Thursday, 14 February 2013

Gender rules for Valentine's Day

Please enjoy this rather cynical, sarcastic post about gender roles in the yearly transaction-based event we call "Valentine's Day".

Rule #1 - Gifts are strictly man --> woman

Women are not allowed to buy things for men. I've never, ever heard about a man getting excited about what his female partner bought him. I've never seen men get flowers delivered to their workplace. Yet Facebook is alive and buzzing with girls' vintage-filtered Hipstagram pictures of flowers and chocolates from their male partner.

Rule #2 - Only flowers, chocolates and cards are permitted as gifts

Valentine's Day is about expressing love in the most narrow, commercial way possible, and apparently this = flowers, cards and chocolates. I did see a jokey Facebook post about cheese being preferable to chocolate, which I applaud just for being different, even though it does pander to 1) the stereotype of women liking cheese*, and therefore 2) Rule #1 where Valentine's Day is about men buying women things, not vice versa.

Other items are only allowed as gifts if they are totally over-the-top and/or utterly useless, e.g. jewellery, anything with lace, a teddy bear that says "I wuv you!" when squeezed, etc.

Rule #3 - A gift must be given

At least one of chocolates/flowers/card must be given, by the man to the woman, or else ... I'm not sure, maybe the Elder Gods of Heteronormity will come and destroy us, or something.

Going out for dinner is an acceptable action on Valentine's Day, however on its own it does not suffice as a gift.

Even couples who agree in advance that they won't buy each other anything (out of some vain attempt at being modern or enlightened) still have to buy something, because no-one is immune from the deep gnawing awkwardness of not fulfilling social expectation (see below).

Here are some rough suspicions/theories I have worked out.
  • Valentine's Day is about smooshy, romantic love (not ordinary, real, genuine love. Get a hold of yourself!), which is apparently feminine. Therefore guys do not like it and get embarrassed about being on the receiving end of it, if not being part of the whole thing altogether.
  • Flowers are also feminine, therefore dudes do not like receiving flowers. They're either not interested in flowers, or will actively resist being given flowers as a sign of being feminine.
  • Nobody asked for Valentine's Day - it just happens at people, like a big impersonal blob turning up on your doorstep every year demanding money**. Therefore chocolates/flowers/cards have become the safe standard currency for the Valentine's Day transaction.
    • Both partners know that the guy can buy chocs/flowers/card, and the girl can receive them, as the universally-recognised, safe, minimum way of fulfilling the transaction/dance they are required to carry out.
    • If the man does not buy anything, or the woman does not accept/enjoy it, they have not performed their role in the ritual, exposing both partners to embarrassment and ridicule by each other and (more importantly) by friends, colleagues & others.
    • If either of them does something original - e.g. the man buys her something practical, or the woman buys him anything - they are still exposed to risk of awkwardness and embarrassment in case their partner is not pleased, and/or (more importantly) it is considered strange or weird by friends, family, colleagues etc.
  • Men are entitled to be a creep by buying Valentine gifts for one or several female friends. The acceptable female reaction is that this is "sweet" and "nice", rather than "creepy" and "questionable". As with couples, girls are not allowed to buy male friends any gifts, romantic or otherwise.
Same-sex relationships
You'll notice that these rules and the above waffle don't account for same-sex relationships. This is mainly out of a lack of data/evidence on my part. However, I suspect that Valentine's Day is so steeped in heterosexual gender stereotypes that, happily, gay couples are allowed to do whatever the hell they like.

In case you're wondering...
If this blog post has filled you with rage, or the sarcastic bits weren't obvious, my apologies for not being clear. I'm a cantankerous old modernist. I dislike gender stereotypes and pointless traditional social rituals***, even the socially-acceptable ones, and especially the ones I sign up to myself. If I say "girls are like this, boys are like this" it's a) mainly sarcastic, made in the knowledge that people are genuinely individual different people regardless of what sex/gender they are (and that this is obvious), and b) a sweeping self-aware generalisation based on the fact that most people really do sign up to gender stereotypes.****

I guess it's hard to do something "different" on Valentine's Day, because the very day itself is about a narrow version of romantic love. Do something different, like going paintballing or having an art party, and suddenly it's got nothing to do with Valentine's Day any more.

My ideal Valentine's Day is one where it doesn't exist, and women aren't patronised, and nobody worries about it, because it doesn't exist.

I'm sure there's lots of people "breaking" the "rules" out there. In many countries, this is one of the most fascinating, creative and interesting times to be a human being, and every year it seems to get even more creative and different and free. On the other hand, I'm sad that during such an exciting time, outdated gender stereotypes are so widespread, and stubborn, and don't seem to be going anywhere.

Oh, one final rule - on no account are you allowed to express romantic love on any other day of the year.

Happy Valentine's Day! x

* I must admit this is a stereotype with a lot of weight behind it. I cannot remember meeting a single girl or woman who didn't have a overly enthusiastic attitude towards cheese. Maybe I've met some and cheese was just never discussed?

** In my mind, the Valentine Blob is standing there, dripping goo all over your doorstep, and says, "Hey, do you happen to have about a tree fiddy?" Every. Year.

*** Like many traditional social rituals, the Valentine's Day we know was created very recently, going back far shorter into history than everyone believes it did. The same goes for white wedding dresses, romantic love itself, and marriage having anything to do with religion.

**** People say "you can't make generalisations". Well, stuff that. I make generalisations because in order to challenge things we need to accept that they exist.


  1. You'll definitely love reading about life in Japan, then:
    (they have a whole heap of great posts about V-Day over the decades, and it's an all-around fabulous site I've been reading for yonks)

    Being American, I love the fact that we create a time and place every year to be sappy. We love turning on the sentimentality at the drop of a hat, and V-Day gives us the excuse to do just that.

    For the record, my boyf has always received a little card and present from me.

    And we should create the kind of culture where it's acceptable to give men flowers. Flowers are beautiful!

  2. Theresa, are you trying to say Americans - as a stereotypical culture and country - need an excuse to be sappy and sentimental...!

    We should indeed create a culture where it's acceptable to give men flowers. Men don't have to like them, just like women don't, but there's a huge stigma around it, and women know this and frequently don't dare give them for fear of a negative reaction.