A prison made of flowers: how Valentine's Day sells us patriarchy disguised as romance

After three waves of feminism, we're now being told subservience is "romantic". You can't be too hard on yourself, but you have to acknowledge the problem: so I will take those flowers and my boyfriend's coat, but I will keep my name, my goals, and my ind

“You know you have to buy me flowers, right?” In an effort to avoid that (presumably) awkward moment where my boyfriend shows up on Valentine's Day, bouquet-not-in-hand, I figured I would do him a favour. He was new to the serious relationship game – it was possible he didn't know the rules.

Now, I am fully aware that cut flowers are not only useless, but environmentally irresponsible. But that hasn’t prevented me from adopting certain expectations around the day. Nor have my feminist sensibilities, however much I rationally understand that holidays like Valentine's Day are little more than a tacky cash-grab and an excuse for men to pretend as though uncomfortable lingerie isn't really just a gift to their penises.

"But I like them," isn't an excuse that will hold up in feminist court either – there are an endless number of things people may well “like” which aren't necessarily “good” or ethical. (See: Hunter Moore, who “loves” ruining women's lives and behaving, generally, like a living, breathing, sociopathic cat turd). As a long-time critic of “but it makes me feel good” feminism, I feel obligated to look at what is behind the “rules” of romance many of us take for granted.

When my boyfriend gives me his coat while we're waiting for a cab in the middle of January, I am grateful for the coat. Showing up at work and finding flowers there feels romantic – it's a show of affection that says "I want you and everyone in your office to know you are loved." But I've never bought a boyfriend flowers. And I would never give up my coat and freeze in order to keep my boyfriend warm.

While I realise the lack of beflowered boyfriends is not a particularly serious and pressing issue of our time, I also realise that when we witness a phenomenon that is very obviously skewed, in a gendered sense, it can't simply be brushed off.

Feminist writer Jill Filipovic points out that, as a culture, we still believe there are fundamental differences between men and women in many ways; and that those differences are tied to power. We often “frame those power differences as romantic or protective,” she says.

When we think about traditional notions of romance, we might think of things like jewellery, showy proposals, a man literally or figuratively sweeping a woman off of her feet – acts that are tied to the notion of the male as not just the provider, but the romantic actor, and the woman as the passive recipient of romantic acts.

Journalist Ann Friedman says that “even for those of us who don’t believe, on an intellectual level, that men should be the dominant ones in heterosexual relationships, it’s really hard to deprogramme years of stories we’ve been told about romance.”

Despite our best efforts, we still learn men are the ones who have power and, as a result, it’s not uncommon for men to feel threatened by women who aren't subservient or who don't need a male breadwinner to take care of them.

“The number of times I'd be out at a bar and tell a guy I was a lawyer that he would literally turn around and walk the other way . . .” Filipovic says, but it’s a sad truth that a lot of men still feel emasculated by successful women.

A study (pdf) that came out last year found that men feel bad when their female partners succeed or “outperform them”. The idea that a man's self-esteem might be tied to feeling more “competent, strong and intelligent than his female partner” shows us that our heterosexual relationships are still steeped in old-fashioned notions of male power.

As a woman who is both driven and outspoken, I've certainly felt that. Women aren't supposed to prioritise their lives, goals or careers above their male partners or families. It’s seen as selfish and, therefore, unfeminine.

Friedman says that, actually, it’s this issue that provides a context for how she feels about traditionally romantic gifts or behaviour. “I don’t want flowers from the kind of guy who gets an uneasy look on his face when I talk about how great my career is,” she says. In an equal relationship where there is mutual respect and both partners do nice, romantic things for one another, Friedman says, “it feels OK to me”.

Even many modern marriages still maintain some patriarchal traditions that place higher value on men's lives and identities than women's. As Zoe Holman recently pointed out in an article for the Guardian, “82 per cent of married Australian women still assume their husband’s surname” and a survey last year showed that only a third of women in the UK, in their twenties, kept their names in marriage. Despite three waves of feminism, the majority of women around the world are still clinging to this gendered practice.

There are myriad reasons we can and do offer as justification for taking our husbands’ names: cultural or familial pressure, simplicity, tradition. Maybe we never liked our last name to begin with and are taking this as an opportunity to replace it. What defenders of this choice don't often cop to, however, is the romance-factor.

“I remember being in middle school; I had this big crush on this boy named John Butterfield and I still have my journals where I'd written: ‘Mrs Jill Butterfield’ all over the margin,” says Jill Filipovic. It's a silly, embarrassing exercise that is also something many of us likely participated in as girls. “It was so much a part of my understanding of what it meant to be in love with somebody,” she adds.

Since middle school, Filipovic's perspective has changed. She argues, in an article for the Guardian, that the practice of taking our husbands’ names in marriage “disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone's wife or mother or daughter or sister.”

Many women see it as a symbol of commitment and family unity – but it's a symbol that doesn't go both ways, and that matters. If it weren't a gendered choice, guaranteed there would be far fewer Mr and Mrs. Dicks out there. That it is viewed as more “socially acceptable” for women to take their husband's names than the reverse is symbolic of patriarchy’s hold on society.

Looking at how traditional notions of male power and female subordination shape “romance” isn’t meant to shame women who, like me, are admittedly tickled when surprised with a bouquet of flowers or who still appreciate their date opening the car door for them.

Friedman is wary of falling into a dynamic where feminists spend more time beating up on themselves for not being feminist enough than being angry about the patriarchal structures they’re up against. “The burden of rewriting years of romantic narratives does not fall on you shivering next to your boyfriend after having rejecting his coat,” she says.

Filipovic says she tries to "strike a balance between recognising that gender differences play a role in my own relationships and trying to suss out which ones I can live with or even strengthen the relationship and which ones are actually undermining a sense of equality between us or speak to his idea of me as subservient."

“The answer is not ‘flowers are terrible’,” Friedman says. “And the answer is not to deny every impulse we have, but to ask why we want it.”

And so I will take my flowers and my boyfriend's coat, but I will keep my name, my goals, and my independence. You can open the door for me, but that doesn't make me yours.

Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her website is Feminist Current

Flowers can make you feel loved and appreciated. But too often, they are a one-sided, gendered gesture. Photo: Getty
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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.