It’s trendy to be anti-Valentine’s Day, so I’m not going to add to the cliches by ranting about how VD is a holiday invented for the benefit of greeting card companies, florists, and candy stores. I’m not particularly a fan of the day myself and have never felt the need to recognize it. However, I am concerned about how much of the advertising for VD perpetuates extraordinarily broad and negative generalities about gender relations.
First, a disclaimer: I have no problem specifying a date on the calendar for celebrating love, whether romantic or platonic. One of the common complaints about VD is that “people should show their love all year, not just on a specific day.” I don’t disagree, but I think holidays can serve as ways to publicly or formally recognize everyday events or emotions by highlighting them on a specific date. Most of our holidays celebrate things that can have daily meaning; I am a proud US citizen every day, not just on July 4. That said, I think VD is one of the worst offenders for creating a forced sense of obligation and a shallow, sexist view of men and women. Specifically, I am concerned about the marketing of Valentine’s Day.
If you watch television or use the internet, you have seen a commercial for Valentine’s Day. Flowers, candy, and jewelry are all de rigueur if a man – that’s right, only a man – does not want to spend VD in the doghouse. For women, the receipt of flowers, candy, and jewelry means they are obligated to reward the male giver with sex. And, if receiving sex is not the implied message of the commercial, then at least not being punished by a vindictive, angry female mate is the next best message. It’s true that some of the softer-toned commercials do not imply sex or domestic peace as the rewards, and focus instead on how jewelry, in particular, is a symbol of romance, emotional intimacy, and commitment… but this is still problematic in that it portrays women as being emotionally fulfilled by shiny trinkets. So at worst, women are childlike prostitutes who will reward men with sex in exchange for stuffed toys, pretty flowers, sugary snacks, and sparkly baubles. Men, on the other hand, are whipped slaves at the mercy of sex-withholding females, and must indulge her need for VD validation or else risk her wrath.
I realize I am generalizing, but if you pay attention to the commercials you really can’t help but notice how simplistic the messages are. I really do have a problem with this, not just because the messages are potentially damaging, but also because, for once, I really don’t think that many people are falling for it. Maybe I have a soft spot on this, but I’d like to think that people who give their loved ones gifts for Valentine’s Day are doing so because they truly want to honor that intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with giving flowers and chocolates; they are the traditional gift of VD and that’s fine. But if people are doing it out of a sense of obligation or because they are afraid of being punished, then that’s the wrong reason. We are better than the commercials want us to believe. Accepting gifts from your partner does not mean you are obligated to have sex with him or her; ideally you share physical intimacy because you share emotional intimacy, and gifts are irrelevant to that relationship. Women do not have to have gifts to want to have sex with their partners. Men and women both can show they love their partners without the traditional trappings of Valentine’s Day; all they have to do is say it. The commercials are wrong.
All that being said, there are definitely people who buy into the notion that Valentine’s Day should be an enormous production, and they hold their partners to ridiculously high standards for how it should be acknowledged. If a person really believes that their partner does not love him or her because they don’t go all out for VD, then you have a larger problem than sexist advertising stereotypes. You have a problem of critical thinking and communication. Our culture does teach men and women to fill some very specific roles in romantic relationships, but with open-minded communication and critical analysis we can step above this sort of gender hegemony and redefine our roles to suit all our interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. The commercials may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean some people aren’t still fooled.
I’ll end with this: men and women both, if you want something for Valentine’s Day, then say so. Don’t say you don’t care, then get hurt when your partner believes you. Communicate. And, even if you aren’t a big fan of the holiday, if your partner is, then do something for them and make them happy. If you are a big fan of VD, but your partner isn’t, then don’t ask or expect him or her to hang the moon for you. Find the middle ground. It’s about compromise, selflessness, give and take, sacrifice, communication, honesty – the things we should do for each other every day anyway.