Fluff and nonsense

You can send a Valentine to your 'super-duper girlfriend', your 'hunny bunny wife', or even to your 'No. 1 son'. What next: your lovely bubbly besty friend?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Valentine’s Day is a trauma for two groups of people: teenage girls, and journalists. I have been both, and I expect your ‘With Sympathy’ cards as soon as the postal strike is over.

For teenage girls, 14 February means a messy outpouring of hormonal insecurities. You don’t wanna go there. For journalists, the problem is more prosaic. In a world that loves talking about sex but seems increasingly uptight about actually doing it, Valentine’s Day can be recycled annually as a great metaphor for – well, just about anything to do with personal relationships. How do you narrow it down?

Teenagers are assumed to be physically maturing younger and having sex earlier. So long as they don’t become pregnant or start getting drunk at parties with their biology teachers, this is generally accepted. But for some of the old guard, who still get shocked by the cover-girls of teenage magazines (Make up! Miniskirts! What is the world coming to!), Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to talk about lost innocence. Just a few decades ago, pubescent kids were wearing knee socks, playing lacrosse and picnicking wholesomely in the outside air – now they eat burgers and openly practice the arts of seduction. What is the world coming to, when adolescent girls are more shocked by the idea of boiling an egg than they are by the thought of giving a blow job?

Back in the real world, of course, Valentine’s Day really is for kids. Far more disturbing is the way that adults are appropriating this high-school tradition – and its language – for their own infantile ends. Near spiked’s offices in central London, the card shops are teeming with suited professionals gazing fondly at slogans like ‘super-duper girlfriend’, ‘fat kisses fella’, ‘hunny bunny wife’ and ‘big growly hubby’.

According to the UK market research group Mintel, 84 percent of 18- to 24-year olds are planning to send a card, and 43 percent of 20- to 24-year olds list a cuddly toy as one of their most popular gift choices (1). Forget the fears about kids growing up too fast – Valentine’s Day now seems more representative of what has been termed middle youth or adultescence, to describe those thirtysomethings who will do anything rather than grow up.

For those who like to believe the fairytale, the enduring popularity of Valentine’s Day is proof that romance is not yet dead. Okay, so this is singleton society, where you don’t want a lover, you just need a friend; where Mars and Venus are apparently still light years apart. Yet when February comes around, the deluge of hearts and flowers apparently remind us that the old-fashioned ways are, if not the best, at least quite nice on the side.

But in an age obsessed with sexual harassment and stalking, romance ain’t as straightforward as it used to be. Sending a cute card to your secretary could be a nice gesture or a disciplinary offence; sending a florists’ worth of flowers to your ex-lover is as likely to earn you a spell in jail as it is an invite to come up for coffee. To be on the safe side, you could try the tradition of signing the card with a question mark – but post-anthrax panic, anonymous mail is about as welcome as a gas bill. The Valentines reunited website lets you send an anonymous email to the object of your desires. How long before this starts a scare about sexual spam? Place your bets now.…

If you are a trendy academic, you might want to run a seminar or two on the commodification of luuurve. Now that influential theorists have us thinking that we live in some kind of post-material world that is nevertheless obsessed with consumption, commodification has become a catch-all term that can be applied to everything and make you look very clever indeed. A Valentine’s card costs a couple of quid – ergo, love is a commodity! PhDs have been awarded for less.

Of course, if you are in the teabag business, you can take this whole thing a stage further and produce an advert which tells us all how special we are and how Tetley doesn’t just bring you tea, it loves you from the bottom of its heart. Why not? If Tetley thinks we need therapy more than we need tea, it clearly has little faith in its product. Meanwhile, the London Underground has delved a few decades into history and recycled those terrible ‘love is’ cartoons of naked toddlers, in order to instruct us in appropriate behaviour. Love is…not dropping litter? Give us a break!

Whichever of these theories takes your fancy, you can be sure of one thing: the more Valentine’s Day bumf there is, the less any of it has to do with sex. Okay, so you can buy a card telling your boyfriend to ‘Snog me, chew me, come and do me!’ – but you can also get one which says ‘you really take my breath away’, complete with a badge reading ‘Toxic botty burps likely’. You can also buy a Valentine’s card for your ‘No. 1’ son or daughter. (Isn’t there a psychological term for this kind of obscene carry-on?) Soon you will probably be able to buy a card for your best friend, brother, colleague, cat – just to spread the message that love is all around, in a platonic non-committed kind of way.

Valentine’s Day captures the same kind of mood as Will ‘Pop Idol’ Young and his safe sex college discos – silly, cutesy, infantile and naff. But without it, where would journalists and teenage girls be?

Read on:

Love and sex

Sex – all in the mind?, by Jennie Bristow
(1) Mintel news release, 13 February 2002

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Topics Politics


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