Thursday, February 12, 2015

More than a celebration of love

by Gideon Lasco, MD

Red roses, Swiss chocolates, romantic candlelight dinner dates: Such are the images that we conjure and strive to enact during Valentine's Day. Listen to the radio and even the songs that were played during your JS Prom are brought back to life. This reminds me that in my high school days, "Who's your Valentine's date?" was the question that gave voice to the peer pressure to have someone on February 14.

Oftentimes we accept these things as part of the calendar. After Christmas, the season of giving, comes Valentine’s and the season of love. Then comes the Lenten season, the typhoon season…and we’re back to Christmas again. But what might we gain if we don't take these things for granted? There are different perspectives that allow us to look at Valentine's - and other holidays - in deeper ways.

A political economy approach, for instance, would historicize Valentine's Day, from its beginnings as the Catholic “Feast of St. Valentine” into its present form, and examine how institutions, including industries, have played a role in shaping it. In Japan, for instance, it was large businesses that fostered the tradition of girls giving boys chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and in 1978, Japan’s National Confectionery Industry Association launched the tradition of boys giving back - chocolates of course - on “White Day” (March 14) - month after Valentine’s.

Gender studies would look at how Valentine's Day serves to perpetuate ideologies of gender, that is, societal expectations of what it means to be a man and a woman. In Valentine’s Day “rituals”, the male is the gallant giver while the female the gracious receiver. The “ladies’ man” knows how to make his woman (or women) happy, and the women are expected at their most beautiful.

On the other hand, public health would look at more pragmatic concerns, such as the proliferation of sexually-transmitted illnesses. Some years ago, the Department of Health distributed condoms during Valentine’s Day, which provoked objections from the Catholic Church. Just a few days ago, Secretary Garin encouraged condom use, invoking the rising cases of HIV to give her appeal a sense of urgency. We think of love as the province of emotions and feelings but the blurred lines between love and sex implicate the body - and the biomedical - in thinking about romance.

What can we take from these perspectives?

First, holidays can be problematic, even oppressive, to people who do not have the means to celebrate them in a culturally sanctioned way. The images of Valentine's Day come with a price: the (overpriced) roses, the chocolates, the dinners, and this could be a burden especially to the poor. Will Choc-Nut suffice - or sampaguitas? Our Valentine’s rituals are embedded in a value system that gives preferences and hierarchies to certain categories of things, such as imported chocolates, and particular kinds of flowers.

The gender ideologies at play can cause singles to feel left out, and so might gays and lesbians, as well as those who have lost their loves, for whatever reason. Arguably, in making “couples” visible, Valentine’s Day creates “singleness” as a category that many people may not even think of during the rest of the year.

Second, however, holidays are amenable to change, contestation and resistance. Writing for Time Magazine (Feb 11, 2015), Janice Kaplan spoke of celebrating Valentine's the day after - when the prices of roses are much cheaper, the restaurants quieter. “Love always seems lovelier to me at half-price the next day,” she quips. Others reject the perceived materialism of Valentine’s by exchanging gifts that cannot be bought: singing a song, making a poem or a letter, or preparing dinner for their loved ones. These acts remind us that “commercialisation” merely furnishes us with symbols whose meanings still derive from the relationships themselves - and challenges us to be creative.

Moreover, people do appropriate Valentine's Day to fit their own circumstances and identities. Single people gather together in parties or even “group dates” to celebrate their “singleness”. In modern societies where marriage rates are falling, and where staying single is a growing preference, magazines now trumpet the benefits of being single in Valentine’s while others offer ways to celebrate it as a single person (Huffington Post suggests “Have a great time with friends”). Still others emphasise a celebration of love construed more broadly: for our family, friends, and beyond. For instance, WWF-Philippines, on their Facebook page, exhorts people to “have a big green heart for the planet."

***

Today I passed through EDSA and the billboards, too, pay tribute to Valentine's Day. There are romantic jazz concerts, dining promos in hotels, and invitations to “be beautiful” in this month of love. Even the red SMDC logo of a rising condominium near Shaw was laced with hearts.

But for all our thinking and theorising on what all these means, I suppose that in the final analysis, what would matter more to us is still what would bring the most joy to our loved ones. For someone who expects a bouquet of flowers, a poem might not suffice, unless you agree beforehand that it's a great idea. Thinking about these things, thus, requires thinking together - a call that can be extended to our society at large. One place to start is the mindfulness that there are many ways to celebrate - or not to celebrate - Valentine's Day. Just as there are many ways to love, and many ways to celebrate love.

Manila
February 12, 2015

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