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Illustration by Prakrati Mamtani

Performative Love and the Power of the Audience: A Sociological Perspective

Celebrating everyone’s beloved Valentines’ day by critiquing its entire foundation!

Mar 6, 2023

Welcome to ancient Rome. It is February 13th, and the Festival of Lupercalia has commenced — young women wait eagerly as the men draw their names from a jar, proceed to slay animals, and beat the chosen women with their hides. They believed this pagan practice brought them fertility, and the coupling warded off evil spirits. History muddled it, Shakespeare romanticised it, and thus was born our modern-day Valentines’ Day — from a bloody, religious, sexually-charged event to a grand, commercial, bright pink holiday that is all about love in its mighty glory.
If the preamble doesn’t clue you in to where I’m going with this, let me pose this question — have you ever stopped to think, how much of what you define as love is influenced by your upbringing, your environment, the overtly cheesy, cis-heteronormative representations of love we see around us all the time? If the origins of Valentine's day, the one sacred day of universal love, aren’t real, then is anything about modern love natural, or is it purely a social construct?
In her book, Why Love Hurts, sociologist Eva Illouz explains the socialisation of love in our world. Consumerism constantly proliferates the idea of love as a ‘salvation’, such that we all expect it to save us, and are hyper-empotionalised towards believing it to be the prime meaning of our lives. Any hastily-penned, fantasy-driven Wattpad romance would show you these effects.
And guess who primarily writes those novels? You got it, young girls and women.
The colour pink isn’t the only thing stereotypically feminine about this beloved holiday. From the expectation of a grand date, roses, and cards, everything is driven around the female receiving gifts from their (assumedly heterosexual) partner, as if a bunch of women sat together and decided they wanted a day to be appreciated. The men, on the other hand, seem to only be in it to appease the women, because having emotions and being in love surrounded by dozens of red heart-shaped cookies, banners, and balloons is obviously too girly for them. They have their own counter-Valentines’ day to counter the supposed injustice of this ordeal, but I digress.
Of course, it might seem inhumanely critical to try to theorize love, but sociologists have tried, and Valentines’ is not the way to go about it. Public displays of affection aren't universally hated for no reason (if you ask me they should probably be put on the list of trigger warnings at this university). Have you ever seen an elderly couple quietly holding hands on a swing in their garden, and wondered how that love is different from the pomp and show of the modern-day, elaborate, loud gestures of love in high school and the euphoria that came with being publicly asked to be someone’s prom date?
What we don’t understand is that in making love a performative activity, in the very inclusion of an audience, we liquidate love and the intensity of our emotions to the point that sometimes, we’re thinking more of the audience than of the person we claim to love. It’s too easy to get caught up on Valentines’ Day gifts and showing our love in the grandest way possible, but does the shape of the chocolate really matter as long as you both enjoy it?
This is not to say that Valentines’ day is entirely a fluke and should be done away with, and that every form of PDA is a performance, but next time you want to do something for your partner, ask yourself, would the meaning of this activity diminish if it was just the two of you?
If yes, don’t do it. If not, do it by yourselves and spare the rest of us the entire thing, please.
Tiesta Dangwal is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at
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