© Gustavo Villar
Just when it seems we’ve got the gender equality thing sorted out, along comes Valentine’s Day to screw the whole thing up and undo about 100 years of social progress.
Valentine’s Day is our most conflicted annual occasion, a market-driven stew of angst and disappointed expectations. It’s also our most sexist holiday.
Although advertisers would like everyone to believe Valentine’s Day is a modern celebration of love in all its many forms, that’s only partly true. V-Day today remains stubbornly rooted in post-war sexist stereotypes: it’s still overwhelmingly an occasion for men to fete their mates, spouses or latest companions. When it comes to giving tokens of affection on this particular day, parity is a long, long way off.
I say this knowing that many women (including many in my life) don’t fit this stereotype. They rise to the occasion with generosity, creativity and genuine love and help turn Valentine’s Day into the playful and tender exchange that it should be. But those women are outside the statistical norm.
Recent studies into V-Day consumer habits and behavior confirm what many men have long suspected — that the whole business is heavily tilted in favor of women.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend about $19 billion this year on Valentine’s gifts (even though only 55% of Americans celebrate the occasion). Men, on average, will spend about $108 on tokens for their loved one, while women spend an average $49. Fewer than half of the women who receive Valentine’s gifts also buy one for their partner.
Another 2014 study, by the Chase bank’s credit department, found that men expect (or hope) that their partners will spend about $230 on a V-Day gift for them. Alas, the same study showed women, on average, really only spend about $71.
And the saddest statistic of all? A full 43% of men surveyed said they expect to receive nothing on Valentine’s Day.
There are bigger things in the world to worry about, but if women really believe in fundamental equality, then something needs to be done to change the gift-giving paradigm that has turned Valentine’s Day into such a lopsided affair.
Gender-based income disparity is likely a contributing factor here, though that’s just part of the story. The problem is also partly the result of unimaginative media and equally thoughtless merchandisers.
Year after year, V-Day shoppers are presented with the usual assortment of gift options — flowers, candy, perfume, jewelry, lingerie. All gifts intended primarily for women. Marketers (who read those spending statistics) waste very little resources on the other side of the V-Day transaction, the one in which women celebrate their male companions.
Of course, men don’t help matters much. By and large, we’ve bought into the obligatory ritual of buying a ‘romantic’ gift, more as an appeasement than as a genuine, heartfelt expression of affection. (It should surprise no one that a study by the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association last year found that 53% of women said they would end their relationship if they didn’t get a Valentine’s gift from their partner.)
Men as a whole don’t put a lot of thought into the occasion because they don’t have to; retailers have made it all-too-easy to stick to the routine, buy predictable and impractical gifts, and get the whole thing over with as fast as you can swipe a credit card. And be honest: most guys are just happy when Feb. 15 finally dawns.
So where does that leave us? Well, another recent survey asked women what they would like to receive as a Valentine’s gift and compared that with what they really got. A full 86% had their expectations disappointed. Sigh.
All of this might make you think I’m one of those anti-Valentine’s people who find the whole experience offensive, but I’m not. Any day someone says “I love you” is better than the alternative.
But Valentine’s Day needs a serious reboot to rescue it from this sorry status quo. And that means we’re all going to have to do things differently.
First, take V-Day seriously and put in the time to find creative, meaningful ways to express your feelings to your partner, whether those feelings be love, lust, gratitude, appreciation or a personalized blend of some kind.
Second, talk about it beforehand. Whether you’re in a straight, queer or unique relationship, ask your partner well in advance of Feb. 14 what they want and expect from the occasion (if anything). No one likes to waste money, or cause unintended hurt feelings, or stumble blindly into the numerous pitfalls that dot the Valentine’s landscape.
And finally, insist on equal treatment in the gift-giving department, regardless of what kind of relationship you have, how long you’ve been in it, and which partner has the most disposable cash. That means men, don’t lavish your partner with an awkwardly disproportionate gift that she can’t match. And women, it’s time to join this party in a meaningful way.
Love is the best thing we have. Let’s celebrate it and share it as much as we can, even on this most troublesome occasion. Let’s make Valentine’s Day fun again.
CREDITS: Top photo by Gustavo Villar.