By Mimi Tarrant
Exclusions May Apply
How our modern culture’s obsession with commercialization curtail inclusivity on Valentine’s Day
By MIMI TARRANT
As the month of February begins, so does the build-up to one of the most secretly controversial days of the year: Valentine’s Day. Revered by some and dreaded by others, Valentine’s Day continues to split opinion. Both its origin and continued celebration can draw divided opinions. The history of Valentine’s Day remains unclear—some sources link the day to Lupercalia in the Roman era, where women would be whipped and paired off with men in the name of fertility. Nevertheless, the modern representation of February 14 holds more pressing issues than its historical context. The problematic commercialization of Valentine’s Day leverages the argument for reducing this supposed holiday’s prominence in our westernized culture.
As February 14 approaches, it is impossible to avoid its clutches. Pink and red colors swathe the shelves of stores in Harvard Square, such as CVS and beyond, with ‘Gifts for Him’ and ‘Gifts for Her’ signs seeming to separate different parts of their Valentine’s Day sections. This marketing strategy has prevailed, likely due to its measurable financial success; projected spending for Valentine’s Day in 2020 is $196.31 per person, an increase of over 20% from last year.
This marketing strategy, however, poses two problems. First, it accentuates the seemingly normative understanding of gender, where it is assumed that gender is dimorphic. The separation of gender identities into ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ acts against all the work done in recent years to help assimilate all gender identities into our everyday life, to cultivate an accepting, inclusive culture. Displays representing only two gendered categories suggest a mutual exclusivity in gendered interests regarding Valentine’s Day gifts that spreads far beyond the reaches of a storefront. Second, the very act of gendering gifts helps to reimpose the gender expectations that give rise to such gender-dimorphic views. That is to say, who decides what gift goes into the ‘Gifts for Him’ section, versus the ‘Gifts for Her’ section; is the presence of a gift in the male-identifying section a sign that such a gift is not appropriate for someone who identifies as female? Say a female-identifying individual in fact would want a gift from the ‘Gifts for Him’ section—does this then give cause to question their gender? From this we can see that the commercialization of Valentine’s Day acts to enforce gender roles that our society has been working so hard in previous years to deconstruct.
Valentine’s Day raises issues with how it handles heteronormativity and male dominance. It is rare to see advertisements for Valentine’s Day that prioritize the inclusion of all sexual orientations, with the most prominent and popular displayal of ‘love’ only being one of between a male and a female. Something as simple as finding a Valentine’s Day card that depicts LGBTQ+ couples is difficult, while the aforementioned gendered advertisements can marginalize such minority groups. In this way, Valentine’s Day emphasizes heteronormative standards deeply rooted in our culture. The origins of Valentine’s Day, and stereotypical modern day depictions of acceptable Valentine’s Day activities, prove problematic in an era where we are striving towards gender equality. How can we demand for the equality of genders in all areas of life, but still hold the gendered views that the role of males is to shower their (assumed) female partner in flowers and kind gifts on February 14? This is shown by the projected spending data for Valentine’s Day this year, where women are only expected to be paying $106.22, compared to men spending an average of $291.15. This hypocrisy creates issues for those that work to help bridge the gap in gender divides and inequalities, as it isn’t possible to have the best of both worlds in terms of gender equality.
While these issues pertain to our society as a whole, these problems also exist closer to home, with Harvard actively helping to promote the celebration of this potentially alienating holiday. Various school-run initiatives such as ‘Datamatch’ and House-specific versions of Bumble and Tinder (for example, the aptly named ‘Thrumble’ for Winthrop house) encourage students to match up with one another in honor of the love-inspired day. Even a Harvard professor, Andrew Berry, decided to give his students the day off from OEB 53 this year on Valentine’s Day, justifying doing so by saying that his students needed all the help that they could get. Yet this proliferation of ways for students to match up with one another creates problems that go unraised by the student body. Yet again, the systems for matching are set up in favor of heterosexual relationships, with very little opportunity for alternative sexualities to be supported. Second, it can create a perception of pressure on the student body to find the ‘one,’ or at least to be in pursuit of some form of sexualized relationship. There are various reasons why students may not wish to actively pursue a sexual relationship while on Harvard’s campus, and while it may be true that some Harvard students may desire extra help in meeting others other students, the methods are not necessarily the most conducive to building healthy relationships. By creating unrealistic expectations around Valentine’s Day for students, the love-themed initiatives may alienate those for whom the system fails to be flexible enough for, while also misleading students who are potentially looking for some form of meaningful relationship.
Therefore, it’s important to think twice before endlessly engaging in all the festivities surrounding February 14. By no means is this a call to completely abandon Valentine’s Day and all it represents, but this day appears to isolate, alienate and demean in ways that are simply swept aside by our extreme commercialization of this holiday. Some argue that the principles of love and affection that supposedly underpin this day should be sustained as a year-long ambition. Why is it only on this somewhat random day in February that you should buy expensive gifts for your significant other or pay for a nicer-than-average meal out? Instead, it seems more intuitive that the promotion of appreciative and loving relationships should be the norm, not the exception held explicitly for February 14.
Mimi Tarrant ‘21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) hates to admit that, even after writing this article, she is still holding to societal pressures by keeping her table reservation for the night of February 14 in an above-average restaurant in the Square.