By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Fellow in the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC)
University of Birmingham
Valentine’s Day is upon us, and with it, many of us are buying gifts and cards for others to proclaim our love, care and affection for them. On face value, this seems like an innocent and pleasant thing to do. But once we start looking beneath the surface then the concept of Valentine’s Day can appear more sinister.
Valentine’s Day is a social construct. This means it doesn’t exist outside of human perception. Now this doesn’t mean that the roses, hearts, cards, gifts and gender-based advertisements are a figment of your imagination. What this means is that without the influence of human socialisation, the day is not an objective reality of its own.
The origins of Valentine’s Day are somewhat hazy. With depictions of Cupid, the god of love from ancient mythology, often representing this day. There are also some links to martyred Christian saints named Valentine. It is also claimed that Valentine’s Day is the hijacked pagan festival of Lupercalia, linked to fertility.
Whichever way we conceptualise the origins of Valentine’s Day, it is not what it once was. It is no longer an innocent representation of caring for another but has become a capitalist venture aimed at consumerism.
This turn happened in 1913 when the first Valentines card was produced. From here, Valentine’s Day consumerism spiralled into the heart-shaped, diamond-studded venture that we see today. For example, in 2009 the USA made £9.2 billion in revenue linked to Valentine’s Day. This may be seen as a day to celebrate love, but when it is unpicked then the capitalist undertones are clear to see. In the current context of Covid where many people are struggling to make ends meet, then Valentine’s Day can be viewed as an additional burden to an already stretched budget. And yet, people are concerned about missing out on Valentine’s Day.
So why are we so conditioned not to question Valentine’s Day and the stress and financial burden that it brings to so many? Well, it’s useful to think about where it all starts. From a young age, and by young I mean from early primary school, the conditioning begins. From age four, children in schools are drawing hearts and making cards for parents and carers for the 14th February. There are Valentine’s Day discos and other events laden with heart-shaped cookies and gifts. So, instead of teaching our children to question and critically explore things that are foist upon them by a capitalist system, they are taught not to question and to ‘buy in’ and accept Valentine’s Day as part of life.
Sadly, it is instilled in children that to show love and affection and to truly care for someone then you should buy something for them. This taps into our in-built need to be loved, wanted and accepted and that this love is attached to consumerist goods that need to be purchased. Children and young people are surrounded by Valentine’s Day consumerism, from a very young age, via web-based ads, shop displays and the actions of adults. They aren’t in a position to question Valentine’s Day and it then becomes ingrained in them as a normal part of life.
But what message does this give to our children and young people? It tells them that love can be bought, that we have to spend money to show someone that we love them and implies that if they do not receive anything then they are less worthy. The financial cost of what a Valentine’s gift has is now more central than the thought behind it, and this is rarely questioned.
Capitalism has weaponised love, one of our greatest needs, for financial gain under the guise of Valentine’s Day.