Monday, February 14, 2011

Unpacking The Heart-Shaped Box That Is The Cultural Experience of Valentine's Day


It's that time of year again. That time when we remember romantic love, and how glorious it can be. Where we send cards to our loved ones explaining how unqualifiedly wonderful they are. There are no "If you would stop snoring you'd be perfect" cards or "I wish you were more self-confident" cards, only "I Love You" and "Be Mine."

Yes, it's Valentines Day, the heart-shaped box of treacle that so oversimplifies the complexity of relationships. And that can be kind of nice, enjoying the simple things, remembering the good, and celebrating people we care about. But when we start to unpack that heart-shaped box, we start to see the cracks in the veneer on this love-fest and the complicated troubles of this yearly remembrance.

The trouble starts when you consider the origins of this holiday. Because "holiday" is a laden word, and it's not clear if it applies to Valentine's Day.

The event first started as a classic Catholic saint's day, a day reserved for remembrances of the holiest Christians and how they (usually) gruesomely gave their lives in martyrdom to the cause. In St. Valentine's case, no one really knows what happened to him, but it's pretty clear it probably had nothing to do with love (interestingly, because of the uncertainty around the story of St. Valentine, his official Catholic saint's day was removed from the calendar in the 60s).

Somehow, this religious observance morphed into a celebration of romantic love. It started as far back as the 1700s, and British hand-made valentines were popular throughout the 1800s, but the whole practice turned a corner into mass-production and commercialization at some point.

The blame is usually cast on the greeting card companies. The term "hallmark holiday" was invented for Valentine's Day. These companies had finally created a wholly novel celebration of romantic love, which led to years and years of cards, commercials, movies, and television, filled with plastic portrayals of what is ostensible a very dynamic and heated emotion.

The whole Valentine thing smacks of historical disconnect, exaggerated sentiment, and irrelevance. But when we look at the cultural reaction to that disconnect, instead of seeing a wall of uniform disdain, we see something pretty varied and complex.

On the one hand, a lot of people still really like this holiday. Aside from couples that always make a big deal out of the holiday, there's still that universal grade school experience of making valentines for your classmates (in my school, we had to make one for each student in the class, but anecdotes from others would have me believe that some schools allowed a little bit of selection, and therefore pre-teen heartbreak). Maybe that experience catches some of us and carries over to adulthood, because there's still a pretty solid market for Valentine's Day candy and cards.

There's also the yearly Valentine's episode, a staple of most television shows. By no means are these specials all good, but they are ubiquitous, expected by audiences, and even looked forward to by some critics. For better or for worse, our culture is one in which the mainstream has embraced February 14th as a day to celebrate candy, hearts, pink and red, paper cards with superheroes or puns on them, and, not least, love.

But let's not forget that there's a tremendous amount of backlash against this holiday. Of all of the holidays on the calendar, it's the one people most love to hate. Mother's Day, an equally invented holiday, is pretty universally seen as a good opportunity to thank our mothers, not as the crass commercialization of a complex relationship (even though it basically is just that, to the same extent as Valentine's Day).

Maybe that's the cultural power of this holiday. Valentine's Day is, if nothing else, a versatile holiday. Getting together with your single friends to get drunk doesn't sound like a romantic evening, but it IS a celebration of the holiday. People celebrate by burning their ex's stuff, or by drinking wine with friends, or by watching action movies to rebel against the whole thing. Even those that love to hate Valentine's Day still are getting some serious utility out of its existence.

But the list of hypothetical V-Day activities does seem to focus a lot on the ample dark side of the holiday. I think NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour said it best when they said that Valentine's Day tends to have at least some negative emotional and social effects, no matter what your situation is. The unhappily single person is reminded of their single-ness, the new couple is reminded of the complexity and pressure associated with serious relationships, and even stable, long-term couples still sometimes run into mismatched expectations over the holiday.

On St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish. Valentine's Day offers no such out: single people remain single, unhappily married couples continue to be unhappily married, and gay couples remain marginalized and unable to marry.

Romantic relationships are complex, but Valentine's Day is, at its heart, a holiday celebrating simplicity. To that end, those that revel in the simplicity of the whole thing (television shows, the rare adoring couple that gets SUPER into it, greeting card writers, jaded V-Day rebels, etc.) can revel in this holiday. But any reminders of the underlying intricacy and incomprehensibility of romance make this holiday empty and galling.

So from all of us at Stars Blink Out, where we are dedicated to highlighting the complexity in even the most simple situations, have a strange, confusing, complicated, crass, and maybe a little sweet, Valentines Day.

(image adapted from Pink Love Heart Box)