Reclaiming Valentine’s Day

I have hated Valentine’s Day since long before I had even heard of feminism.

My elementary school years were not especially happy ones. I was not popular and, for a couple of years, was subjected to some pretty serious bullying (not that there was a label for it yet).

Valentine’s Day was a particularly difficult occasion for me. This was before the era of “fairness;” teachers did not send home class lists and instruct parents to have their children send Valentine’s Day cards to every student or to none. As a result, I was one of those kids who only got a couple of cards on February 14 each year, and I developed a strong dislike for the occasion that lasts to this day.

First, beat the women

There are several stories about the origins of Valentine’s Day. The pre-Roman feast of Lupercalia was celebrated between what is now February 13 and 15, during which time there were animal sacrifices, after which men whipped women with the hides of the sacrificed animals. Women lined up to be whipped, apparently with the understanding that this would increase their fertility. No real romance to be found there.

During the third century, the Roman Emperor Claudius twice executed men, both named Valentine, on February 14th. The Catholic church celebrated their martyrdom as St. Valentine’s Day. Still nothing very romantic about February 14th.

Various other muddlings of pagan and Catholic mid-February celebrations continued over the ensuing centuries, with Valentine’s Day gradually taking on a somewhat more romantic tone in Europe than its early iterations had, helped along the way by the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

By the middle ages, handmade cards became popular and, with the industrial revolution of the 19th century, commercially made cards arrived on the scene. Hallmark began the mass production of cards in 1913, and there has been no looking back since.

Ka-ching, ka-ching!

Canadians outspend Americans on Valentine’s Day: $164 compared to $136, per person.  Valentine’s Day sits in the middle of celebration spending in North America. More is spent on, of course December holidays, as well as Easter and Mother’s Day, but less is spent on Hallowe’en and Father’s Day.

More than 12 million dozen roses are imported to Canada for the occasion, with florists doubling (or more) their usual price. Other hot-ticket items include cards, candy and jewellery.

Benevolent sexism?

As Valentine’s Day became increasingly commercialized, it also headed in a decidedly sexist and heterosexist direction. Even in recent years, advertising excludes those who do not fit a nuclear, heteronormative image of romance and love. And, in those heterosexual images, we continue to see women as waiting for their male true love to declare his affections on this, the most romantic day of the year.

It may be somewhat benevolent sexism compared to other forms of misogyny, but it is sexism nonetheless, which maintains stereotypical images of idealized femininity while reinforcing images of women as subordinate to and dependent on men. And it is heterosexism writ large, as we see few images of anything other than male/female “love.”

V-Day to the rescue

Because of my long-standing antipathy to Valentine’s Day, it is not an event celebrated in my life. I dutifully assisted my children to make cards for their classmates – ALL of their classmates – but that was about the extent of what took place in our house.

But now, thanks to Eve Ensler, we have V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, with fundraising and public education events centred around February 14 (the V in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina).

As Ensler wrote in November 2011:

“I am over being polite about rape. It’s been too long now, we have been too understanding. . . We need to let our rage and our compassion connect us so we can change the paradigm of global rape.”

Sounds a lot better than chocolates or roses to me!

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