The Heteronormative Bias of Valentine’s Day
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Is Valentine’s Day a celebration of heteronormative love only?
Each year, the 14th of February is a date anticipated by many, but probably dreaded by more. Besides being an excuse for materialism, commercialism and (often) cringe-worthy Instagram content, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for corporations to remind us that non-heteronormativity is “different”.
Valentine’s Day has a long history, beginning over 2000 years ago, and three tales form its story: the Roman celebration of Lupercalia, a festival of fertility; an English poet in the middle ages who wrote romantic poems inspired by the birds that mate in February; and the imprisoned Duke of Orleans who wrote poetry to his wife while he was captive - later to be recognised as the first Valentine’s card. Neither honouring parenthood, nor writing cards and expressing love through poetry are inherently heteronormative, so how, and why, has the modern day interpretation of Valentine’s Day turned so “straight”?
Yes, cis-gendered, heterosexual love was the type these stories involve, but we can’t blame today’s lack of LGBTQIA+ representation on centuries-old stereotypes. Instead, the problem lies in the inability, or unwillingness, of contemporary society to rid itself of the view that there is only one context in which such celebrations can take place. Values carried from previous decades of discrimination, make it impossible for Valentine’s Day to escape its binary origins.
Many history-making and life-changing evolutions have occurred in the last several years to support the love and the rights of queer people. The legalisation of gay marriage and same-sex couple adoption were poignant steps in achieving equality in the UK.
But, unfortunately, Valentine’s Day today isn’t about equality, nor is it really about love. It is about making money and money is not found in sensitivity. So, while society, in general, has made steps towards becoming more progressive, February the 14th is a leap backwards, fuelled by profit-hungry corporations.
How many examples could you give of a Valentine’s Day advert featuring anything other than a straight, white couple, most likely at a candle-lit dinner or giving each other sparkly gifts? Could you even find a depiction of two women or two men in a relationship in the card section of your local supermarket? For this representation, you have to specially select the ‘gay’ option from a website’s drop-down menu, or choose a card that simply says something non-descript like ‘I love you more than I love our dog’. Appealing to the LGBTQIA+ community is a box-ticking exercise if it is even done at all, making it almost impossible to see Valentine’s Day through anything other than a heteronormative lens. It’s no wonder queer individuals feel excluded from Valentine’s Day.
I’m sure most people who fit under the heteronormative umbrella would love to share the (over-exaggerated) romantic ideals that are conveyed on Valentine’s Day with those who don’t! Unfortunately, this relies on several businesses’ willingness to give prominence to queer couples or to feature a transgender or non-binary character. Valentine’s Day can be perceived as an opportunity for those at the top of the marketing ladder to pass down heteronormativity, as the majority of consumers will relate to it. The consequence of this is that even the strongest allies to the queer community have blinkers forced upon them, such that non-heteronormativity is often forgotten about. Passively allowing a whole community to be ignored is, in fact, just as bad as actively removing them from the Valentine’s Day narrative.
However, this discrimination is not exclusive to the queer community - the portrayal of different ethnicities, disabilities and body types are heavily missing in Valentine’s Day promotions. This twisted narrative perpetuates the harmful idea that only white, slim, able-bodied, heterosexual romance deserves celebration. Putting the spotlight on heteronormativity alone means other forms of love become the understudy - equally as worthy but rarely make it on the stage.
The onus should not be on the queer community to create their own space to celebrate February 14th. A conscious effort by society to challenge corporations’ lack of representation is needed to put pressure on their lack of inclusivity so that the real values of Valentine’s Day - fertility, romance and love - can be expressed and celebrated by everyone, unbound by prejudice.