Friday, February 14, 2014

Love-to-Hate: Valentine's Day and Benevolent Sexism

Valentine’s Day is the most loved-to-be-hated occasion and it’s often a matter of one’s current positioning.

If you’re in love and happily in a relationship, it might be a great time to celebrate that. If you’re single and wanting to be in a relationship, or recently got out of one, it might be the crappiest reminder of something you want or something you miss.

To go into how Valentine’s Day is just another corporate concoction to sell flowers, chocolates, and cards is so obvious it barely warrants stating. We all know this and still many of us participate in the narrative, willingly or reluctantly. But isn’t Mother’s Day the same? Aren’t most holidays and occasions, with religious underpinnings or otherwise, functioning similarly? So why hate Valentine’s Day more than Christmas or any other day entrenched in the directive to spend money, stress out, and impress people?

I’ve been single on Valentine’s Day and I’ve been in relationships. I’ve been dumped just weeks before Valentine’s Day, and I’ve been blissfully happy in giddy happy relationship land on Valentine’s Day. My feelings on the silliness of showing your partner more love or attention, on a random, culturally and socially sanctioned day, have remained the same no matter what my current situation. 

Card from my friend Deanne, 2014
I admit, however, that the special feeling of having someone you love give you a gift or “take” you to dinner is pleasing, and something that few people could convincingly assert that they don’t or wouldn’t enjoy. So while Valentine’s Day may be lame and inconsequential to the grander scheme, there’s been such a movement of resistance, such a move towards hating Valentine’s Day, that those who participate may feel ashamed, and I think that’s bad too. Don’t shame people for not participating, and don’t shame those that do.

If we treat V-Day as a great opportunity to take the time to express your love and appreciation of anyone and everyone - friends, family, pets, as well as lovers - I think it can be a really positive thing. In fact, I’m doing up co-worker Valentine’s Day cards at this very moment.

That being said, the typical, codified gender politics of Valentine’s Day are bothersome, archaic, and benevolently sexist.

"Roses are red, violets are blue, you're not my cousin but I guess you'll do."
My main problem with Valentine’s Day is, like many things, it has become more about letting others know how loved you are than about how loved you feel, based on your one-on-one (or multiple on one, depending on how you experience relationships) experience with your lover. In a world of increasing and constant sharing, do I care if I get flowers, or do I care if I get to show you that I did? I write this recognizing that I’m sharing this on my blog for public consumption, and then advertising my blog through Facebook and Twitter.  I write this as a super plugged-in user of every “social media” that thus far exists, and as a person who has showcased my Valentine’s Day gifts through photos on Facebook for the last two years (although, to be fair, in 2012 I received a plush Edgar Allan Poe doll so how could I not inform the world?)

In fact, the idea for this post arose from telling my partner that I would be embarrassed if I received chocolates or flowers at work, in front of people, because however sweet and flattering that appears to be on the surface, and no matter how successfully he would be following the heteronormative masculine script by doing so, there’s no need to make our relationship, and how good or bad or commercial it may be, a spectacle for others to consume.

As a feminist, I want women to be valued and treated with respect and equality. On the surface, the idea of a day where (heterosexual) men are expected to cater to their female partners and shower them in gifts that symbolize love seems…nice. The marketing, the commercials, the way we colloquially discuss the imperative to “not screw up” Valentine’s Day reifies this expectation. It is gendered and it is heterosexist.

Yesterday, I took note of casual references to Valentine’s Day being about how the fellas better get their acts together. Advertising expects the disinterested, begrudging male to be rushing around last minute to find a bouquet for his expectant partner based not so much on the desire to please her, than on the fear of failing what he has learned he must do in order to be a good boyfriend / husband.

Snapped at Walmart 8:00 am today. These men are ON THIS.
First of all, this is not giving menfolk very much credit, as many men want to impress their female partners and have totally bought in to the societal, commercial expectation to do so. But more alarmingly, why are they expected to in the first place? Why is fake surprising your partner with flowers or being nicer than you are the other 364 days of the year something that matters, and is expected? And why does the responsibility fall mainly on men? If you don’t feel loved and appreciated with your partner on a day to day basis, that’s a problem even chocolate won’t fix.

As a heterosexual woman, I’ve never been made to feel that I have to deliver anything on Valentine’s Day. The gift giving, should it take place, within heterosexual couples is socially scripted as being the imperative of the man. Anything the woman does is often viewed as a bonus. I wasn’t socially conditioned to ask my female friends what they’re getting or doing for their male partners. I’ve often, due to my interest in giving cards and enjoyment in things typically considered sentimental or romantic, participated in the giving side of Valentine’s Day in relationships, but that gesture is socially viewed as a bonus. If I told someone casually that I took my boyfriend out to a fancy dinner, gave him a dozen roses, and a beautiful card, and then revealed that he “gave” me nothing, they would be surprised and probably judge him. Much more surprised than if the exact situation and one-sided giving was reversed.

What I dislike about the cultural script of Valentine’s day is that it’s so damn normative. All commercials focus on “him” getting the perfect gift for “her” (the same criticism is writ preposterously large in the engagement ring industry). Where do gay and lesbian couples fit in? Where does the trans or genderqueer person fit it? Why do societies and organizations – who often congratulate themselves as being open, tolerant, and supportive of sexual and gender diversity – drop the proverbial ball when it comes to these steeped-in-gender-norms occasions? Why do we continue to circulate social scripts that are outdated and have long outlived their usefulness and relevance?
Benevolent sexism is still sexism, and we need to interrogate how occasions such as Valentine’s Day promote warped gender relations.

And finally, a bonus: Here’s "A Valentine" by my main man, Edgar Allan Poe:

A Valentine

For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
Brightly expressive as the twins of Leda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that nestling lies
Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines!- they hold a treasure
Divine- a talisman- an amulet
That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure-
The words- the syllables! Do not forget
The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor
And yet there is in this no Gordian knot
Which one might not undo without a sabre,
If one could merely comprehend the plot.
Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering
Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus
Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing
Of poets, by poets- as the name is a poet's, too,
Its letters, although naturally lying
Like the knight Pinto- Mendez Ferdinando-
Still form a synonym for Truth- Cease trying!
You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do.

Edgar Allan Poe

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