When you perform a ritual, you need to believe that it means something, even if only tenuously. For instance, when I celebrate someone’s birthday, it gives me the opportunity to treat them; to show how much they matter to me. A birthday might also prompt some social event, which would not have taken place without the excuse, or might not have drawn all invitees. And whichever acts of kindness take place will be reciprocated on subsequent birthdays.
So what meaning do people place on Valentine’s Day ritual? In simple terms, couples spend some special time together and/or give gifts. However, the onus is on the man to make these arrangements and give gifts. The woman is the passive and expectant subject. Of course, the level of significance attributed to the ritual may vary person to person, but the modern meaning of Valentine’s Day derives solely from this disequilibrium between the sexes. Because if the man is required to adorn his cherished partner with gifts and attention, she must want to be adorned; to be worshiped. It might manifest itself in subtle ways but if you are an active (female) Valentine’s Day participant then, even if you declare yourself a modern woman, there clearly remains a part of you that wants to be treated like a princess. Equally, it is hard to imagine Valentine’s as an entirely mutual act of celebration between two people in a relationship – it would lack purpose; there would be nothing in particular to achieve; nothing to differentiate a Valentine’s celebration from any other pleasant time spent together with your partner. Besides, why have this special day en masse with the rest of the Western World?
Our steadfast devotion to ritual can cause problems. People make fundamental judgements about the calibre of their relationship -or partner- on the basis of his/her ritual performance. And perhaps, in some cases, rightly so. Existing inadequacies are made stark when tested. But in the case of Valentine’s Day, it is the man alone who must perform. And he may never be told the terms of his test. Instead, he will need to pay close attention to hints or signs. If he is already well-versed, he will have no problem taking the initiative, choosing the right restaurant or buying the right flowers. Yet, for some men (and women), Valentine’s Day represents an unfathomable senseless rigmarole, with very little bearing on the overall quality of the relationship, or their contribution to it.
What does our attachment to Valentine’s Day tell us? I think it tells us that men and women are doing a lot of role-playing, and it should make us wonder whether this role-playing is limited to 14th February. Women are telling men that they want to be treated like something special; showered with gifts; looked after. But they don’t say this to the men – part of the test is that he just knows. If he thought he was in a modern, equal relationship, he was wrong. She wants to feel admired like a beautiful object; an asset. She thereby reverts to the selfsame stereotypes that supposedly oppress women, undermine and relinquish the claim that women are equal to men.
I should think that for many men, their partner’s desire for Valentine’s Day ritual comes as a surprise. And their desire for an equal relationship is simultaneously thwarted. For it is taboo to question the meaning behind Valentine’s Day, let alone disapprove of it. Men are, instead, required to conform to a traditional role – to be assertive; to take action without consultation with their partner; without, heaven forbid, talking about how all of this makes them feel.
We are in conflict with ourselves, admittedly. The crazy thing is, an equal partnership is far more fulfilling. Whether you are male or female, to be free to truly express yourself and share this with another is hugely rewarding, making for a more balanced way of life.