Who likes to show Valentine’s Day a bit of love? Show of hands. I, for one, never have, because it has seemed to me that squishing expressions of love into one day of socially-approved heteronormative fluff is pretty empty. Apparently, however, you were in want of some musings on this holiday, readers, and in my journalistic strivings to bring it to you, I have, can we say, thought about it a little harder? This year, I’m going to overcome my dyed-in-the-wool side-eyeing cynicism and give Valentine’s another chance. That’s because what I resent is not actually the day itself, but what it represents about how culturally stagnant ideas of love are.
From where I’m standing, as documented here a couple of months back, the biggest push right now to shift how we frame love is a legal one, in the form of the pursuit of same-sex marriage rights. Legal pursuit of recognition is important, and it’s routinely achingly necessary. It is never going to be the clincher for acceptability of a given form of love. Lots of people still look askance at interracial relationships, for goodness sakes. Cultural and social recognition and acceptance needs to happen. It’s only by changing attitudes that we can take on the damage to marginalised populations that governments can’t ultimately control, particularly physical violence.
And there are a thousand little psychic violences, too. One of the major problems for both legal and cultural recognition of what love looks like is that it tends to be fiercely normativising. You’re only acceptable if you want perform love in ways as close to the norm as possible, with monogamy, kids, and neighbourliness. That’s why, if queer TV characters aren’t horribly cardboard, they’re usually white male professionals (hi there, Modern Family and Brothers & Sisters). It’s not that diversity is becoming more integrated in the mainstream cultural landscape, it’s that fragments of who people are and how love works are increasingly allowed to appear, but in nervously delineated ways.
And what’s on my television is way behind the times and strangely conservative relative to what I’m seeing in person. (My joke is that I want to see the polyamorous lesbian version of the internationally franchised TV dating show The Farmer Wants a Wife.) (But I’m a little bit serious.) The requirement for a relationship to be as close to the norm as possible while not embodying the fundaments of that norm – like heterosexuality – is a requirement to advertise that this love is falling short of a cultural ideal. Acceptance of all kinds of love needs to happen in ways that acknowledge and expand rather than inch acceptability open just a little bit at a time in ways that still centre norms.
We’re not just wading in stagnant ideas about whose love is acceptable; even the relationships with the most social approval are stuck fast. Pursuing love becomes about pursuing social acceptability rather than fulfilment. Do you ever get the feeling that how you approach relationships is vastly different to what you see on television, which is different again from how people around you act and think? Have you noticed how people’s ideas and boundaries will shift to fit their social environment rather than their own desires or observations? I’m seeing some serious disconnects. And so are researchers: studies are showing that the myth of widespread and constant youthful indiscriminate hook ups used to deride young people isn’t actually what’s happening – instead, teens and twenty-somethings are, as it turns out, people with varied sexual practices. Gasp! Not a singular standard at all.
Love doesn’t look like a script with particular times to call, and say I love you, and there’s no set of guidelines for what’s weird and what’s not. It isn’t always about a romantic and sexual relationship, and, when it is, that doesn’t always comprise the most significant relationship in a life. Love doesn’t look a lot of the ways that are prescribed, and friendships and family and looks across a room with someone you’ll never see again can be pretty powerful, too.
There is a whole lot of anxiety about enacting love correctly, and that’s often to fit in with the easiest ways to live your life in a society that demands you structure your life according to a singular idea of love. It can be about fitting in with your peers or social group, or it can even be anxiety about failing to live up to ideas you’ve internalised about what kind of person you are and the kinds of feeling you have. As feminist theorist Lauren Berlant puts it, this ‘manages to sublimate singularity on behalf of maintaining proximity to a vague prospect of social belonging’. Ultimately, it’s your life, and your heart. Be the ways that make you feel right. Love well in the ways you love, and don’t let the smallness of rules and narrow imaginations keep you away from living magnificently.
That’s the big clash on Valentine’s Day, the disconnect between the individual feeling and the incredibly normativising practice. It’s especially at times like this that it’s important to reflect on the messages we’re swallowing and replaying to ourselves time and again. That’s the other thing: love is about society, and other people, sure, but it’s also in how we behave with ourselves. It’s hard to assess and hold ourselves steady when we haven’t taken a good hard look at what we really want. bell hooks says that the ‘transformative power of love is not fully embraced in our society because we often wrongly believe that torment and anguish are our “natural” condition.’ That’s something the representations of love shoved in our faces by the cultural machine are very much not helping. Taking that good hard look and pursuing transformative love, personally and culturally, is well within our grasp.
There’s something wrong if we’re having to default to a cultural script rather than following feeling. On this Valentine’s Day, show yourself some love and stop to think through what exactly loving means.