Rumor has it that Valentine's Day was invented by Hallmark. It's an urban legend: As any number of reputable sources will tell you, Valentine's Day was designated by a pope in the 5th century A.D., and sweethearts have been exchanging valentines since the 1700s.
So let's stop snarking at overpaid greeting-card writers this time of year and, instead, pity their plight. Romantic love is an intensely private emotion, a club of two with its own milestones, jargon and in-jokes. Likewise, the essence of family love isn't easy to capture in 10 lines of jingly-jangly iambic pentameter. Yet the intrepid folks at companies like American Greetings claim to do just this. How well have they succeeded? How do they confront the harsh realities of romance in a society where the phrase "starter marriage" has entered common usage? Armed with an English degree, I dissected the texts of valentines found at several local stores in order to answer these questions and more.
I've organized my findings the way the industry does: by the card's intended sender and/or recipient. No doubt you could have some fun by sending a card labeled "for the family dog" to your mother-in-law, but we don't deal with such smart-ass subversions here.
Married romance an oxymoron?
If jewelry-store commercials have it right, Valentine's Day is second only to anniversaries as an occasion to re-glue the marital bond. Many a sitcom episode has been built on the male partner's failure to work up the proper enthusiasm for the hearts, flowers and doily-burdened missives his spouse supposedly demands.
If cards from Ambassador and American Greetings are to be believed, though, Valentine's Day is about much more than a husband placating his wife with chocolate -- it's a cheap form of couples' therapy. How else to explain the fact that so many "To My Husband" and "To My Wife" cards are disquisitions, running into hundreds of words?
While most Valentine's Day cards are content to let their appeal rest on a bad pun, a spicy one-liner or a cute photo of a doggie, these ultra-serious spousal cards aren't afraid to glance at the dark side of human relationships, albeit in the breeziest way possible. "I love you," proclaims one card from Ambassador, " just keep that in mind the next time I snap at you for no reason."
Another Ambassador missive, "For My Loving Wife," hints at greater discontent beneath the flowery script. "Someone as special as you shouldn't have to wait until Valentine's Day to get the attention you deserve but that's what usually happens," the card laments. By the end, it's sounding like a soppy drunk: "I can always count on you to love me, even when I may not be so lovable."
A masterpiece of passive-aggressiveness? A whipped male's cry for help? You judge.
Not all Husband/Wife cards are so heavy-handed. In the swanky Marcel Schurman line, we find what I call the Nick-and-Nora version of marriage: glamorous, child- and laundry-free, vaguely European. These cards tend to feature black-and-white photos reminiscent of Robert Doisneau's "The Kiss" and terse, breathy messages such as "I'm still spinning from our first kiss." One card describes a husband as "impossibly handsome" and the object of a "scandalous attraction" -- which sounds more like a soap-opera villain than the person you have to wake up to every morning.
Then there's the Marge-and-Homer school of valentines, for those who have given up and are ready to thumb their noses at the very notion of marital romance. For some reason, these cards always seem to evoke the couch in front of the TV as the place for spousal quality time. "Let's be adventurous and try a new position," teases one Ambassador card, before opening to an image of the happy couple standing on their heads on the family sofa, popcorn at the ready. "If you bring flowers, hold my hand, and whisper sweet nothings I might let you watch the game!" purrs another valentine. How did America's two national pastimes get so confused?
Is there a card for your civil-union partner?
The short answer: no. "Man to man" and "woman to woman" categories have yet to appear in the card rack at your local drugstore. So, taking my cue from the academic "queer theorists" who read a homoerotic subtext into everything from Peter Pan to Brian's Song, I scouted for cards whose very ambiguity could be perceived as gay-friendly.
One offering from the UK company Paper Rose addresses itself simply to "My Perfect Partner we're a match made in heaven" -- making it applicable to husbands, wives, civil-union partners and people who play doubles at the country club.
Another card, from Ambassador, proclaims with maddening vagueness, "We've done it our way We've followed our instincts, knowing that what's right for everyone else might not be right for us."
Less open to interpretation is a card from the UK company Lello that features a grainy, black-and-white photo of two men walking from the back, their arm-over-the-shoulder pose marking them as a couple. Studded with tiny rhinestones, it's both intimate and teasingly evasive -- there's no message inside.
Soulmates in the age of narcissism
Card-buyers who don't already have a ball and chain, it seems, are after nothing less than a "soulmate." The word occurs with alarming frequency in American Greetings' "Romance" section, particularly in long-winded confessions addressed to "The Man I Love." But here, as in valentines for married people, the culture of therapy rears its head.
