Driving to work yesterday, I was feeling that Valentine’s Day depression that is wont to come upon me on February 14. It’s not just the cliche storyline of boy meets girl, boy buys girl stuff, boy and girl eat dinner, and so it is that love becomes incorporated into the market that gets me down. It is the sinking sense that there is no way to ever escape this story.
So it was that I drove by the church with the billboard that said “Jesus is God’s Valentine to You” and smirked with the ironic distance of my truly analytical feminist brain. But that smirk was quickly wiped off my face as I listened in on a local radio station’s Valentine’s Day special: a real live wedding. Of course it was incredibly predetermined in its presentation—the young high-school friends who were meant to be together but went their separate ways, reunited on Facebook, now marrying live on the radio. Of course their vows said all the right things about for better or for worse as if they were unaware that a lot of marriages don’t really get through the worse times. Of course they played every single cheesy love song in the background as the radio host narrated the bride’s descent down the stairs, the flower girl’s throwing rose petals in her path, the ring boy, the bride’s son from a previous relationship, looking forward to his new life in the “sanctuary” of his new family.
I could have written this scene in my sleep it was so overdetermined by historical, economic, cultural, and narrative forces. And yet I was crying as I listened to it. Why did I cry?
I asked my students in my course on the Sociology of Heterosexuality this very question. “Because,” one of them ventured, “you find their inability to be analytical about the hegemonic discourse of romance depressing?” Yes, of course I do, but that doesn’t explain my tears. This sort of argument—that there is something really and truly inauthentic and wrong about the way the Romantic Industrial Complex (RIC) manipulates us into buying stuff to express our love was beautifully laid out by my comrade in heterosexual studies, Samhita Mukhophadyay over at the Nation. Mukhophadyay points out that
There is a romantic-industrial complex that nets billions of dollars from Valentine’s Day and weddings, and it needs you to “buy into” outdated ideas of love and marriage. The more you express your love through candies, chocolates, diamonds, rentals, and registries, the more the RIC makes! Valentine’s Day is only one manifestation of the RIC: Americans spend $70- to $80-billion on weddings each year. With the average American wedding costing $27,000, marriage itself has become a luxury item. This is more than a struggle between old and new traditions—this is about money.
Calling on us to Occupy Valentine’s Day, Mukhopadyay says that we
Romantic citizens deserve a better, more authentic and sustainable ways to express their affections—whether that be spending time with their friends and families, donating money they would spend on a romantic dinner to a domestic violence shelter, forgoing that expensive wedding for a more meaningful but less costly one. Above all, let’s find a way to honor ourselves that does not rely on buying stuff.
I agree with her completely. In fact I told her that I couldn’t have said it better and there was no reason to post about Valentine’s Day. And then a seriously sad reality began to set in. It is not that capitalism distorts my authentic human emotion, forcing me to cry over a commercial radio station using a wedding to get me to tune in and hopefully buy stuff they advertise. It is that there is no authentic human emotion floating outside the cultures in which we live. The fact that I experience deep and even desperate feelings of romantic love is not separate from the capitalist exploitation of those feelings; in fact my love is produced by that very exploitation.
And if that doesn’t make us cry on Valentine’s Day, I cannot imagine what would.