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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

Flowers can make you feel loved and appreciated. But too often, they are a one-sided, gendered gesture. Photo: Getty

“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