Addressing Sexuality and Gender at Valentine's Day (Part 1)
For this Valentine's Day we wanted to try and take into consideration the fact universally most of us aren't having a great time right now. It's been difficult for a year, or even longer depending on where you are in the world. So a little self-care and self-love should definitely be encouraged. But also being aware and being kind to others is more significant in our daily lives than ever before. This general discussion will be followed by two interviews to further discuss the range in gender and relationships which are just not considered at this time of year.
Sexuality and Gender Representation at Valentine's Day
It doesn't particularly matter how you identify, or where on the gender or sexual orientation spectrum you may fall, everyone has their own opinions on Valentine's Day.
If you're pure Camp Love, you might be into getting dressed up, sending cards, having a nice day or dinner out. Alternatively, it could just be about celebrating love with yourself, your friends and appreciating where you're at in life.
But, if you fall in the opposite category it can be a day full of dread, either the pressure to do something extra special with a significant other, or it could bring up some bad thoughts and memories of someone you've loved and lost. The main thing people often complain about is 'being reminded you're single' which comes from this heteronormative narrative that your worth (often a woman's, but men we know you feel the pressure too) is based on your progress towards marriage and kids. It's not what your worth should be calculated by at all, but I'm sure most of us have felt it at some point.
It's possible to have mixed feelings or just indifference. Or a whole set of different traditions based on your culture. I must admit I like doing something to acknowledge Valentine's Day, I think it's cute. But when I was younger, I felt this awful, gnawing pressure to give a card to a boy as well as receive one (we all know that awful, deflated feeling when you wake up to find an empty doormat...or worse, a card from your mum) until I realised, I'm not about that.
Most of us are fully aware that the representation of straight/cis/white folks outweighs the representation of queer/trans/POC in the media, in politics and other meaningful platforms. But chances are if you're cis, straight and white, there's a possibility that the binary traditions of Valentine's Day may have passed you by - for example Valentine's Day cards.
Last year, I was wrapping my girlfriend's Valentine's Day gifts and I realised I'd forgotten a card, so I nipped over to Asda (romantic, I know) to see if I could get one quickly and there were still quite a few 'For My Girlfriend' type cards left, but they were all weirdly gendered male and female teddy bears or animals. Like all great cartoon tropes, you can tell it's a female bear because she has eyelashes, as we all know men don't have those!
These were just a couple which came up when I quickly Google searched out of curiosity. There's a lot to unpack with the first one. Not sure how I feel about the catchphrase in relation to its intended pun...? The second one is cute, I gave it a little exhale chuckle, but it's the eyelashes and eyeshadow that gets me every time.
It's by no means the greatest injustice in the world, it's just interesting to note these small nuances that can impact you if you happen to be in a same-sex relationship. It also raises the question if somebody isn't out or feels any kind of pressure or anxiety in terms of how they outwardly present or internally feel. If you're presented with two options: femme pink flowery packaging or strong, bold blue colours, might it put them off if they feel they may be judged?
Let's take one of my favourite TV shows of The US Office as an example. Every time I rewatch it I find something new to love about it, and currently I've been paying a lot of attention to Oscar Martinez (played by Oscar Nunez). Throughout season two the show reveals little by little that Oscar is a gay man, aside from leaning into his ice-skating talents briefly for comedic effect, they handle his character fairly well given it was the mid-2000s and same-sex marriage wouldn't even be legal until 2015 (mad, we know!) in the States. However, in 'Valentine's Day' (S02Ep16) we see Oscar receive a plant to his desk, and the note for which he quickly reads and then stuffs into his pocket. When asked who it was from, he replied "Oh, just my mom.", but the audience knows it's probably from his partner Gill (hard G). This brief, but brilliant moment encapsulates something so many of us take for granted - being able to express your love for someone is a privilege some people still do not have.
Times are a-changing of course, there's companies like Paperchase and Scribbler which I know for a fact to be on top of the card game, the latter having a strong rep for darkly humoured yet inclusive branding. And of course, a lot of independent people who make gifting cards and experiences, if they're inclusive folk tend to put that into their craft. But it's still not totally main stream.
So, if you're seeing the struggles for same-sex relationships being shoehorned into a largely hetero-commercialised event, there also needs to be questions raised around transgender, non-binary, queergender, agender and fluid folks. However you identify, fitting into a rigidly binary world comes with it's difficulties.
A study entitled 'Non-binary people’s experiences in the UK' by Vic Valentine (I legit couldn't make that up - insert chef's kiss), for the Scottish Trans Alliance* and Equality Network in 2016 states '84% felt their gender identity wasn’t valid, 83% felt more isolated or excluded, 76% had lower self-esteem [and] 65% had poorer mental health' (p.9), and 31% were likely to avoid retail spaces as they have a link to gender segregation (p. 30). In no way am I drawing a parallel from His/Hers towel sets to the overall negative statistics presented here, but speaking in a wider context, if we are constantly trying to fit all men and women into these tiny, restrictive little boxes, how does that impact people that don't even identify with these titles?
A lot of what I'm saying are examples of Gender Performativity, a phrase coined by Judith Butler, a gender critic whose entire career is built on tackling the binaries of the 'man' and 'woman' categorization and the accepted 'norm' which is heterosexuality (their research is extensive and interesting). From this assumption is also where the goal of a monogamous relationship comes from which is also perpetuated by Valentine's Day and the rest of society.
I feel like commercial Valentine's Day perfectly wraps up a lot of these ideas around gender binaries, gender roles and what Western society often expects from us as individuals. Pinks and blues, flowers and socks, these are all really strangely gendered and used in specific marketing despite being completely unisex. It's not that an individual is wrong for loving or hating any of these things, it's the way they are used to create rigid lines between the two and leave nothing for anyone in the middle by companies and advertising. There's a difference between liking something because you like it, and being expected to like it because of how others define you.
The more we normalise gender and sexuality spectrums, hopefully the more likely we are to see that reflected in celebrations such as Valentine's Day, which after all is meant to be about love. Sadly it's been boiled down to sappy, rom-com love with overly romaticised expectations, or hyper-sexualised love which you can't just force because we're two weeks into February. It's still cold. Dismantling the sexuality and gender structures around Valentine's Day will in turn open up more celebrations of platonic love, less 'single shaming' and a more varied image of relationships in general. It'll be a victorious day when Asda has a polyamorous love section of their Valentine's range.
*Thoughtful will be making a donation from the sales of our Valentine's products to the Scottish Trans Alliance to help them continue to effect change for the transgender community. Click on their logo to learn more about their work!