Is Valentine’s Day The Most Anti-Feminist Holiday Ever?

Nothing says “I love you” like Victorian ideals of kept women and the powerful men who keep them.

Hanging on a bulletin board across from where I’m sitting in a cafe is a flier announcing a workshop on divorce recovery. The flier is awkwardly bookended by two other ads: one for a Valentine’s Day massage deal for couples (just $75), another for a Valentine’s Day concert.

Whatever the reason for this arrangement, it’s made it next to impossible for me to swallow back the dyspeptic contempt I feel for Valentine’s Day.

Grocery stores, pharmacies, and Hallmark stores have been awash for weeks with the harbinger’s of Valentine’s Day, most notably the unavoidable heart-shaped boxes of candy. During one recent grocery shopping trip, I couldn’t help noticing how, underneath the clinical glow of department store lights, those red cellophane-wrapped boxes looked leached of any vibrancy, appearing more like a jaundiced fuchsia than romantic red.

Nothing says “I love you” like gifts wrapped in anemic colors.

These uninspired gifts are a fitting complement to the pre-fab sentiments found in the Valentine’s Day cards an aisle over.

“There’s nothing better than a kiss from you.”
“When I’m with you, all my dreams come true.”
“I love you for some many reasons.”
“Every day you’re in my thoughts. Every night you’re in my dreams.”

Is this it? Really? How did neutered admissions and free market mediocrity become so integral to personal affection?

I stop to consider these representations of manufactured emotion and can’t help but contrast it with other accounts of passion I’ve read about. Vita Sackville-West describing the voraciousness of her desire for Virginia Woolf, how she is “reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.” The descriptions Audre Lorde offered in her autobiography of her physical relationships with Bea and Eudora. The actress Fiona Shaw, when discussing the poetry of John Donne in a documentary I watched recently, reminding us that “love is the big chaos that every person has to unleash on another.”

How did we go from love as this ravenous, combustible force of nature to today’s offering of a love that has all the savoriness of cardboard?

Because here’s the truth: Valentine’s Day isn’t about celebrating love.

On the contrary, Valentine’s Day is a national holiday of forgiveness for male self-centeredness. It’s a celebration of mechanical, bland heteronormativity; of men being permitted to make up for the other 364 days of the year that they act like emotional eunuchs toward their wives or girlfriends. A holiday perfectly fit for men who think affection is tantamount to the in-between dialogue scenes of porno videos in the ’80s.

And the women involved in these types of relationships with men are taught that the discontent they endure is somehow all worth it in the end if he surprises you with dinner and a nice gift or two on Valentine’s Day. Somehow, this is supposed to make up for a year of emotional radio silence.

The ritual action of essentially buying off a partner’s silence on Valentine’s Day as a positive sign of affection buttresses the horrible socialization of men that teaches them to not openly express their emotions, but rather demonstrate them—as subtly as you can—with actions. The value of these actions on a day like Valentine’s Day are often equated with the amount of capital a man is able to allot to them.

While that’s a sad state for men to be in, Valentine’s Day doesn’t do much better by their female partners. It really says something about how much further we as a society have to go in terms of dismantling traditional constructs of gender when women are still taught that Valentine’s Day should be the most important holiday to them.

This might not be as problematic for women if it weren’t for the fact that men wield more economic power than women. Regardless of what study you prefer to cite, evidence clearly points to a gender pay gap that puts women at an economic disadvantage. A holiday like Valentine’s Day serves as a frustrating reminder that, hey ladies, you don’t need to earn as much as men so long as you pair up with a man who has enough capital to spend on you.

Nothing says “I love you” like Victorian ideals of kept women and the powerful men who keep them.

Speaking of starchy Victorian ideals, the compulsive heteronormativity of Valentine’s Day obscures any visibility of queer and poly relationships. Even while the United States seems headed toward federal legalization of same-sex marriage, that recognition hasn’t been granted freely. Moreover, only 11% of Americans were in favor of poly relationships.

Given these disparities in social and legal acceptance, not only does Valentine’s Day reinforce the capitalist antagonism of patriarchal beliefs, but now it doubles as National Hetero Relationship Day.

The oppressive class and gender traditions celebrated on Valentine’s Day also illuminate how the holiday privileges white people in relationships over non-white people. Without getting into how historical economic disenfranchisement of people of color in the United States continues to contribute to racial income disparity, let’s simply focus on the fact that white people currently earn on average much more than Blacks and Latinos. When the ability to participate in a holiday like Valentine’s Day depends so much on a person’s financial flexibility, such occasions automatically exclude those whose finances are limited.

So after all of this, is Valentine’s Day really the most anti-feminist holiday ever? Depends on who you ask, and it’s certainly not unique in its problems. You could make similar arguments to many of the widely observed holidays in the United States and elsewhere.

But even if you want to argue that the modern interpretation of Valentine’s Day is somehow less offensive than other holidays, I personally still can’t suspend the cultural problems with it in order to mindlessly enjoy subpar chocolate and make reservations for a cramped table for two in some fancy restaurant (if I could even afford to do such things). Really, I can’t imagine a more loveless activity.

On a holiday that focuses on interpersonal development, I will concede this much: No other holiday reminds me of the feminist principle that “the personal is political” quite like Valentine’s Day does.

Drew Bowling is a soon-to-be social worker who writes about gender, race, and other intersecting issues. His writing has appeared on Role Reboot, Everyday Feminism, the Good Men Project, as well as at his oft-neglected but much-adored blog, Reading Without MenTwitter is also a thing he does.

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