Welcome to Ban Week, in which Splinter writers will build a case for burning it all down.
Let me preface this rant by saying that Cardi B is a loyal charismatic fun-as-hell boss bitch from New York and I love her. I am extremely invested in her happiness and shower her Instagram account with red hearts on the regular. Her PDA with fiance Offset warms my cold, cold heart. When she announced her engagement on IG in October—“Let’s make a lot shmoney and love together,” she wrote, flashing her left hand, looking gorgeous in a pewter dress—I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.
So the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to heart this IG announcement, nor the minute-long closeup video of her gigantic 8-karat rock, should tell you something about just how much I hate engagement rings and how much they need to be wiped off the face of the Earth.
There is stiff competition, but engagement rings might be the least progressive and most purely patriarchal element of the Wedding Industrial Complex, a monstrosity impervious to feminism and anti-materialism, an enduring display of ownership despite everyone from Lesley Gore to Janet Jackson to Rihanna insisting women are not things to be owned.
The Western engagement ring can be traced back to ancient Rome; back then, it was a simple band made of iron to symbolize an indelible contract—and a passing of property (i.e. the bride) from father to husband. The more modern origins of wedding bling are pretty depressing, too, and far more cynical. In the 1940s, when the price of diamonds was falling internationally, DeBeers came up with a strategy to increase demand: Just make every man planning to propose marriage feel obligated to purchase a diamond. Then a female copywriter invented the wildly successful slogan, “A Diamond Is Forever,” thus cementing the slowly trending practice of bestowing a diamond ring onto a would-be bride.
DeBeers controlled the supply in Africa, too—and thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kanye West, even apolitical Americans know how that turned out for Africans living in war zones. (DeBeers now says 100 percent of their diamonds are conflict-free, but the industry is still rife with loopholes. Not to mention that there are still untold numbers of older rings that’ll never be conflict-free as they get passed down to future generations.)
Decades later, three-quarters of brides wear a diamond engagement ring, according to the Jewelry Industry Research Institute, and conflict-free or not, the cost is an average of $4,000. Considering the median American salary is around $31,000 a year, that’s even more than the traditional benchmark of a month’s wages. For black Americans, it’s about two months’ salary. Even though wages have stagnated, college costs have skyrocketed, and 78 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, we still apply pressure onto American men to shell out a serious amount of money for a sexist, possibly unethically-sourced piece of jewelry whose sole use is to tell the world ostentatiously, “This woman is MINE.” That $4,000 gem is a status symbol blatantly quantifying romance, equating love and commitment with a prohibitively pricey rock.
But let’s say it’s a family heirloom or a humble little non-diamond ring found at a flea market. That’s better, I guess. It quells the grossly consumerist impulse that hangs over marriage proposals. Still, that kind of ring doesn’t negate a less obvious expression of class privilege: Getting married in America is increasingly aspirational, a luxury item for the middle class and the rich. Diamonds or not, an engagement ring flaunts your elevated social status, particularly to other single women.
Plus, that one-sided ring exchange will always be a reminder that no matter how powerful, self-assured, dominant, or take-charge a woman is, she had to wait around for a dude to “pop the question.” Forget the fact that she’ll likely end up the manager of her household, assuring that her bathroom has toilet paper and her children get to school on time—right now she has to put one of life’s most consequential decisions in a man’s hands. Engagement rings expose one of the most antiquated, hypocritical dynamics of modern marriage: Many women are now in charge of their own lives and money. So if they liked it, why didn’t they just put a ring on it? (Ugh, the “it” in that song will haunt me forever. Talk about women as objects.)
And ultimately, no matter how tasteful or meaningful, it still telegraphs to the world the same thing it did in ancient Rome: that a woman has been claimed by a man. Engagement rings may not signal ownership as literally as they used to, but it’s a tangible extension of the way we often talk about relationships: She’s “off the market,” she’s “taken,” she’s “spoken for,” and therefore not to be hit on. (Incidentally, “I’m taken” is many women’s go-to response to sleazy men, chiefly because it’s the only rejection they seem to respect.) Wedding bands, too, announce a similar sentiment, but at least they’re mutual and exchanged at the same time. In Western culture, men go incognito until the wedding; women are branded as “taken” before their vows are even uttered.
Whenever I get salty about engagement rings, people say, “Well, that’s not what it means to us; it’s a pure gesture of love and a symbol of our equal partnership.” Two people of any gender can get married now. Some couples give engagement rings to each other. Marriage is whatever you choose to make it.
Bullshit. In the age of pussy-grabbing and #MeToo, we are not nearly far enough away from the history of entitled men thinking they can control women to divorce the engagement ring from its origins—just like we’re not far enough away from the origins of the Confederate flag to recast it as an expression of Southern heritage. So get married if you must (though you should consider saving the piece of paper for someone who really needs it). But fuck engagement rings. Ban them all.
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