I was once bought half a dozen red roses on Valentine’s Day. Not that I don’t love that elated smugness that accompanies an anonymous expression of affection – finally, someone had picked me! – but I was also assaulted by another emotion: guilt. Yes, thank you “mysterious” Mr. Question-mark for your donation towards counteracting my low self-esteem, but at the same time, what would you like in return? Flowers? Heart-shaped chocolates? A strawberry-scented teddy bear? Well of course not – these gifts are aimed almost exclusively at women, like almost all of the other gifts that adorn the shelves of shops in February. I did not buy him, or any other boy, a gift because, like many other women at this time of year, I have no idea what to buy boys on Valentine’s Day.
Let’s face it: Valentine’s Day is geared towards men pampering women. All the ceremonies of the day suggest it. It is easier for a man to buy a woman presents – flowers, jewellery, chocolates, please take your pick – in comparison to the selection designated to the male taste. What do you buy boys – a watch? A CD? No, these things are for birthdays, Valentine’s isn’t supposed to be extravagant, especially for us poor little students. Chocolate is possible, I will allow that, but we can’t buy boys chocolate every year. Society’s expectations for Valentine’s Day, and the roles each gender is supposed to act out, are making things difficult for us in our hunt for the perfect gift to best express our affections.
Some girls might consider cooking their loved-one breakfast on this special day. It is only possible to not step back into the designated zone of the previous female reserve – the kitchen – if he makes you breakfast on special occasions as well, but the fact that this is one of the ways women show their affections to men on Valentine’s Day makes my inner feminist cringe slightly. Equally, lingerie shops seem to suggest to the average woman that the ultimate gift to their partner on Valentine’s Day would be some sexy red lacies. Hadley Freeman looks at this “gift” in her recent article “What to wear on a Valentine’s Day date? Whatever you damn well like”. I think the title says it all: if you feel more confident in wearing skimpy lace underwear, then please, go ahead and proceed, but as soon as it becomes an act for him we step into dangerous gender ground.
Maybe we have gotten ahead of ourselves – should we not first send our Valentine’s Day cards? However, even this tradition has its gender roles, in which men send and women receive anonymous letters of appreciation – but from a distance. The question mark, sometimes accompanied by the gushing poems replicated for all such glittery red pieces of card, creates a distance reminiscent of Renaissance courtship, where women would be admired from afar and contemplated only in verse scribbled on fragments of parchment. Talk about traditional. Two of the great original Italian lyric poets, Dante and Cavalcanti, both admired and wrote reels of poetry for women – Beatrice and Laura respectively – who they had barely even talked to. Things have moved on; boys are allowed to approach and make interesting small talk with women these days, and yet the traditional male profession of love for the woman is still in place. Generally, men send the anonymous cards – women wait to be anonymously admired.
What we can see from the case study of Valentine’s Day is that we still understand certain roles to be allocated in the games of love. Girls still don’t really ask boys out. Women don’t really propose to men. Of course, there are exceptions to these generalising statements, but the consensus still stands in this separated and defined mode of being. It’s not that things haven’t changed, but still it seems the market is geared towards maintaining these relationship structures, and certain expectations of the roles of women and men are ingrained within our cultural psyche. I want to have the right to propose to whoever I like when the time comes, and yet the thought of making the first move is a scary prospect for someone raised with these traditions. Equally, how do men feel about being proposed to? In relation to these traditions, they probably feel a little downcast; either by not getting to ask the question first, or through some wound to their ideas of masculinity.
Please understand me – I am not blaming our faithful men. They are put under a lot of pressure at this time of the year due to their roles in all of this gender-mess. Things can also get pretty confusing when feminism faces off with this tradition, (‘don’t offer me your seat on a train because I’m a woman, but do get down on your knees and beg me my hand in marriage. Ok?’)- talk about mixed signals.
What we need is a way to meet in the middle. The only way women will feel comfortable proposing to men – with men feeling comfortable being proposed to – is if these inane traditions, like those part of Valentine’s Day, are altered or phased out. If the man buys a woman a gift to show his affection, shouldn’t the woman feel comfortable doing the same? Yes: let’s root for Valentine equality, and the shedding of its gendered rites and rituals. Perhaps then it might be a little less awkward for all.