It’s February, and the question, “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” is likely to be hot on people’s lips. Now, put the question on its head. What is Valentine’s Day doing for you?
Take a loveseat, grab some bon-bons, and let’s see what’s behind that Hallmark façade. In this feature, we delve into the University of British Columbia philosophy professor Carrie Jenkins’ self-styled “metaphysics of love project.” I read Jenkins’ book, What Love Is and What It Could Be (Basic Books, 2017), and I find her concept of “the romantic mystique” sheds badly needed insight into a holiday I’ve always insisted is cheap and spiritually deadening. Jenkins is equally compelling in interview, especially where she explains why many of us subject ourselves to Valentine’s Day knowing it will make us feel sad and lonesome.
In the meantime, beware controversy ahead. We’ll be confronting provocative ideas about gender, race, and human sexuality, challenging our assumptions about romantic love (‘love’ hereafter) and its role in society. These are touchy subjects, and I ask that the reader acknowledge their personal biases as they crop up—and they will. As Jenkins explains in What Love Is, the idea that we should hold out for complete objectivity hampers our ability to think about complex issues. Jenkins writes:
We bring our humanity and our experience to all our intellectual pursuits…The real risk is not that this will happen but that if we ignore it—if we downplay the involvement of the personal and the cultural in the intellectual—we are ignoring some of the most powerful factors that shape the work of scientists, philosophers, and everyone else.
Let’s start by looking at the emotional capital on the line. Year in, year out, we try to make every Valentine’s Day more special than the last. Queue long lines of dudes at florists, chocolatiers, and lingerie departments, followed by romantic dinners-for-two and, hopefully, a night of unbridled passion. That reflects my privileged perspective as a straight man in a happily committed relationship. Yet, even then, my Valentine’s Days past have been typically underwhelming.
Beyond disappointment, there’s also plenty of financial capital at stake. Valentine’s Day is so lucrative a cash cow, The National Retail Federation (the biggest retail association on earth) predicted Americans would spend $19.6 billion on last year’s love fest, and fully $2 billion of which was expected to buy flowers.
It’s always worse if you’re single. After all, “one is the loneliest number,” or so the old song goes: Enter throngs of young singles grinding up against each other aboard sweaty, booze-soaked harbour cruises. Sometimes, the lonely are led to believe they’ve found the ‘real thing,’ only to wind up swindled, heartbroken, and humiliated. According to a February 2018 study by the Better Business Bureau, victims of “romance scams” in the US and Canada were bilked of nearly $1 billion over the previous three years by an estimated 25,000 online fraudsters. The study describes people preyed upon as “male or female, young or old, straight or gay.” They’re groomed by predators posing as hopeful ‘matches’ on digital dating platforms like Tinder and eHarmony. Once hooked, their victims are taken by the romantic equivalent of the Nigerian Prince scam: “Just wire me the $1,000 I need to fix my car and then I’ll drive out to meet you, baby,” or something like that. The common factor among these unsuspecting dupes, writes the BBB, is this: “They believe in true love and they believe they have found it.”
This is wonton consumerism mixed with depraved exploitation, all of it fueled by an unthinking need to emulate a pre-packaged idea of love. So, why do we do it?
Bear with me if I’ve struck a nerve. I’m not suggesting love isn’t real, or that Valentine’s Day is the asbestos of non-statutory holidays, insidiously poisoning ‘the children.’ Buying those little valentines for your kids doesn’t make you a bad parent, and looking forward to a special evening with your partner doesn’t mean you’re basic. At the same time, this is a difficult subject to write about.
There’s a wide body of scholarship on the subject of romantic love—the object of Valentine’s Day—but precious little on the holiday itself. The standard narrative makes for a boring, lily white view of love—one that privileges the hoary dogmas of Enlightenment thinkers often with misogynist and homophobic agendas. A twenty-first century example is Jean-Claude Kaufmann’s A Curious History of Love, in which the author (a sociologist at the Sorbonne) claims, “[s]tudies show… many women derive no sexual pleasure from penetration but still want to be penetrated. This is because sexuality symbolizes the reality of married life, and because the absence of sexuality signals that the relationship is in serious trouble.” Kaufmann doesn’t cite these studies, leaving it for the reader to decide if their female subjects are responsible for preserving marriage or for ruining the institution, or both.
It’s also worth asking if love, and Valentine’s Day along with it, can be meaningfully understood at all. Why interrogate love if love is blind? This brings us to the “romantic mystique” that Jenkins sees clinging to conventional notions of love. It’s the popular myth that love is a universal force of destiny that we can represent artistically, but never really understand. In Jenkins’ playful summation, the “romantic mystique” simply reassures us “lovers gonna love,” hence the richly sappy metaphors in my favorite love jams: Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” and Haddaway’s “What Is Love?”.
But, where Jenkins’ titular allusion to Haddaway makes us laugh, her nod to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) warns us in What Love Is that, “things that motivate us not to think are dangerous.” For millennial readers unfamiliar with second-wave feminism, substitute the word “feminine” for “romantic” and it’s easier to spot Friedan’s point that American housewives had been collectively frustrated by their inability to live up to a totalizing yet somehow unknowable femininity. The feminine mystique idolized a wonderful, magical notion of the ‘true woman’ who was docile, sexually pliant, and whose chief ambition in life was to take care of children. This constellation of assumptions was so prevalent at the time, it went largely unquestioned even by most women. Friedan labels their combined unfulfillment “the problem that has no name.”
