When did it become the cultural norm for men to buy women lingerie as a Valentine’s Day gift? Today, on February 14th, I would like us to critically question this “romantic” tradition.
Let’s set the scene; a heterosexual couple celebrate Valentine’s Day, perhaps with a romantic dinner, champagne and Marvin Gaye. Later in the evening, the male presents the woman with the decadent and thoughtful gift of lingerie. She promptly scurries away to put on her new, delicate attire, before returning for his viewing pleasure.
Who is this gift really for? Valentine’s Day, Shmalentine’s Day – this tradition is just another excuse to reinforce an artificially constructed gender hierarchy, keeping women in their place.
The whole practice, for me, begs to be analysed through the lens of ‘the male gaze’, a cinematic theory which arose in the 1970s. Essentially, the theory posits that men are commonly placed in the position of the active and dominant owner of the gaze, the viewer or ‘voyeur.’ In contrast, the woman is passive, objectified by the active and powerful gaze of the male. In cinematic terms, this means that we usually see the woman through the eyes of the heterosexual male protagonist; think the camera panning over Grace Kelly’s body in Rear Window. Now, the theory is not perfect and has been heavily criticised since its conception; what is affords, however, is the language to speak about the violence and disempowerment when women are positioned as the passive object of the gaze. When a woman wears sexy lingerie purchased for her by a man for his pleasure, I worry that the subject/object power dichotomy is enacted and perpetuated. She is the object of his gaze, and he has the power.
The “Valentine’s Lingerie Conundrum” as I am calling it is a disturbing reminder that hegemonic ideologies still exist within our culture. Take the words of Laura Mulvey (1975);
“Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
Feminists have made significant ground since the 1970s, and the new wave of feminism occurring at this present moment is heartening. As a teacher of young women, I am constantly reassured by the students’ questioning and critique of any cultural practice or textual representation which endeavours to “keep women in their place.” However, we must acknowledge that there are dominant narratives within our society that continue to oppress women by normalising and perpetuating the gender hierarchy. This is why Valentine’s Day causes me such grief.
So, what is the most feminist action you can take this Valentine’s Day? I’m all for women feeling sexy in lingerie, but how can we do this without binding ourselves to “symbolic order”?
Ladies, this Valentine’s Day buy your own underwear. Better yet, don’t support corporate giants who perpetuate sexist ideologies and MAKE your own underwear. Subvert the gaze. How empowering, how freeing, how absolutely fabulous.
Katherine Barton is a feminist, cinephile and teacher of Literature. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, Masters of Teaching.