Unlike traditional love poems, which catalog the beauties of the beloved, many of these cards have more to say about the sender than the recipient. "I wasn't looking for someone when you came along -- I didn't think I was ready," confesses a card from the American Greetings Coffeehouse line, apparently designed for recovering commitmentphobes. "But now that you're here, I've never felt so sure."
A Hallmark card seems to target women with self-esteem issues as it croons, "I have lots of selfish reasons [for standing by you]... I simply adore showing off to the world that you're mine." "I hope you know that loving you has spoiled me forever," warns another card, promising an ugly breakup to the sweetheart who doesn't feel quite as serious.
"How You Helped Me Be My Best Self" is a prevailing theme of soulmate cards -- as is its flip-side, "Why Do You Put Up With Me?" "If we had never met, I don't know what I'd do," muses an American Greetings card. "I mean, who would I be my true, silly self with? Who would help me analyze all my troubles?"
Who indeed? A card entitled "To My Sweet-heart" acknowledges the fact that most people would rather overanalyze their personal failings than do something about them. A masterpiece of backhanded apology, this opus laments, "I may not be an angel, and, Sweetheart, I confess/I won't win any prizes for the way I deal with stress When I really ought to listen, I just want center-stage "
Gee, you think? While "To My Sweetheart" ends on the standard upbeat note "I'm lucky that you're mine," it might inadvertently make the recipient wonder if the reverse is true.
Valentines on training wheels
Remember the days before valentines were about the pressure to have, or to satisfy, a significant other? When your mom bought you a jumbo book of punch-out valentines and told you to address one to everybody in your class so that "nobody feels left out"? When you still managed to express your preferences by giving "I (Heart) You" to the cute boy or girl and the insult-humor card to the kid who threw spitballs at you?
Those punch-out valentines are still alive -- though, like most stuff marketed to kids nowadays, they have the sweaty fingerprints of Disney, Warner Brothers or the Cartoon Network all over them.
Cards intended for kids are another matter, ranging from the seemingly pointless "Baby's First Valentine" to the grandparents' doomed effort to get down with the new generation's lingo -- e.g., "You're toad-ally awesome!"
My favorite kids' card features the Tasmanian Devil of Loony Tunes' fame wolfing down chocolates from a heart-shaped box as he announces in fractured English, "Hey, Kid! Me like candy! You, too?" What better symbol of the infantile id refusing to leave the oral stage?
For those children who never grew up -- or at least never left the therapist's couch -- American Greetings offers a glossy poison-pen letter to Mommy Dearest. "Mom, I would've gotten you a nicer, more expensive Valentine's Day card, but I'm saving up for a pony. The one you never bought me." It's signed, "With love from your still-traumatized child."
Now we reach the category of valentines closest to this curmudgeon's heart anti-valentines. As anyone who's ever been unattached on Valentine's Day knows, this is the worst time of year to be single. Surely it doesn't help when an officemate or kid sister sends you a card phrased thus: "So it's Valentine's Day. Big deal. Who needs love? Who needs passion? Who needs raging, uninhibited sex? Why do you keep raising your hand?"
Even crueler is the card that promises, "Friends don't let friends spend Valentine's Day alone," only to open to a photo of a pudgy fellow with a leer and the legend "Meet Gunther Stubbs, he's expecting your call."
Worse than "Don't You Wish You Had Somebody" cards are the ones you can use to announce your lonesome condition to the world. "I'm searching for that one right person who's different from all the rest. One who will go out with me," grumps a card from Murray's Law. "I'm depressed, I'm fat, I'm ugly," complains an American Greetings card graced with a picture that looks like Joan Rivers after a few more bouts of plastic surgery. What these cards are meant to offer, and to whom, is unclear. This Valentine's Day, give the gift of making your friends feel better about themselves at your expense?
Too cool for words?
Could it be that all these cards, with their carefully wrought messages, the treacly and the cheeky alike, are passe ? Jane Jarecki, manager of Scribbles in downtown Burlington, says, "The mooshy cards don't sell very well" to her upscale customers. "People seem to prefer something that's more ambiguous," such as a line of cards featuring bold, mod-inspired graphic designs and plenty of space to write your own message.
After perusing line after line of tortured greeting-card-writer prose, I'm starting to see the appeal not only of blank space but also of those ubiquitous cards featuring cute animals. Human relationships are a minefield, and our overanalytical habits only make it worse. What a relief to open a card and see a cartoon kitty tangling a ball of yarn into a heart, or a bulldog and cat spooning above the assurance that "We were made for each other."
Never mind that goopy romance, particularly of the interspecies variety, is unknown in the animal kingdom. It's easier to let our instinct-driven furry friends carry the message that, in the end, all we really want is a little lovin'.