Here, Jenkins underlines the reality that our conceptions of love have the same power to structure (and harm) society as our views about gender. The only difference is that, where we condemn misogyny, the standard model of love is so deeply ingrained in our social values that we scarcely pay attention to how it rules our lives.
Cutting through all this subtlety, science tells us love is a biological function, and Jenkins agrees. But that’s not the whole story, Jenkins points out that love is also socially constructed whether we admit it or not. To reiterate, the author doesn’t suggest our bodily experience of love is ‘made up.’ Rather, in her analogy, love is a bit like political parties or sports teams in the sense that all three are shaped by commonly understood rules and expectations.
The ironies would be amusing if they weren’t so grindingly sad. The combined expectation that love is yoked to marriage while true love ‘is forever’ ignores the cold, statistical fact that most marriages will end in divorce. Still, Jenkins observes that many believe falling out of love is a personal failure. Next, it’s taken for granted that love and marriage are the exclusive preserves of scrupulously monogamous couples even though it’s an open secret that people cheat all the time. And where we choose to believe true love doesn’t enter into polyamorous relationships, we can’t help but recognize the same logic in the outmoded view that same-sex love was somehow less precious than the old-fashioned straight kind.
Ultimately, the reader is left with the unsettling realization that love is plenty more complicated than it first appears. And there are moral implications to how, in Jenkins’ words, we “literally romanticize romance.” Worshipping an idealized expression of love perpetuates hurtful stereotypes because not everyone experiences love in the same way.
Circling back to Valentine’s Day, the expectations we put on ourselves to find Mr. or Mrs. Right easily bleed into that horrible feeling of emptiness many of us will fill with chocolate and red wine if, come February 14th, we find ourselves single and lonely. As Jenkins told me in an interview, “Valentine’s Day…shines a big spotlight on those [pressures].” And for those making reservations for Valentine’s Dinner, there are probably some servers out there who might feel tempted to spit in the entrées of people like Jenkins who are openly polyamorous.
In fact, the author’s sexual orientation is often a lightning-rod for people who take exception to her scholarship on love. “People send very, very hateful stuff my way,” she explained, calmly adding, “It’s hard to say what, exactly, it’s for some of the time.” Other times it’s decidedly less subtle. Neither of Jenkins’ partners are white, and her most strident critics react to her ideas with racist invective.
So, now what? Do we kill Valentine’s Day? Is there nothing that can be salvaged from this patriarchal festival of exclusion? Calm down. No one is suggesting that, least of all Jenkins. There’s but one passing reference to VDay in What Love Is, and even then, Jenkins uses it only where it speaks to love more generally. When I asked her what she felt about the holiday, she told me “Plenty of it’s innocent and cute.”
Having said as much, some readers will roll their eyes at this point and dismiss this feature as a self-consciously liberal screed against the way things have always been and ought to remain. To this, Jenkins writes in What Love Is that validating “out-groups” isn’t about inverting heteronormativity until ‘everyone is gay.’ As Jenkins elaborates in What Love Is, it’s very difficult to imagine what that would look like. No one is out dump onto heterosexuals the same slights, insults, and abuses society heaps onto the LGBTQ+ community.
For those, like myself, who are straight and happily committed to one partner, Jenkins explained over the phone:
The risk is not in people deciding that they enjoy Valentine’s Day and would like to get some chocolates or some roses from their partner. The risk is to all of the other people who don’t want to do that and feel threatened.
In other words, people are free to celebrate VDay if they choose, but we’re probably heading for disappointment if we blithely submit to the ritual of it. Find yourself outside the fairy-tale image of everlasting love, and the occasion is likely to bring you down. Worse, you might be harassed or physically bashed if, like Jenkins, your vision of love doesn’t fit society’s mould at all.
At the same time, the cult of romance swirling around Saint Valentine has become an orgy of capitalist overspending. This isn’t just crass, and Jenkins’ insight here recalls the sad example of the heartbroken victims of “romance scams” we met above.
“A lot of the problematic features of Valentine’s Day are coming at us from… corporations that are trying to make money,” Jenkins pointed out. “They’re trying to sell you something, and the problem,” she added, is this:
One of the best ways to sell people something is to make them feel bad about themselves currently, so that they will pay some money for a product, or whatever, that will improve that situation and they’ll feel a little bit better.
Speaking in the same breath, Jenkins’ adds, “Valentine’s Day is that on speed.” It’s hardly surprising that people would fall prey to romance scams when society reinforces the expectation that everyone is destined to fall in love and live happily ever after. At the same time, that pressure to conform is so strong among couples, the merchants of love don’t have to work very hard in conning us into feeling a certain Valentine’s angst—that inner monologue we subject ourselves to that insists, in Jenkins’ words, “if you don’t go out and buy…the ring, roses, the chocolates, you’re a bad boyfriend, [or] a bad girlfriend. So, go and spend money.”
At the end of the day, my girlfriend and I won’t be celebrating VDay. Nor will we stand in your way if y’all want join in the festivities. Let’s own our choices, either way.