Valentine’s Day. For some, it’s like heaven on earth – particularly for those who are experiencing the infatuation and bliss of a new relationship. But for others, frankly, Valentine’s Day is sheer hell. If you’re in a relationship, you’re eventually hit with the harsh realization that the picture-perfect Valentine’s Day – complete with flowers, chocolate, candlelight dinner, and amazing sex – is merely a commercialized illusion. If you’re single, you feel like a big loser because you’re alone. If you’re not in a relationship, or if you don’t have Big Plans for Valentine’s Day, then there must be something wrong with you.
There must be something wrong with you.
Over the years, I have learned that whenever the voices inside my head tell me there is something wrong with you, the voices are actually speaking in code. (For the record, I’m not talking about hallucinatory voices. I’m talking about the general background noise of cognitive chatter we all have going on in our heads.) Those voices are not saying what I think they’re saying. Rather, they are the collective voices of oppressive cultural attitudes that have become lodged within my psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up, or I don’t fit in, or I’m too this, or not enough that, those statements are not the truth. The reality, in contrast, is that the standards of “normalcy” and “okay-ness” in our culture are incredibly restrictive and marginalizing. If you fall outside the box, it’s not that there’s something horribly wrong with you. Maybe, instead, the box is too small and rigid.
So let’s unpack the small, rigid Valentine’s Day box in our culture. What is so oppressive about this holiday?
Let’s start with sexism. For some reason, Valentine’s Day seems to give the media license to run amok with sexist stereotypes. FoxNews.com, for example, published an article titled, “An Aphrodisiac Valentine’s Day” that included the following quote:
An all aphrodisiac dinner is bound to delight and may just turn a standard Valentine’s eve into a scorching hot love fest.As the 1960s Pillsbury TV ad boldly claimed, ‘Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven.’
The Pillsbury ad (and the catchy jingle) is a good example of 1950s traditonal, old-school sexism. Fast-forward to 2012, and we have Teleflora’s Super Bowl commercial, which insinuated that buying a woman flowers will get her into bed. Or Zales Jewelers, whose ad suggested that buying a woman expensive jewelry will . . . well, you know the rest. Respecting and empowering women doesn’t seem to be a part of the commercialized Valentine’s Day narrative.
Of course, for many years women have found ways to subvert, reclaim, and take back Valentine’s Day. Some choose to celebrate Singles Awareness Day, which, interestingly, isn’t necessarily gender-specific, but their suggestions on their website for how to spend the day are VERY gender-specific (“Why not schedule a hair and nail appointment at your favorite salon? Or consider getting a massage or other spa treatment that you have been hold off on [sic] for whatever reason?”). But others have seized the opportunity to put Valentine’s Day on notice for its inherent, embedded sexism. One of the most political examples of Valentine’s Day subversion was the establishment of “V-Day” in 1998 by Eve Ensler, a day where performances of The Vagina Monologues raise consciousness about the prevalence of violence against women. In conjunction with its 15th anniversary this year, V-Day has launched a more ambitious global campaign called One Billion Rising, an invitation to one billion women and men to “WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND” an end to violence against women.
Why am I devoting so much blog space to sexism, when I’m really supposed to be talking about LGBTQ issues? Because homophobia (and heterosexism) are tools that keep sexism in place.
Think about it. In her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr describes how she asked a group of workshop participants the following question: “What would the world be like without homophobia in it – for everyone, female and male, whatever gender identity?” These were the responses she got:
- Kids won’t be called tomboys or sissies; they’ll just be who they are, able to do what they wish.
- People will be able to love anyone, no matter what sex; the issue will simply be whether or not she/he is a good human being, compatible, and loving.
- Affection will be opened up between women and men, women and women, men and men, and it won’t be centered on sex; people won’t fear being called names if they show affection to someone who isn’t a mate or potential mate.
- If affection is opened up, then isolation will be broken down for all of us, especially for those who generally experience little physical affection, such as unmarried old people.
- Women will be able to work whatever jobs we want without being labeled masculine.
- There will be less violence if men do not feel they have to prove and assert their manhood. Their desire to dominate and control will not spill over from the personal to the level of national and international politics and the use of bigger and better weapons to control other countries.
- People will wear whatever clothes they wish, with the priority being comfort rather than the display of femininity or masculinity.
- There will be no gender roles (Pharr, 1988, p. 7).
See how much of this is about sexism? If we’re going to effectively address homophobia and heterosexism, we have to see that those forces – combined with economics and violence – converge again and again to reinforce women’s subordination and uphold patriarchy.
So what can you do this Valentine’s Day that supports and empowers women and LGBTQ people? You could participate in One Billion Rising and speak out against violence. You could engage in HIV/AIDS awareness, protecting our right to engage healthy, informed sexual activity. You could attend a marriage equality event (of which there are many scheduled on February 14th) and support all loving relationships. The possibilities are endless – and far more empowering than buying flowers. And the most powerful action you can take is to remember this: I am exactly as I should be.