How The Media Is Warping Our Sense Of What Love Represents
With Christmas and New Year safely navigated, the next major holiday facing us is my own personal anathema: Valentine’s Day. This is the day that generates 14 billion dollars in retail sales every year in the United States alone, the day on which more Viagra prescriptions are written than on any other day of the year, the day when an estimated 13% of women who received flowers actually sent them to themselves, the day when there are apparently rules about which cocktails you should or shouldn’t order, the day that causes a website to create an entire postmodern flowchart dedicated to ‘wittily’ dissecting whether it will be a disappointment. This is Valentine’s Day.
My reasons for despising this saccharine soaked masquerade of a ‘celebration’ are as numerous as the types of chocolates in a Thornton’s bumper Valentine’s tray, and trying to pin all of them down would necessitate a dissertation, rather than a blog or an article. For this reason, I have subdivided my rancour for the day of love into bitesize chunks so that you too can see why a generic bear, sitting next to another five hundred generic bears, with a heart labelled ‘forever’ in its hands is about as meaningful and romantic as lancing a carbuncle on your partner’s backside.
- Valentine’s Exclusivity: The Celebration Of Couples And Heteronormalcy
Married? Got a partner? In a relationship? Great. Then this is the holiday for you. Every advert you see will depict a chisel-jawed hunk handing his doe-eyed partner a box of chocolates, a Pandora charm, an unimaginative card, a bunch of flowers or a piece of expensive jewellery. She subsequently melts in his arms, and there will probably be the most unsubtle of hints that this commercial transaction was successful enough to conclude with sex. Hooray for couples! Being together is wonderful because it is normal and we can buy each other stuff to show we love each other; isn’t life great when you’re together and you have someone?
Rarely will you see any acceptance of the existence of a demographic outside that of a heteronormative relationship in Valentine’s advertising. No gay men, no lesbians, and definitely, absolutely no singletons – unless of course they are involved in a ‘clever and humorous’ anti-Valentine’s parody that cloyingly and patronisingly assures us that it’s ok to be alone and that having friends and family will make up for the aching void of loneliness that the advert has clearly implied we must feel due to the very fact that it exists.
Amongst the other shit it is pedalling, Valentine’s day is reselling one of society’s most common and damaging paradigms: that being single is abnormal, undesirable, the litmus test of failure and undesirability. It smugly asserts that a man and woman being together is the zenith of human existence, and that love is only real if it comes in this form. Men loving men, women loving women, people who are happy being alone, people who are having a hard time looking for the right person, all of them are marginalised by the Valentine’s day that plays itself out in the media. I know plenty of people (predominantly women – because they are the poor sods who are more aggressively conditioned to believe that their happiness is a direct correlate of their ability to be attractive and in a relationship) who are constantly soul searching and dissecting what is wrong with them, and intermittently falling into states of depression, because they fall outside the parameters of Hallmark happiness or heteronormalcy. If you don’t believe me, then check out the vomit-inducing card number 4 on this list that is basically trading on the presupposition that possessing a man or being in a relationship are prerequisites for happiness and self-fulfilment.
Since we were kids, Valentine’s advertisers have inundated us with heterosexual couples enjoying dinner, swooning in sunsets and sharing cocktails and champagne. Is it any wonder then that single people feel such a sense of loathing and anger for both the day, and more importantly for themselves, when this most exclusive of holidays comes around?
- Valentine’s Expectations: If You Don’t Buy Me A Ring We’re Through
Apparently, relationships are 2.5 times more likely to end in the weeks either side of Valentine’s day compared to other times of the year. A large part of this is due to the correlation that Valentine’s coerces us to make between expenditure and self-worth. In other words, people measuring love or the strength of their relationships in pounds and dollars.
In the Hallmark landscape partners will almost invariably fail to live up to the ridiculous cultural expectations spawned by marketers the world over. Thanks to advertising, I wonder how many people will sit at dinner on Valentine’s Day feeling a nagging sense of disappointment because it is not romantic enough, or the location is not opulent, or exclusive enough; how many women will rush out to buy lingerie because their existing underwear isn’t sexy enough in comparison to that worn by the models in the Valentine’s features of their lifestyle mags; how many men will be greeted with a look of disdain and be branded as ‘not getting’ their partner because their gift wasn’t considerate enough or delivered in the same way as the Milk Tray man.
It is also in our nature to compare ourselves with others, and Valentine’s Day consequently elicits plenty of comparisons that could be detrimental to our relationship. Whether we are comparing ourselves to the sanitised pantomime of ‘perfection’ in a TV ad or to the Valentine’s status update that indicates that your friend got 20 more roses than you, there is no possibility of living up to the collective expectations drip fed to us from every angle in the run up to Valentine’s. Disappointment is inevitable if we attempt to follow the marketed Valentine’s formula.
