon a time, the day after Thanksgiving was a day off, a day for eating white bread, mayonnaise, and all the turkey and stuffing you could get to before your brother woke up. Not too long before your parents were born, it actually happened three weeks earlier, but it was a day that everyone got off, including people who worked in retail chains.

Like smoking in bars, those days are gone. Now we have a fake holiday that has become, according to the incessant advertising barrage that leads up to and follows it, much more important than the original holiday, which was about giving thanks and also reflecting a little bit on how this country used to be filled with native people and it is not now.

Anxiety-producing Black Friday ("What if I don't wake up at 3 a.m. and someone else gets 15% off of a flatscreen TV BUT I MISS THE DEAL?"), and the following Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday (not to mention whatever Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday are soon to be called) are perfect examples of the difference between a real holiday and a Consumer Holiday.

Real holidays are important parts of being human. They are ceremonies we have to remind us of things like who we are and where we come from. Of course, over time the meanings, rituals and even the dates of certain holidays change, but the intentions behind them — to  bring the community together, to create bonds and strengthen relationships — remained.

Consumer Holidays have about exactly the opposite goal. They aim to make you feel terrible about yourself so that you will buy something to fill the aching, bottomless void.

By which of course I mean: Welcome to Facebook.

Okay, let me step back. The Consumer Holiday-fication of engagements pre-dates Facebook by a pretty big margin. It began back in the 1930s, when De Beers decided they needed to sell more diamonds, and thus began a full-on marketing campaign to make Americans believe they somehow couldn't really be in love without a diamond engagement ring. Before that, the now much-coveted rock was barely a thing.

Today, men and women both are frequently overcome with anxiety over the question of the engagement ring. Men spend insane amounts of money on diamonds because they are worried they will not be adequate partners if they don't — with good reason, too, as plenty of women believe they need a ring to be happy, all because of some marketing genius out there. 

Now, with Facebook, places like ModernWedding let your friends and family do the leg work of marketing to you. (Progress, I guess...?)

Let's be honest. No one is immune from engagement season on social media. All summer and fall, it was wedding pictures of people I barely knew in high school filling up my Timeline. I guess now it's back to engagement shots, pregnant bellies and toddlers in snowsuits.

Don't get me wrong. On an individual level, I am very happy for all these people. But when all these photos are constantly being aggregated and displayed, day in, day out, the overarching message rings loud and clear: "You are a 31-year-old woman who has done literally NONE of the rites of passage stuff you should have done by now. Buy something, buy ANYTHING, to make this better."

I know social pressure is not a new thing. Just 30 years ago, social pressures were way more intense. Many gay people couldn't live openly. (Ok, some still can't.) Women still struggled to obtain certain rights. (Okay, we still do.) When my mom was a kid, she couldn't wear pants to school, and her dad told her she couldn't be a doctor.

But the intentions behind these kinds of pressures were not the same as the pressures we get from Facebook today. In a lot of ways, the outcome of these social pressures wasn't great, sure, but the intention was about community and family; keeping people in line so as to keep people together. When rigid social norms were (largely) based in love and meted out by people who actually knew each other, attitudes gradually changed as the times did. My grandpa lived to see one of his granddaughters become a doctor, and he was very proud of her.

But now, when the intention of social pressure is to make more money at a faster rate, the possibility for change is almost nonexistent. While my grandpa was deeply invested in his children, De Beers is only deeply invested in cash. Ultimately, they have no need to make the world better or try to make people happier. In fact, they have a vested interest in unhappy people. Unhappy people spend more money.

I've had a theory about Facebook ever since the company released Timeline. Here it is: The ultimate goal of Facebook is to monetize your relationships.

It isn't a crazy idea. One of the ways President Obama won re-election was through finding supporters on Facebook and then marketing directly to their undecided friends.

This approach means taking relationships that used to be personal, based on an actual shared connection, and turning them into part of a broad onslaught of messaging about what your friends are doing that's great, the subtext being how insufficient you are because you aren't doing it. Telling someone you've gotten (or are) engaged used to be a personal, intense moment. Now, it is automatically broadcast to 300 people you barely know, who are getting similar messages from 299 other people. Just another another cog in the massive social media selling machine.

So. Sigh. What are we to do about this? Don't you want to tell everyone the love of your life just promised to promise you'd be together forever? Don't you need at least 100 likes to confirm that it happened?

I mean, no one is proposing to me, but I definitely feel the allure of so much approval. (It's great to know everyone likes you!) Still, I think the answer has to be cutting things down. Remaking small communities. Sitting in a room with your family and telling them face-to-face that you're engaged.

Yes, there will be fewer blue-and-white thumbs ups and xoxoxos and <3s, but you'll get hugs, and your mom will probably cry. Honestly, that feels better.