This first posted on February 7, 2018.
Let’s untangle the motivations for promoting inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks on Valentine’s Day.
On one hand, the increase of Valentine’s Day-related products for LGBTQ+ customers is reflective of changing societal attitudes about queer acceptance. On the other hand, this trend speaks to the historical patterning of the retail industry’s drive towards increased profits and companies’ efforts to build social responsibility into their brand to foster a wider customer base.
Before unpacking queer inclusivity on Valentine’s Day, we must first establish the basics of this retail-driven ritual. Valentine’s Day is idealized as a holiday in which lovers exchange gifts assigned symbolic meaning beyond their retail value. Today, the price tag of this love ritual is high. In its analysis of their 7,277-respondent national survey, the National Retail Federation has noted that the average US consumer will spend approximately $143 in connection to Valentine’s Day gifts and celebrations, estimating total spending at $19.6 billion, up $1.4 billion since 2017.
Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a commercial event: historically, Valentine’s Day is tied to ancient Pagan ceremonies on the European continent. In an interview with NPR, Yale historian Noel Lenski described the origins of the holiday as a Roman fertility ritual, in which young women lined up to be slapped with the hides of sacrificed goats and dogs before men chose female mates via a lottery system.
So, how did this sexist ancient ritual become a marketable, romantic phenomenon? Well, the history concerning whom was the first to invoke Saint Valentine’s Day as a day of celebrated love is muddied by lack of data and surviving sources. Medieval historian Jack B. Oruch notes that Geoffrey Chaucer might have been the first to claim “St. Valentine’s Day” as a romantic marker in his 14th-century poem, Parlement of Foules. Centuries later, the Hallmark company began offering Valentine’s Day cards in 1913, beginning mass production in 1916.
Since its inception, Valentine’s Day has been inherently neoliberal. Neoliberalism is broadly defined as the extension of the free-market into our personal lives, and it exists at the crux of major debates in the modern world. The Hallmark framing of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday has essentially commodified heteronormative mating narratives, creating a day in which individuals show love through the purchase of goods for loved ones. (That means for a long time, romantic and platonic displays of affection between men and women, boys and girls were sold for profit while anyone who didn’t fit the script was left out completely.) This holiday blatantly invites the free market into both the definition and sustenance of our personal relationships, which historically hasn’t been good for LGBTQ+ folks.
As inclusivity has become more marketable in recent years, the Valentine’s day merchandise market has responded. Consider Valentine’s Day cards, which are sold under labels that delineate the identity of intended senders or recipients. On one hand, the increase of available options is liberating, as non-heterosexual individuals can see their reality and identity within the products available for purchase. On the other hand, the specificity of these cards and the messages they contain prescribes participation of marginalized sexual and gender minorities in this heteronormative holiday.
In 2014, Hallmark’s then-publicist, Kristi Ersting, wrote to Michigan State University journalism professor Steve Friess regarding same-sex romance cards offered in the Valentine’s Day line of products. “This year, Hallmark offers two cards in our in-store Valentine’s Day selection that are specifically created for same-sex relationships — titled ‘Love: Man to Man’ and ‘Love: Woman to Woman’ — and they are labeled that way in the display,” she said.
If you’re asking yourself where the “Love: Man to Woman” or “Love: Woman to Man” cards were in 2014, they were under the tab simply marked “Love.” Four years later, the number of products designed to target queer consumers in relation to Valentine’s Day has grown. The existence of such specific products is somewhat paradoxical: given cultural conversations about “love is love” and LGBTQ+ inclusivity, the existence of separately-labeled products, marketed to queer partners, shows the retail industry’s desire to specifically target non-straight relationships and create a separate-but-equal market.
While the market for Valentine’s Day products diversifies, we are left at an impasse between increased visibility and an expansion of neoliberalism. As the holiday has transformed to ensure everybody’s money is valued, the same cannot be said for how the holiday has transformed to ensure everybody’s love is seen as valid.
Although we are critical of capitalist Valentine’s Day trends, we want to make it clear that we are definitely for the inclusion of sexual minority love narratives when it comes to Valentine’s Day. The normalization of LGBTQ+ relationships is key in transforming national conversations about queer identities, reducing discrimination and prejudice, and seeing more policies that protect some of society’s most vulnerable members. Valentine’s Day alone, however, holds less weight in the grand scheme of things. Though increased visibility for LGBTQ+ folks around Valentine’s Day is indicative of positive social change, the traditions surrounding Valentine’s Day are a capitalist fabrication focused on expanding the free market into all of our personal relationships.
This has us wondering: Is making Valentine’s Day merchandise more inclusive a true sign of progress, or is it a superficial marketing scheme aimed at expanding a socially constructed holiday to assimilate marginalized queer people into a traditionally heteronormative practice?
While we’ve pointed out some flaws with the upcoming holiday, we’ll also note that there are some pros. It’s fun to dress nicely, receive chocolates and flowers, and pretend to like that chalky heart-shaped candy, all for the sake of celebrating our significant others. But if we’re going to celebrate this made up Love Day, then we should each do it our way, no matter who we are or who we love. And the retailers shouldn’t get to have the final say on how we choose to go about it.
Emily Daina Šaras is a PhD Candidate in sociology, and her research explores education outcome disparities by race and gender.
TehQuin D. Forbes is a graduate student in sociology, and his research interests include identities, stratification, and social change.
Kristen Erichsen is a PhD candidate in sociology, and her research interests include school violence and political sociology.
The featured image is from C3Metrics.com.