FIRST I came for Christmas – now I’m here for your Valentine’s Day too. Being the fun-sponge extraordinaire that I am, I thought it only fair that I give our tackiest holiday some thoroughly feminist scrutiny. The thing about viewing the world through this critical lens is that it forces you to challenge assumptions about the world, and helps you to interrogate the wider implications of things we take for granted as normal or neutral. So, I’m sorry to deprive you of the joy of chocolate seashells and novelty boxer shorts, but if there’s one holiday I would send to room 101 stat, this would be it. And no, it’s not just my visceral reaction to anything treacly or sentimental: the day of stuffed bears and crap cards comes loaded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that are more than a little uncomfortable.

This isn’t anti-love, anti-expression or even anti-holiday. Of course when people love each other it should be celebrated – but we all know that’s a sideways look at what Valentine’s has become. Today, it’s about consumerism and the social obligation to espouse a sentiment you should be expressing anyway. If you’re past the age of puberty and believe the date is genuinely special then we need to find you a nice, comfortable place to stay outside of your impenetrable sani-bubble.

Valentine’s Day has past its sell-by date. It needs a rethink. To fully embrace the heart-shaped balloons and anaemic expressions of devotion, we need to take a closer look at what the holiday represents. The more we know, the more consciously we can choose to participate or not.

Firstly, there’s the backdrop of racism. In a predominantly white country, this comes as news to most – though as February is Black History Month it would be an egregious oversight not to discuss the shameful tradition of humiliating people of colour. This holiday might seem innocent enough, but historically, it’s been far from neutral on race. It sits against a backdrop of commercial racism, as documented by Northwestern Professor Harvey Young. During the early 1900s racist caricatures were used on greetings cards, adding to a material culture of the racist narratives of the period. One card features a man in blackface, noose around his neck, alongside the words “Be mah valentine – I’ll be hanged if yo’ is goin’ to say no”. These cards weren’t the romantic currency of secret racists – they were widely available from department stores. They portrayed black lives in a discriminatory shorthand consisting of laziness, stupidity, poverty, slavery, childishness and unwavering joy despite all the aforementioned. Crucially, these were stereotypes used to make the cards desirable to consumers, and thanks to that, these everyday objects helped underpin the racist stereotypes of African Americans that persisted into the 20th century and beyond.

If you’ve managed to miss this particular horror, google “racist Valentine’s cards” and see for yourself. See if you can find any romance in minstrels, watermelons and casual references to lynching.

“GIFTS for her.” “Gifts for him.” “His and her matching synthetic bathrobes.” I spy a pattern. This holiday is all about straight people. If you’re reading this and you fall into that category, please don’t take this as attack – love is love, and worth celebrating whoever you are with. The problem here is for everyone else who isn’t straight. The conspicuous absence from this holiday prevents our participation, whilst also elevating straight love above everything else. Though it can be hard to see how one day could have much impact, it’s important to consider against the wider backdrop of discrimination LGBTQI people face. Unless you go out of your way to find something that acknowledges queer experience, which usually means preparing in advance and online shopping, you’re stuck giving one another cards with puppies or kittens as a proxy for your love. It’s worth asking why it’s still more socially acceptable to see anthropomorphised animals in love than two women or two men.

There is also an issue with the messages the holiday sends young people during adolescence – a period already mired with awkwardness and social rejection. Many may be wrestling with their sexuality or gender identity, and this holiday doesn’t reflect them in any way. Their peers can participate, but they can’t – it’s impossible not to feel discomfort at being erased from something so widely celebrated. Until anyone can walk into a supermarket and find themselves on the seasonal shelves, Valentine’s will continue to be a holiday about narrow ideals of love, in a world where we know it’s plural.

And lastly, there are are the gender stereotypes. Despite the progress we’ve made (not enough, clearly), on this magical February day men and women are reduced to pseudo-50s Don/Betty Draper figures. For men: there’s the pervading notion that they have one day a year to atone for not doing “enough”. It’s an insult to men to suggest they need a yearly reminder to be decent, loving partners. It’s also an insult to insinuate they can/do behave badly, and that it is excusable as long as they remember to put something in a box every February 14. For women, the holiday perpetuates the idea that we need romance to feel loved, or that our love has a price tag. Marketing for Valentine’s draws on stereotypical ideas of masculinity and femininity. It expresses strict divisions between the men and women, ignoring all other identities and helping to galvanise ideas and attitudes about gender.

Valentine’s Day: unromantic, racist, sexist and heteronormative. Despite the day’s cutesy treatment in popular culture, it’s not just harmless fun. Exclusion and discrimination aren’t necessarily deliberate or conspicuous, but if you take a closer look you can think about how holidays like this one could be expanded to reflect the realities of life today. It’s worth remembering that love is intrinsically human, joining all of us. It knows no gender, no race, no sexuality – if we can include these ideas, then we really will have a day worth celebrating.