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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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.