Given the plethora of photos one can find of smug ‘my life’s better than yours’ selfies on Facebook, the surfeit of ‘look where I am and you’re not’ posts on Instagram, and the amount of food and emotional porn littered on Twitter and basically any other social networking site, does the world really need another excuse for people to be spoilt and narcissistic and have their vanity indulged?
Valentine’s Day becomes just another opportunity to show how far ahead of the Joneses you are, and if you’re not, then woe betide your partner and their thrifty Valentine’s gifts. Look what my AMAZING boyfriend bought me! I have THE BEST WIFE EVER! Everyone seems to be in a screaming contest of superficial happiness that pits people in competition with one another and creates unrealistic depictions of coupledom and also unrealistic expectations about what people deserve. Rather than love, the holiday is about receiving, about buying, about consumerism.
- Valentine’s Vision Of Love – There Is Only One Way To Love
As Haddaway once sagely mused – what is love? Well, the Valentine’s projection of love is a romantic and sexualised one; in an advertising respect, Valentine’s utterly fails to appreciate the myriad of different forms of love. Whilst it likes to perpetuate itself as being a holiday about love and giving, it is more akin to an internalised parade of financially inspired emotion linked to a selfish sense of self entitlement; it has nothing to do with the altruism and demonstrable external acts of genuine kindness and care that we may traditionally associate with love.
Valentine’s love is showy, demonstrative and brash; it reduces love to what one person is capable of buying for another and depicts love as worthless unless it is outward, tangible and measurable. Dinner cost $500? You must really love me. Linked to this is the more tacit message that financial extravagance on Valentine’s day should elicit sexual acts, or more disturbingly, that sex can be bought with the right gift at the right price. Family Guy had it pretty close to the troubling truth with this parody of a diamond advert:
We are communicated the strange compulsion to feel more in love and more sexually attracted to each other than at any other time. This is the same flawed logic and marketing that force us to believe that New Year’s Eve has to be the most fun and entertaining night of the entire year, and that we absolutely must enjoy it at any cost. I’m sorry, but you can’t force yourself to love someone more, or force yourself to be more attracted to someone, just the same as you can never fully guarantee that you’re going to have a good night out on New Year’s Eve – no matter how much money you throw at it.
Love, in the Valentine’s creed, is something changeable, dispensable, becoming a warped emotional manifestation of the shop front kitsch that will be on sale or thrown out the day after Valentine’s. It creates a culture, especially amongst men, were expressions of love or passion are earmarked for one-off occasions, rather than an undercurrent in the day-to-day of their relationships. Is this what we really want? I think if you asked most loving partners if they would rather get one incredibly expensive dinner a year or have their other half permanently make the effort to stop using the bedroom floor as a towel rack, then the response would be unanimous.
On Valentine’s, all other forms of love are relegated beneath the cookie-cutter notion of romantic love; the platonic, unconditional love and self-sacrifice of a woman who works her backside into the ground to support her children whilst her husband is looking for work is just too unglamorous. Valentine’s ignores the hard graft that goes into loving, accepting and supporting someone every day of the year. The greatest achievements in my marriage haven’t revolved around writing in a card designed and created by somebody else, or spending hours looking for the perfect box of chocolates – they have been things like moving to my wife’s home country because she misses her family and having to learn the language and cultural customs to make a success of things, or my wife driving a three hour round trip every evening so that she could hold my hand in hospital every night whilst I was recuperating from my operation. But these things are too ugly and unmarketable; they are not sexy or glamorous; most tellingly – they cannot be bought.
And this is what perhaps is saddest.
Young people will take their cues about what love is from media such as Valentine’s advertisements; they won’t form their own notions about spontaneous acts of love, use their own imaginations to express their feelings. They will be guided away from honest affection and thinking carefully about an expression of love that suits their feelings for their partner or the type of relationship they enjoy – instead they will pass on cards with other people’s words in them, buy gifts dreamed up in someone else’s imagination and adopt the clichés of older and far more cynical people than themselves. Worst of all, they are having the parameters for their early relationships aligned by extraneous forces.
Valentine’s also illustrates love as something that should be lived out in the open, as if it doesn’t matter unless other voyeurs can look in upon it with envy. It appeals perfectly to the contemporary obsession with the need for immediacy and visual validation; it is the self-satisfied profile picture of a ring, the smug photo of the meal your partner made for you accompanied with a gushing superlative that qualifies them or your moment as the best. Like these examples, Valentine’s day encourages the enjoyment of love in densely concentrated microcosms that garner no definition without publicly playing themselves out in gaudy exhibitions.
Ultimately, Valentine’s is a festival of greed and unrealistic expectations that hasn’t so much lost touch with its historical roots, as becoming a disfigured mutation of its former self. It has devolved into an exercise in judging whether a gift parallels people’s subjective senses of their own worth, a carnival that satisfies our baser cravings of greed and lust.
It has forgotten that love shouldn’t be a process of narcissism measured by the level of romantic fulfillment that we can get out of someone else; it should be about fulfilling your commitment to the emotional sustenance and wellbeing of another person that you care about just because you care.