THERE are about 100 people packed into the narrow aisles of the Coop's card section. It is the day before Valentine's Day, after work.
"Look at this one," says a sleekly-dressed working woman to her friend. "He'll kill me if I get this."
The card she is pointing to says "Honey, You're the world's best lover!" A grotesque caricature of a man leers on the front of the card. Inside it reads, "Just kidding! Happy Valentine's Day!"
The woman puts the card back and moves down the racks and racks of seasonal sentiments. She settles on a nice, tame Boynton rendition that says simply, "I love you, sweetheart." It has a teddy bear on the front.
The woman in the Coop decides not to transgress. She settles for safe romance, rather than any sort of subversive statement about her relationship to the man she tells me is her "soon-to-be" husband.
The first card is a joke between women friends, an acknowledgement that all might not be perfect even on a day dedicated to the pursuit of storybook romance. The second card is the real statement--the decision to follow the forms and rituals that guide the expression of emotion in American society.
VALENTINE'S Day is the day, more than any other, when Americans act out the ritualized myths of heterosexual companionship. On this one day of the year, feelings are acceptable--indeed, compulsory. Love is the motif, lovers guided by the need to present proof of their affections in the commercially packaged way that makes their sentiments unimpeachable.
More than any other holiday, Valentine's Day is constructed as a women's event. Women, who have no President's Days or Memorial Days or Columbus Days, are stuck with two red-letter slots on the calendar--Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. In a sense, both play the same function. They pay symbolic tribute to the stereotypically feminine attributes of emotional sensitivity. They demand ritualized male acquiescence, elaborate paeans to women's invaluable role in the private sphere.
Women on Valentine's Day are both the subjects and the objects of male attention. Subjects, as in the annual Cosmopolitan article that tells women how to survive Valentine's Day on their own. Objects, as in the annual Cosmopolitan article that tells women how to get and keep a man in order to survive Valentine's Day without being on their own.
But whatever their precise status, one theme runs throughout the Valentine's Day festivities with disconcerting consistency: that women must be placated on this day, must be shown that their men really do care, even if they show it only once a year.
Women, the message is clear, are the ones who need these sentimentalized affirmations of love. They're the ones whose social status is calculated in terms of their relationship to men. They are the members of society whose identity is all too often constructed around their roles as "girlfriends" or "wives." And therefore women are the targets of the Valentine's Day creed: It is supposed to be their opiate.
I have a friend, a woman, who did not like the prevailing definitions of Valentine's Day.
Last year, she and several other women decided to celebrate what they called a "feminist Valentine's Day." They gave each other presents, went out to a nice dinner. It was, my friend says, an attempt to "affirm our love for each other as platonic friends, as women."
It sounds like a pretty good idea.
Susan B. Glasser '90, former managing editor of The Crimson, writes regularly on women's issues.