Holiday perpetuates stereotypes

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A typical Valentine's Day scenario goes like this: A man asks a woman out, or sends flowers to her, or both, but not the other way around. In marriage, a man is supposed to propose to a woman and to put a ring on her finger. By concurring with these rituals, both men and women reinforce the demeaning portrayal of women as lacking agency and autonomy, as waiting for men to make a move.

One would expect that this traditional role of women as potted plants - passive and submissive - would be gone by now, but apparently not so. Valentine's Day rituals remind us that we still are stuck in the stereotypical portrayal of gender roles.

To deny agency to women is to fail to recognize them as autonomous persons. This cultural denigration of women has its root in religion. Ever since the myth of Adam and Eve in the Bible, where Eve is portrayed in a demeaning fashion, women have taken the blame for men's problems. Women are viewed as roadside distractions, so they are subjugated and controlled to make things safer for men.

The pervasive stereotypical gender-dichotomy of "rational man and sensuous woman" is an expression of the biblical portrayal of men as defined by their minds, women by their bodies, which has put women on the sidelines ever since.

Women are in a double bind: Though they are projected as being defined by their bodies, they don't own their bodies. Being sexualized, they are projected as sexual objects - that is, as objects, not autonomous beings. Our society is still steeped in a sexual double standard which portrays women as passive victims, not agents of their desires.

One would expect that a great reformer like Martin Luther would have helped change our traditional religious view of women. But he, too, perpetuated the same misogynic ideas that we find in the Bible. In condemning homosexuality, Luther wrote: "The vice of the Sodomites departs from the natural passion and desire, according to which the male has a passionate desire for the female."

Luther reasoned that men naturally desire women when he wrote: "We [meaning men, of course] have been conceived in the bodies of women, nourished in them, borne by them, nursed and reared by them. So we can in no wise rid ourselves of our natural desire for women."

Ignore Luther's absurd reason but follow his logic: Because men come from women and are reared by them, men have a natural desire for women. Well, by the same token, women should have a natural desire for women, too!

Why didn't Luther see this? Why didn't he see that the logic he employed to show that homosexuality is unnatural, hence immoral, went against his own intended conclusion? That is because he held on to the same demeaning view of women that the Bible teaches us.

This view of women continues today, despite the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism, humanism and rationalism. So, as we observe Valentine's Day, it is worth asking: Can't we celebrate love through more mature, liberating social rituals?


* DEEN CHATTERJEE teaches philosophy at the University of Utah.