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
Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?