As Valentine's Day approaches, I find myself looking at contemporary depictions of romance with a distinct feeling of nausea. TV ads for flowers, Teddy Bears and jewelry all suggest that men will — wink, wink — get lucky if they give their girl the right gift and will have some serious 'splaining to do if they do not. It's awful tripe. I mean, I understand the Kay Jeweler slogan "Every Kiss Begins with Kay," is meant as a clever nonsense, but my mind reflexively responds, "Yeah, and Every Prostitute Begins with Pay!"
Do these ads really speak to any human males and females in actual relationships?
I fear they must. The ABC-TV show The Bachelor has been running for 18 seasons and, according to Slate television critic Willa Paskin, it basically makes popular entertainment out of women giving themselves in sex and even marriage in return for luxury and treacly lies. "It's callow, sordid behavior made somehow acceptable by the use of Hallmark Card language and a really fly hotel room."
I would chalk this up to trash TV, and yet I see with my own eyes the elaborate and expensive lengths young men now go to in order to propose to their girlfriends "romantically," not to mention the enormous gobs of cash these couples then shell out to turn the wedding into "her special day." I don't think you have to be a psychologist to suspect that this extravagance is meant to disguise the emptiness of such white-dress rituals in a world where virginity goes cheap, divorce is easy and gender roles are blurred.
But worse, beneath such displays of conspicuous enchantment, there also lies, I think, an insecurity about the depth of true affection between man and mate. I was not surprised to read a column this week by the Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein in which, under the headline "Answers to the Relationship Question Readers Ask Most," she deals with the absence of sex in marriage. Well, at least the wedding was nice!
Listen, at this point, to be frank, I have no chips in this game. My marriage of more than three decades has been a God-sent miracle of love and hilarity. I have no idea what our "secret" is. We try to be nice to each other. We made a conscious decision to ignore cultural pressures from all sides. She treats me like a king. I worship the ground she walks on. It works for us. I really don't care what the rest of you do.
But I have an observation which, in lieu of chocolates, I offer as a Valentine's gift from an old campaigner to the romancing young.
I think in all the modern hysteria over gender roles, young people have become trapped between two competing materialist world-views, both wrong. On the one side are the idiot feminists, whining about a mathematical equality no one wants, prattling endlessly about their tiresome vaginas as they seek to intimidate men out of their inborn natures and pressure women to forgo their deepest dreams.
On the other side are the latest scientific and sociological studies that inevitably prove that boys will continue to be boys and girls girly. The gifts-for-sex jewelry ads and "reality" shows are outgrowths of this deterministic view of human sexuality: exaggerated Darwinian kabukis of power and fertility in which I give you presents and romance to show I can and will support you, you parade your body to show you can and will bear young.
And it's true, I know, nature shapes us. We shouldn't let the culture bully us out of our native selves. But in the end, both Darwinian fundamentalism and reactionary feminism are reductive and foolish. We are individuals — and more: incarnate spirits, fearfully and wonderfully made. It is love, not money, not sex, not even reproduction, that is our true heart's desire.
Trust me on this. You can do without the Teddy Bear. Come Valentine's Day, man or woman, devote your soul to your lover's. You'll get a lot luckier than you ever imagined.