This Valentine’s Day, enthusiasts are expected to spend approximately $17.6 billion on romance-related goods—jewelry, cards, flowers and chocolates—a ten-year high, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s not even the whole picture, when you include all the other things that go along with the “perfect” romantic experience: heart shaped doohickeys, sexy lingerie, bikini waxes, fancy dinners, candle lit romantic massages for two, romantic getaways, puppies and couples counseling. Clearly, the economics of love is serious business.
But despite evidence of how much love costs these days and cultural norms that are evolving away from traditional gender roles in romantic relationships, the commercialization of Valentine’s Day continues to communicate traditional and conventional fantasies about gender and love. It’s what theorists call heteronormativity: the structures and norms that privilege heterosexual monogamy, while simultaneously stigmatizing behavior that deviates from this model. How is it that heteronormativity still has such a stronghold on the public imagination, despite the fact that more and more people are choosing to delay or forgo marriage or despite the fact in more and more states across the country, marriage is no longer limited to people who are straight? How has it still intact after the Kim Kardashian marital disaster saga, or the notorious marital flameouts between Kevin Federline and Britney Spears or Katy Perry and Russell Brand? How has it weathered scandal after scandal in which the most ardent supporters of “marriage between a man and a woman” are unable to stay faithful?
Well, it’s the economy, stupid—except you’re not stupid. There is a romantic-industrial complex that nets billions of dollars from Valentine’s Day and weddings, and it needs you to “buy into” outdated ideas of love and marriage. The more you express your love through candies, chocolates, diamonds, rentals and registries, the more the RIC makes! Valentine’s Day is only one manifestation of the RIC: Americans spend $70–80 billion on weddings each year. With the average American wedding costing $27,000, marriage itself has become a luxury item. This is more than a struggle between old and new traditions—this is about money.
In fact, trends in marriage rates appear to be falling right in line with whether one can afford a wedding or not. In a recent study, the Brookings Institute found that in the past forty years, the marriage rate of the top 10 percent of female earners has increased or held steady, while dropping by more than 15 percent for the bottom 70 percent. The same study found that “men that experienced the most adverse economic changes also experienced the largest declines in marriage.” The least decrease in marriage rates were with the wealthiest 10 percent of male earners, age 30 to 50, but the sharpest decline was with men in the bottom twenty-fifth percentile of earnings, with a decrease from 86 percent in 1970 to 50 percent today. The researchers concluded that the single most significant reason that marriage rates have fallen is the number of men that feel they do not have the resources to marry.
The connection between economic factors and marriage rates is not a new one. It is marrying for love, in fact, that is new. In her seminal book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or, How Love Conquered Marriage, marriage historian Stephanie Coontz reveals that love has only been a real motivator for marriage for about 100 years. Marriage once provided social and financial footing for working-class people—giving them a family unit, permission and belonging to the culture. Until about the 1960s, people married for financial and social security (it was in the 1920s that the concept of marrying for love rose into prominence). But since the 1980s, people have not been marrying because they are not financially secure enough. Today marriage is a posh proposition between two well-to-do lovers.
Instead of looking at the economic barriers to marriage or the alternative lifestyles that challenge the heteronormative institution of marriage, the mainstream media prefers to lament the death of marriage and often points the finger at feminism as the culprit. Forbes asks in 2010, “Are New York’s Savviest Single Women in Crisis?”; in the same year The Economist runs the articles, “Sex and the Single Black Woman” and “The Decline in Asian Marriage: Asia’s Lonely Hearts,” both speculating on the faux crisis of the growing population of single ladies. In the last two years the New York Times has treated us to three op-eds, “Black Female and Single,” “Alone again, naturally” and “Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment,” each one in its own way—choosing a demographic of single women and explaining how their independence has come at the cost of finding love. Add to this all the dating advice “gurus” from Lori Gottlieb (Marry Him: The Case for Settling) to Steve Harvey (Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady), and you have an overabundance of people touting the line that female independence and having standards are the gravest threats to traditional ideas of romance.
The traditional romantic story relied on gender relationships that are no longer relevant—but that doesn’t mean the culture around us has giving men a break either. Instead, you see trend story after trend story in which men are pathologized as immature children that can’t get it together enough to start a family and do the responsible thing. A perfect example is Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men Into Boys.
Despite the negative talk about the crumbling of the American family, there have been a handful of recent testimonials in favor of the single life, including an important piece in Boston magazine last month, “Single By Choice.” Author Janelle Nanos points out some of the varied ways that single women and men are creating new and unique lives for themselves. Furthermore, according to Census data, as of 2005 4.85 million couples were cohabitating. In 2007, 51 million households were headed by singles. Most surprisingly, in 2005 households led by unmarried surpassed those led by married couples. And according to a study released by the Pew Institute last March, 44 percent of young people think marriage has actually become obsolete. It’s not that people don’t believe in love, aren’t coupling or having children—they are just getting creative about it.
The RIC makes people unhappy by pressuring them to spend lots of money and at the same time making it impossible for all but a small percentage to fulfill their “duty.” The remainder of folks, on the other hand, are unable to participate or are left with feelings of inadequacy. Whether people are coupled and can’t afford the trappings of romance or are single and focusing their emotional energy on friends, the RIC has nothing for them. These are the same disparities that left many Americans broke and taking to the streets, just last year. And just like the economic bubble, the romantic bubble is seemingly bursting.
Valentine’s Day has become the ultimate symbol of therelationship between love and economic interests. But we don’t have to buy the same false promises left to us by the RIC. We can instead, like Occupy Wall Street, take an economic recession and fill it with ideas of possibility. The important role that loving relationships—romantic and otherwise—play in maintaining a happy, engaged, active and compassionate society cannot be denied.
That’s why this year the lovers of the world should unite and Occupy Valentine’s Day. Romantic citizens deserve a better, more authentic and sustainable ways to express their affections—whether that be spending time with their friends and families, donating money they would spend on a romantic dinner to a domestic violence shelter, forgoing that expensive wedding for a more meaningful but less costly one. Above all, let’s find a way to honor ourselves that does not rely on buying stuff.