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In her book All About Love, bell hooks makes a startling claim. Her parents did not love her. They gave her enough food to eat, books to read, shoes to wear. But they did not love her. She was cared for, but she was not loved.
hooks argues that we think about love as a “good feeling,” and we forget that love rests on justice, equality, and respect. In fact, and this is perhaps the most unsettling of her claims, love is negated by the presence of disdain, shame, and humiliation. Literal violence, and for hooks this ranges from the occasional spanking to brutal assault, and love cannot co-exist. So too, the mundane symbolic violence perpetrated by most families and in many intimate relationships—the subtle criticisms, the passive aggressive slights, the ever-present threat of rejection—undermines the capacity for love to flourish. Ultimately, hooks concludes that there is a world of difference between care and love.
It is impossible not to think about love on the verge of Valentine’s Day. Oversized, glittered hearts hang in every store window. Ads for overpriced Valentine’s dinner packages fill my local weekly. I have heard the PajamaGram ad for “Hoodie-Footies” on NPR’s Morning Edition at least 32 times. It is hard to ignore that this is the season of love. Or maybe just care. Or maybe just good feelings.
Perhaps, the most enduring Valentine sentiment remains “Be My Valentine.” It is a shorthand deployed by Hallmark corporation, Necco Sweetheart candies, and third graders via homemade cards. Regardless of whether one reads those words as a request or as a demand, the phrase has a decidedly co-dependent tinge. This should not be surprising given the fact that what gets celebrated on Valentine’s Day has very little to do with a mature kind of intimacy or the beautiful mess that is intrinsic to longevity.
hooks asks us to look at love critically, to in essence de-romanticize love—a decidedly anti-Valentine’s task but an essentially feminist one. Calling out the co-dependent love that we see celebrated on days like Valentines raises the standards for what kinds of behaviors and relationships might be designated loving. This is a vital feminist move because raising the burden of love makes it easier for us to call it like we see it. Abuse and inequality, a loving relationship does not make. Nor does game playing or emotional dishonesty.
I have read my entire life. Perhaps, I have read one million printed pages. I remember very little of what I have read, but I have never forgotten reading hook’s claim that she was unloved by her own family. Upon first reading the story, I was appalled, almost indignant. How dare she say such a thing about people who remain bound in her life, who have undoubtedly supported her? Over time seemingly randomly, I would recall her story, and I grew less angry with her. To say that one’s family or partner does not love them may be the most painful speaking one ever does. But it may be true too. hook’s experience is not altogether different from the families of origin from which many of the people I most fiercely love come. It took almost a decade to admit that it is certainly true of most of my own romantic entanglements. If we risk admitting that we have lived all of these years unloved, might this give us a measure of hope? If we reject that which we know in the hope for something more, might we find what feels so foreign yet is so desperately desired?
hooks examination of love, initiated in All About Love and extended via four additional books on the topic (including the children’s book Homemade Love), demonstrates so clearly what love is not. But what would a feminist love look like? In contrast to celebrating the sickeningly sweet, deeply obsessive, and ultimately adolescent notion of love that is reflected back to us on Valentine’s, could we do feminism in the service of love? As hooks suggests in Feminism is for Everybody, “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving….There can be no love without justice.” This is a radical insight and one that stands in sharp contrast to the derivative “Be My Valentine.” Instead of focusing on what you do to me and how good you make me feel, understanding love as an extension of feminist politics suggests that love requires a shared commitment to justice. Love is less about “feeling good” and more about “doing good.”
This year instead of Hallmark clichés, I appropriate Cornel West for a decidedly more feminist tone. “Dear Valentine, Justice is what love looks like in public. Thank you for doing justice with me. I love you.”