Sigh. It’s Valentines Day. Just another day to some of you, but a very important day to others. And me? I still haven’t quite figured that out.
Everyone from men to my mother assume that as a feminist I must hate the holiday, but I like the color pink a lot, as well as the fact that there is a day set aside to honor love. It might be a sticky sweet consumerist mess, but it is still about LOVE, glorious love. In the words of the Ewan McGregor, “Above all things I believe in love. Love is like oxygen. Love is a many splendid thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!”
However, not all my feelings about the holiday are good. As fellow bloggers Lauranium and BlondeRedhead pointed out, there is a rampant air of “hetero-normativity” behind the holiday. It’s a day for straight folks to honor their love, at least, that’s the way it’s portrayed by marketing agents and advertisers. And that’s not the only problem. As a straight girl what I feel is is the pressure of expectations. Does my boyfriend/lover expect a card? Candy? Is that too impersonal? Should I make something? What is he doing for me? Is he taking me out? Is it going to feel romantic enough and not tacky? Will we have perfect sex? If we don’t, are we not in love? The confusion makes love stop feeling like oxygen and start to feel like a choke hold, reminding us that there are gender scripted roles influencing even our most intimate relationships.
And Valentines Day is not the only time that this confusion is raised. As feminists,we talk a lot about the roles imposed on women through the media, but the same problem also exists for men. Just as the narrow views of women encourage men to hold onto their stereotypical and patriarchal beliefs, images of men encourage women to the same. Perhaps the most flagrant outpost of this gender divide is reality TV, something that many of us love to hate and watch way more then we admit. My eyes are still glued (in both disgust and entertainment) to the Jersey Shore, and I make no apologies. There is a lot to learn about our society, our culture, and even LOVE on these shows.
What I have learned recently according to these shows is that men solve all problems in the life of a straight girl. From Teen Mom to Hoarders, what these women want is their man to come back or their man to treat them better, or their men to buy them better Valentines presents. If only we had good men, men that really stood up to our expectations everything would be fine. We might even be able to get rid of the Bitching Table.
I am guessing that someone was thinking along those lines when they created my new favorite reality abomination – Genuine Ken, The Search for the Great American Boyfriend. Here’s the dolls:
This web TV show made by Mattel and presented by Hulu doesn’t ask it’s viewers to make judgments – they do that for them. From Compassionate to Party Ken, we know what stereotypically masculine traits to expect from the boys, who stick to their roles with a fervent passion. They are joined by Barbiesque host Whitney Port (you might remember her from The Hills), whose words of wisdom include such gems as, “A genuine Ken’s style is about more than his looks – from his bedroom to his car, things always have to look good” and “The asparagus you made was bland, and you have been bland in this competition.” She is often joined by guests judges (who also look like Barbie) to watch the boys compete in challenges such as decorating a bachelor pad, surfing, and cooking. To be a Genuine Ken, one must have style, romance, and athleticism and really show that “Ken quality.”
If the boys fail to live up to their judge’s expectations, their “tag of authenticity,” aka a literal price tag, is cut from their suit sleeve and they are sent home. So far, it’s looking like Kash Kiefer is going to be a hard one to beat.
The boys are asked to play out their masculinity by being pit against one another in uncomfortably competitive ways. My least favorite part is when they pick teams and one man is left standing alone, staring at his feet and wondering why he was picked last. Not only do the boys have to be the most charming, but they have to display desirable masculine traits, such as confidence, leadership, intelligence, and rationality. Their physicality and personality must be strong, but they also have to aspire towards the three C’s of what women want – caring, compassion, and communication. As one Ken said about another, “If he would take the time to talk less and listen more, he would be an amazing boyfriend.”
I have (obviously) always been a little confused about Barbie and what message it sends to the genders.
This is me and my friend Alicia in the Toys R Us Barbie Dream House in Times Square this past New Years. I was really excited to be there, but also irritated that the three top Barbies on display were Barbie with baby, Barbie with kitchen, and Barbie with a washing machine. But I wasn’t only confused because of the sexist qualities of Barbie. I mean, what the hell is this?
Poop and scoop Barbie? I would be so sad if that’s what my parents picked out for Christmas. I guess Barbie really has to do it all, even be environmentally conscious.
Seeing Genuine Ken reminded me that straight men are also met with this challenge. They have to be everything that women and men expect them to be. They have to walk a fine line between desirable masculinity and what I call “boyfriendliness” (sympathetic, caring, and loving attitudes, all performed at the right times and places). When blatantly acted out on Genuine Ken, it is painfully obvious how unnatural the game of straight love is for all participants.
Unfortunately, with what has become of holidays like Valentines Day and the popularity of reality TV, it is near impossible to change the rules. We straight people keep playing along and hoping that our Genuine Ken or Malibu Barbie will come along and romance our problems away. But this is a false view of heterosexual love. In the words of bell hooks, “When we love by intention and will, by showing care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility, our love satisfies.” We might not be able to rid the world of the plasticity of love this Valentines Day, 2011, but we can retain a critical eye and recognize the oppressive elements of our love culture.
So, reject the perfect man/woman. Recognize that there is no such thing, and this Valentines Day, love with intent. And if you’re still not feeling the holiday, perk the F up and make fun of Genuine Ken with your friends.