Minus the City: Should We Care that Valentine’s Day Reinforces Gender Roles?

It’s that time of year again. Hearts decorate everything from the student center to the bathrooms, and it seems as though every baked good in the grocery store is some shade of pink. Personally, I have never cared greatly about Valentine’s Day. If you like it and it brings you joy, go ahead and celebrate. If you hate the mushy gushy, you shouldn’t feel obligated to participate. 

However, when I started writing a piece to discuss an issue related to Valentine’s Day, I noticed a consistent trend in newsfeeds from the Inquirer to the Student Newspaper at the University of Illinois: The Daily Illini. According to these papers, Valentine’s Day reinforces heteronormative relationship standards in tandem with patriarchal gender roles. And while I believe the holiday should be inclusive to anyone who wants to celebrate it, my question is: how much should we care that Valentine’s Day reinforces gender roles? Or, more specifically, does Valentine’s Day perpetuate discrimination against certain groups of people, or is it merely a clear example of already existing biases in our communities? Or, is it both?

An article from Affinity argues that even child-based activities such as handing out valentines to your classmates reinforces gender stereotypes; boys typically hand out superhero or monster truck themed valentines whereas the girls hand out valentines with flowers or hearts on them. The Gazelle article, “Valentine’s Day: A Dish Best Served Sexist,” argues that these gender norms are further reinforced in adulthood. If you are a man, you are expected to cater to your normative female partner’s sensitive and emotional nature and buy her flowers, chocolates and whatnot. If you are a woman, you are expected to cater to your male partner and dress up for the occasion and then sleep with him in exchange for the gifts you received. 

Women who don’t have a valentine are typically depicted as heartbroken without a male partner, engorging themselves on junk food and romantic comedies, as reported by the Mic. In this case, the woman is defined by her romantic relationship to a man, a dangerous stereotype and one that is certainly untrue. Most mainstream Valentine’s Day depictions and advertisements completely ignore any type of relationship outside of a heterosexual romantic relationship. Forget any sort of representation of LGBTQ+ relationships.

The blatant sexism and heteronormativity in most Valentine’s Day media are not only laughable but also widely ignored — we still celebrate Valentine’s Day with relative gusto. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the National Retail Federation estimates Americans spent a whopping $23.9 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day. It seems that despite the negative aspects of the holiday, Americans – and their wallets – still wholeheartedly embrace the tradition. Why? Should we be concerned?

While I recognize the issues of Valentine’s Day in its reinforcement of gender stereotypes, I do not believe the holiday needs to be shunned. In fact, I think everyone who has the slightest inclination should celebrate it, but perhaps a little differently.

To clarify, I am not saying that Valentine’s Day’s negative perpetuations of stereotypes are a good thing. They aren’t. And that should be expressed clearly, especially when it comes to children’s involvement in Valentine’s Day celebrations. But a multibillion dollar holiday is not going away just because it’s problematic. The best thing we can do is continue to celebrate it with as much diversity as we have, allowing ourselves to rise above and resist the stereotypes by applying our own definition as to what the holiday means to us. 

While I am not a top Valentine’s Day fan, it does give me an opportunity to make sure my friends, family and, yes, romantic interests, know how much I appreciate them. Changes are already happening with Valentine’s Day products to reflect the diversity of those who can celebrate. In fact, Hallmark has released a fleet of Valentine Day’s cards specific to the LGBTQ+ community this year.  

By continuing to recognize but refusing to conform to the stereotypes perpetuated by the normative standards of Valentine’s Day while also celebrating it in our own way, we can overcome and continue to change the nature of the holiday and hopefully make it into something that makes people feel loved and accepted.