Everyone I know seems to adore Valentine’s Day. In a group chat this January, my good friends on campus spontaneously put together a Valentine’s Day get-together. All of us will sit around a porch (safely distanced), drinking wine and being messes together. Sounds great, right? Well, I’m only cautiously optimistic about Valentine’s Day this year. While I’m happy to celebrate affection in private — whether with a partner or, as is the case this year, with a bunch of friends I care about — social behavior on Valentine’s Day ruins the holiday for me.
Take last year, for example. I was on my monthly trip to the grocery store, stocking up on the nutrients that my Harkness Co-op membership could not regularly provide — namely, alcohol and iron. I grabbed a case of beer and the materials to make my favorite sandwich, picking up a cheap bottle of wine on my way out in anticipation of an evening with the person I was seeing. As I walked up to the register, fishing my driver’s license out of my wallet, my excitement turned to shock. A couple of teenagers were pressed up against the gum and tabloids, snogging violently, their hands down each other’s pants. My response to this was not, “Aww, they’re so cute.” Rather, I felt violated, like I was privy to some strange act of exhibitionism. Despite my recent excitement about my plans, it took me a moment to register the Valentine’s Day connection — that this couple thought it was acceptable that they were feeling each other up in the damn grocery store! I distracted myself with my phone, until the cashier told the couple they were next.
The year before was just as bad. I was taking a walk around campus, passing through Tappan Square, if I remember correctly, when another person, lip wobbling, tears streaming down their face, approached me and began to spill about their woebegone chances in love. I muttered consolation and offered a sympathetic look. When I tried to move away, they followed. It was all too much for me! To get away, I had to tell the poor sap that I was late for class. Walk ruined.
These aren’t atypical Valentine’s Day experiences for me. I’ve often found myself in awkward public situations on Valentine’s Day — whether privy to wild public displays of affection or playing love doctor for some morose stranger, many of my strangest social interactions went down on or around Feb. 14. Thinking about this year’s celebrations — hopefully more muted than in past years due to the pandemic — I’ve been asking myself what it is about Valentine’s Day. Why do people think their behavior — whether it be copping feels in public places or openly crying to people they’ve never met — is all right?
What bothers me most about the whole spectacle is not the aberrant behavior of people around me — it’s the fact that corporations encourage this kind of grandiose performativity in order to make money. We all know the diamond store ads where the couple stands in the snow, puts on their new gemstones, and begins making out. That tactic works, as it turns out. According to American Broadcasting Company reporters Emily Shapiro and Caterina Andreano, chocolate companies reported $1.7 billion in profits on Valentine’s Day in 2017. Jewelry made $4.3 billion. Each industry encourages sweeping, public gestures in its advertising.
That kind of messaging doesn’t just sell sweets, however. It puts pressure on relationships, and conditions expectations of performativity and PDA. In response to all the mush they see, single folks have responded with widespread self-pity (which is also capitalized on by the candy industry), resulting in a kind of manufactured public sadness. And we — particularly those who work service jobs — inevitably deal with both kinds of intense situations.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Valentine’s Day can’t be fun, or that all pageantry comes from manufactured emotions. Spending extra time with your partner (or loved ones) is fantastic; if you’re down in the dumps, those feelings are valid. What I’m saying is this: Celebrate or cry with people who love you. And keep those celebrations to yourselves!