Nothing screams “I love you” like the Victorian ideals of strong, powerful men taking care of women.
And this stereotypical love — with its origins in ancient fertility ceremonies — is bought and sold most prominently on one day every year: Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day started out as the Roman festival of Lupercalia in the 3rd century A.D., intended to celebrate fertility and purity. For the festival, men sacrificed goats and dogs and then used the animal hides to whip women in an attempt to make them more fertile. The holiday has changed a lot in how we honor it today, but the sentiments aren’t all that different.
The holiday still caters to heterosexual couples and expect men to woo their women — though, thankfully, the tradition has become drastically less violent. Despite the increasingly progressive way in which we view relationships — acknowledging that love fits with a varying array of sexual and gender orientations — Valentine’s Day still reflects our society’s most outdated flaws and shortcomings. All too often, this day is seen as one celebrating heteronormativity with little inclusion for those who don’t fit that mold.
These prehistoric notions for men and women are what we should — and can — be changing about Cupid’s birthday, starting this year.
The tradition of gift-giving and card exchanging began in the 18th century, persisting to modern day. These activities are now a hallmark of American society — and economy. According to the Greeting Card Association, lovers exchange approximately 140 million cards every year and spend an average of $19.7 billion total in 2016.
Yet, despite the high numbers, Valentine’s Day gifts and cards often cater mostly to heterosexual couples. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Valentine’s Day care with same-sex couples in your local Target or CVS, despite only 48 percent of teens and 65 percent of people aged 21 to 34 identifying as “exclusively heterosexual,” according to a Thompson Innovation Group study in 2016. Instead, queer couples will most likely be forced to settle for a card with nondescript kittens or bunnies to symbolize their love.
When scrolling through Valentine’s Day specials on Amazon, you can find matching pajama sets saying “his” and “hers,” but if you wanted to celebrate your non-hetero love, you’d have to buy two pairs and chuck out the non-gender applicable half to get “his” and “his” or “hers” and “hers” sets. And if you’re a person or couple who doesn’t use these pronouns, you might as well forget about it. Finding gifts or cards with non-him/her pronoun usage is practically impossible.
Some companies decided to expand their depictions of love to queer couples in recent years — Hallmark has featured a gay couple for the third year in a row, and Lush Cosmetics also starred a gay couple in their ad this year. Sainsbury’s, a company in the U.K., is selling same-sex couple cards for the holiday starting this year.
But this representation is still miniscule and needs to spread beyond just television ads and greeting cards. Young people should be able to turn on their televisions and see relationships that exist outside the boy-girl spectrum.
In “Valentine’s Day,” a high-budget film starring multiple notable actors and actresses, the sole gay character — Eric Dane, who plays a professional athlete — only comes out of the closet at the end of the movie and for the sake of a punchline. “Love Actually” — which is, to be fair, centered on a different holiday — follows much the same script, leaving little representation for couples who fall outside the hetero norm.
Netflix has moved beyond traditional television in queer representation with shows including “Black Mirror,” “Master of None” and “Sense8.” Similarly, queer musicians, including Troye Sivan and Tegan and Sara, have made spaces for themselves among some of pop’s most spectacular icons.
But there are several gay musicians in mainstream pop music who often neutralize their lyrics, probably because they know it wouldn’t appeal as strongly to a wider audience if it did. Sam Smith, who is openly gay, often uses a generic “you” in his lyrics to make them more appealing. And in his music video for “Stay With Me,” the story is played out on scene by a hererosexual couple.
The reasoning behind all this heteronormative bias is both the cause and the outcome: The entertainment industry is quick to stick with the heteronormative status quo in an attempt to appeal to more people. But when we don’t do anything to include more queer representation in our music, movies and media, then we don’t create any space to change this status quo, leaving the only room for the representation of “traditional” couples.
Sure, queer couples can spend their Valentine’s Day listening to Sam Smith and enjoying heart-shaped chocolates without having to choose hetero labels. But wouldn’t it be nice if non-heteronormative couples could have mugs or teddy bears that are not meant for a generic “honey” or a “babe” but targeted toward a specific “he” “she” “they” or any combination of the three?
Or, imagine a greeting card aisle stocked with depictions of same-sex or non-gender binary couples — think of all the possibilities that would open up to greeting card slogan writers.
Corporate America isn’t against queer representation — it just needs more incentive to create it, and that starts with what we spend our dollars on. If a movie is coming out starring a gay couple, go see it and bring your friends. Or when you find holiday cards or themed gifts depicting more inclusive use of pronouns, buy them and get your friends to as well.
It may seem like we’ve come a long way from the Victorian ideals of the 19th century, but Valentine’s Day is a cruel reminder that we still have a long way to go. When Hallmark starts creating corny cards for queer couples and entertainment media stops making love movies with the same Nicholas Sparks romantic plotlines, we’ll all be a little more happy on Feb. 14.
Until then, we must continue preaching love for everyone, not just those who have the most options for romantic gifts.