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What’s the deal with Valentine’s Day?

| Friday, February 24, 2017

When facing the looming festival of love that is Valentine’s Day, men and women in the West encounter two disparate challenges. For a man, the procedure is relatively predetermined: buy roses, jewelry, and/or chocolates; write a sweet card; and deliver it in a way that is novel and sincere. A woman’s actions, on the other hand, are usually responsive to those of the man. In the absence of a clear-cut cultural program to execute, she prepares to offer an obligatory response following the successful steps taken by her suitor.

Without realizing it at the time, this situation slated itself in my own Valentine’s Day plans. My girlfriend is abroad in Athens, Greece, so our Valentine’s Day celebration was carried out by the kind folks at UPS and Apple. Through the screens of our computers, we watched each other unwrap packages and read cards. For her, a thin necklace with beads made of emerald and gold, and for me, some snap peas, various other healthy snacks and a compensatory promise. “You’ll get the rest of your gift when you come to Athens,” she said, to which I responded (to my own demise), “Is it sex?”

While I was half-joking, and while the nature of our relationship is far from centered around Eros, my mindless response couldn’t help but pass through the layers of my cultural schemata on its trail to actualization. Along the way, it diffused through the expectations installed by years of romantic comedies, sexualized advertisements and cultural norms; all of which cooperated to create a reply which earned me a sarcastic laugh and that archetypal mien of annoyance. What’s worse, it wasn’t until a class discussion later that day that I became aware of the bummock attached to what I had said.

What had honestly felt like a harmless, well-warranted response to such a vague suggestion had actually carried with it the highly-gendered expectation that feminine Valentine’s Day gifts — perhaps ‘offerings’ is a better word to use — are exchanged for sex. Without any active intention to do so, I had reinforced the highly unequal standards encountered each February by countless men and women. So why does this discrepancy satirize the so-called ‘day of love?’

The answer seems to be intricately linked to the Western ideal of reciprocal gift giving. This expectation that giving necessitates getting is intimately tethered to the spirit of most Western cultures, and throughout the past millennium, it has been commandeered and manipulated many times by a multitude of social forces, sometimes for good, and sometimes not. It is quite possible that Valentine’s Day is yet another example of this principle-pirating.

In terms of holidays, Valentine’s Day is by far the most gendered of the lot. Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving may make us think of turkeys, rabbits and reindeer, but probably not one gender more than the other. Attempts to assign a primary gender to St. Paddy’s Day, the Fourth of July or Halloween yield similar results; but when one thinks of Valentine’s Day, with all its pink hearts and red roses, it feels natural to conclude that this holiday is mainly marketed towards women.

While this is not the result by design, but rather from descent with modification, as Valentine’s Day has slowly trickled through the sediment of Western culture, it is nonetheless intentional. Generations of individual choices, made both consciously and unconsciously by those with the power and influence to shape how Western culture viewed Feb. 14, are responsible for distilling this highly gendered holiday.

Knowing that men were almost always the ones with power and influence, up until recently, we can speculate, for what it’s worth, as to why men would want to annually celebrate a highly-gendered holiday which taps into the Western ideal of reciprocal gift giving by pressuring women into returning sexual favors after receiving gender-biased material gifts from their courters.

In a culture where Bateman’s Principle is accepted as the null hypothesis for explaining sexual activity, resulting in the perception that males are competitive and promiscuous while females are choosy and celibate, and where males have most of the material power but women have a lot of physical control over their own bodies, it only seems logical that a day like Valentine’s Day would evolve into the means for men to leverage their material power over the physical control of women they are involved with or interested in.

So, when my feminist girlfriend, whom I view as my complete equal — if not my superior on many days — displayed a subtle look of vexation after hearing what my cultural schemata had deemed a perfectly acceptable response echo 5,381 miles across the Atlantic, it was because I had unknowingly rattled the sleeping giant of decades of double standards and subtle subjugation during a day that disguises itself as innocent childish chivalry under the veil of cliché greeting cards and pastel colored candies.

It is clear that, going forward, I will have to be constantly cognizant of the ways that my cultural bifocals distort the world I see — or rather, make the distorted world seem crystal clear — if I’m going to isolate what Valentine’s Day is from what it isn’t. While I’ll never be able to fully remove these constricting goggles, I can learn to understand how they bias my perception and disfigure the truth, and through persistent practice I can hope that, in a year, I will be able to see Valentine’s Day as a celebration of equality and Philia, not a cultural contract of coercive contact.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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