You know Valentine’s Day is just around the corner when the stores are filled with the pink and red signs, along with chocolates, cards, jewelry, and flowers. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that love – an abstract concept- is bought and sold on Valentine’s Day through the purchase of goods and services. Whether we realize it or not, we commodify our love on Valentine’s Day. Those who “opt out” may face the wrath of a significant other.
In middle school, a boyfriend promised he had sent me a bouquet on Valentine’s Day that never showed. While the school hallways echoed with screeches of appreciation over other deliveries of cold roses and baby’s breath, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. It later turned out that there was a mix-up at the florist and I received my flowers the next day. I’ll never forget this thirteen year-old boy saying, “It’s the thought that counts” and me thinking, “That is NOT how this day works!” In my view, I had overestimated our relationship.
In America, many of our holidays have taken on a life of their own: the guts of stores literally change color depending upon the season. We have rituals, meals, and expectations surrounding nearly every holiday. Sociology offers several useful lenses through which to view these holidays. In previous pieces on Sociology In Focus, we have analyzed Halloween, Christmas, Father’s Day, and Thanksgiving. This post will explore Valentine’s Day through one of Marx’s core concepts: commodification.
The Stuff of Valentine’s Day
You love it or you hate it- but Valentine’s Day is an inescapable part of our culture. It’s risky to ignore this holiday if you’re part of a couple. The day affects our romantic decision-making as well: would you start dating a new person right before Valentine’s Day? I wouldn’t! Not only do we avoid getting entangled right before V-Day, we sometimes find ourselves re-evaluating relationships during this love-filled month: Mid-February actually boasts one of the highest break-up rates in the year. Valentine’s Day is clearly more than “just” a holiday, but is in fact a socially constructed expectation of what love looks like and how we express that to others through gifts such as chocolate, candies, romantic dinners, or flowers.
On Valentine’s Day, particularly, beleaguered florists hope to break even on the flower-filled day (however, once a sure thing, mom and pop flower shop “owners” these days are becoming laborers themselves and may even lose money on the historic flower-buying holiday). The obligation of buying that special something is a large profit for a handful of corporations- not very romantic, is it?
The Commodification of Love
Whether we realize it or not, commodification is a huge part of Valentine’s Day. To put something complicated in very plain terms, Marx’s commodification is the idea that something non-material or abstract can be turned into a good or service for profit. In his early work, the abstractness of people’s labor could be turned into a cost of production- a figure on one side of the ledger.
Capitalism demands commodification that is ever increasing, seeking out new markets where none could be found before, or else it will cease to exist. Practically anything can be commodified. How to commodify dating? E-Harmony and Match.com. How to commodify procreation? Sperm banks and egg donations. As this previous Sociology In focus piece explained, we see abstract concepts converted into goods for sale every day through advertisements. For example, what is Carl’s Jr. really selling in this ad? A hamburger? Hardly! I’d argue that this ad (and most Carl’s Jr. ads, frankly) is selling sexuality, heteronormativity, and hyper masculinity.
A common phrase is that money can’t buy everything… but in our society, I’m not sure what’s left that is not available for purchase. Psychologists argue that love is an emotion with evolutionary value, but even emotions are for sale, especially during Valentine’s Day. This Reader’s Digest list details the top V-Day gifts with links to the sites where you can purchase these presents. Even “homemade gifts” require a purchase (notice the phrase at the top of this webpage: “…to show any loved one how much you care”).
On Valentine’s Day, we pay in order to commodify an emotion of caring and love. It is so ingrained that, as my middle school memory from the beginning of the post showed, we often place a value on our relationship depending upon how we are treated on this holiday. While it could be argued that many of these sentiments are felt most saliently by women on this holiday, that does not negate the notion that our society and our holidays are becoming increasingly commercialized and commodified. You can’t put a price on love… or can you? Our culture and the way that we purchase gifts suggests that you can.
- If you are in a relationship, what did you purchase this Valentine’s Day and why? (If you’re not in a relationship- ask a friend who is).
- Describe a time you were given a Valentine’s Day gift that was disappointing. Compare your answer with 2 or 3 classmates.
- Listen to this NPR story about the origin of Valentine’s Day. Research the origins of other holidays to see if any others were begun as for-profit operations.
- Read this New Republic article about what love is. Make an argument that love cannot be bought. Is your argument convincing to a classmate?
- Marx, Karl.  2011. Capital. Mineola, NY: Dover Publishing, Inc.
Image by Nafflicious via Wikimedia