Valentine’s Day is becoming increasingly important to the cultural makeup of Australia. While its popularity is undoubtedly attributable to the increased Americanisation of our popular culture, and its indisputable connection with consumerism, behind Valentine’s Day lies the important idea that it exemplifies love as a central existential ideal. The implications of centering romantic love in this way require some reflection.
The concept of romantic love can be traced to courtly love in the Middle Ages, but is more properly dated to the eighteenth century. Its central feature is that it values and legitimates individual ties independent of factors external to the individuals concerned. Romantic love established that two people could love each other regardless of who they were, where they came from, and what anyone else thought about it.
Two important things stem from this: the importance of individual will, choice and freedom, and the unimportance of social categories, with their associated duties and obligations. One might love therefore without any reference to the family, the community and to the state. In this way, romantic love becomes the embodiment of freedom, liberty, and choice, and is seen as opposed to rules and tradition, and social and cultural boundaries. Consequently, it also becomes connected to modernity and progress.
This reading of love finds expression in many of our cultural narratives. For example love overcomes family obligation (Romeo and Juliet) class and socio-economic differences (Cinderella), class, education and social standing (Pygmalion/My Fair Lady), race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), occupation and ‘immorality’ (Pretty Woman). A current example of this is the same-sex marriage debate, where love is being used to argue against the conservative interpretation of marriage.
And it goes beyond the personal. Politically, theorist Michael Hardt has hailed love as being capable of transforming us and helping us to create a better world. And legally, philosopher Raimond Gaita has asserted that only love can create an understanding of the sacredness of human beings and their inalienable rights or dignity. And yes, they are both referring to romantic love.
Even among the critics, romantic love’s infectious optimism cannot be totally erased. Eva Illouz, while acknowledging the dangers of romantic love for the feminist cause, admits that the dominance of love has directly correlated with a decline in men’s power over women and with an increase in equality between them. Similarly, Lauren Berlant, while admonishing romantic love’s heteronormativity, argues that love is ultimately a site of optimism, change and transformation.
Despite its crass consumerism and cultural imperialism, Valentine’s Day may also reflect some of this thinking on freedom, autonomy and agency, and that just might be worth celebrating!
Renata Grossi is an interdisciplinary legal scholar who works at the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences. She is the author of Looking for Love in the Legal Discourse of Marriage