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Romantic Love And Consumer Culture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2911 words Published: 24th May 2017

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A consumerist society is one whose economy is defined by the purchasing and spending power of consumers. Even as it is similar to capitalism, it differs in that it is not as focused on monetary power as it on happiness realized through the ownership of personal property. The initiation of a mass consumerist policy, a product of the Industrial revolution, is therefore often viewed as an effective political alternative to sustain a healthy, well balanced economy (Horowitz, 2004). Ancient Rome and Egypt are examples of early consumerist societies, even as the United States of America is representative of a contemporary successful consumer economy (Horowitz, 2004).

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Romantic Love is often perceived to be the final repository of the genuineness and warmth lost in a progressively “technocratic and legalistic age” (Stearns & Knapp, 1993). Whilst to some it is symptomatic of ideologies that enslave, to others it is merely a “flight from social responsibility” (Stearns & Knapp, 1993). Romantic love, an intimate and important part of the democratic model of American affluence has concomitantly emerged with the establishment of a mass market. It has also simultaneously adopted as it were, mechanisms of economic and symbolic denominations at work in American society (Stearns & Knapp, 1993).

Ideologically, capitalism is notoriously Janus like with regard to the degree that it encourages the inclusion of all social classes into the market (Teo, 2009). Whilst it has ensured a common symbolic sphere wherein the twin sets of mass media and consumption are unified, it has also intensified class conflicts and divided social classes into even smaller lifestyle groups (Teo, 2009). Even as capitalism encourages the involvement of everyone in the monetary and symbolic field of consumption, it replicates and sustains itself through the division of wealth and validity of social divisions (Teo, 2009).

Capitalism, as an economic system, “involve(s) the production and exchange of commodities with the aim of accumulating a surplus value, that is, profit, with some part of this profit being re-invested to maintain the conditions of future accumulation”. Capitalism however is also characterized by a cultural mindset whereby exchange in “relationships, that of buying and selling, have permeated most of society” (Illouz, 1997, p7).

Capitalism ascertains the meeting of two parties primarily on the basis of economic benefit and mutual self interest, whereby transactions are justified by analyzing their benefits on the “bottom-line” of the balance sheet (Illouz, 1997). Romantic love, on the other hand defines relationships between two individuals who are bound together “by their capacity to realize spontaneity and empathy” in an emotional relationship (Illouz, 1997). In comparing romantic love and capitalism, the former is “irrational rather than rational, gratuitous rather than profit – oriented, organic rather that utilitarian, private rather than public” (Illouz, 1997, p 11). Romantic love therefore seems to elude the regular category, wherein capitalism has been envisaged. This essay intends to understand and analyze the manner in which romantic emotions meet the economy, culture and social organization of advanced capitalism.

Discussion and Analysis

Sociology, anthropology and history, until the early twentieth century, categorically believed that certain emotions were derivative of subjective, physiological and psychological experiences and not to essentially be associated with study pertaining to symbolic and collective life (Illouz, 1997). Romantic love was relegated to the sociologically awkward part of social life and not discussed in terms of class conflicts, public rituals and social relationships.

Recent statistics however indicate that emotions are often influenced by the “norms, language, stereotype, metaphors, symbols” of culture (Illouz, 1997). Even as sociologists today are keen to establish specific relationships between culture and emotion, they seem hesitant to support the concept of distinct linkages between love and economy. It is generally believed that love, like art and religion “is the site par excellence of the social world”, whereas culture offers artifacts, stories, symbols and images, wherein romantic ciphers can be recapitulated and exchanged (Illouz, 1997). Many sociologists have in recent years however come to recognize that culture and economy reciprocally constitute each other. Therefore, in order to discuss the relationship between romantic love and consumer culture, it is first imperative to understand the manner in which romance, culture, and economy intersect with each other (Illouz, 1997).

Romantic love became a prominent cultural phenomenon in America in the early eighteenth century. Americans, more than other citizens of Western societies, began to determine their marital choices more on the basis of emotional thought than on social or economic considerations (Robbins, 2008). The choice of a life partner was left to be decided by individuals as love was considered to be of prime importance for conjugal bliss (Robbins, 2008). Couple autonomy grew over the years with increasing college attendance resulting in relaxation of family and societal control. The appearance of an alternate “social sphere of youth culture” validated intimacy with the opposite sex as an important characteristic of socialization into adulthood.

The modification of sexual mores alternatively affected the ways in which the youth spent their leisure time, as many of the young began to engage in novel leisure practices of the hetero-social world (Robbins, 2008). The nineteenth century saw the development of dance halls, amusement parks and movie theatres (Robbins, 2008). However, it was only after 1910 that leisure industries began to strengthen their economic power and began implementing monopolistic practices. The cultural landscape was eventually significantly restructured in the early twentieth century as inventions like the high speed printing press, telephone, phonograph, radio and photography expanded access of members of the public to mass culture. The social, cultural and economic changes altered the meaning of love, even as it became an important part of mass media and culture (Robbins, 2008).

The nascent national advertising system related romance to a host of attendant values, in addition to leisure, physical attractiveness and consumption (Teo, 2009). This can be observed by the evolution of the image of the couple in the already developed industry of advertising before World War II. An assessment of advertisements depicting couples exhibits how the values associated with love have changed over time (Teo, 2009). Advertising initially depicted the image of the couple, first, with domestic products associated with the comfort of the home and second with “ego expressive” products associated with self enhancement and expression (Teo, 2009). Additionally, almost invariably and irrespective of the product being advertised, be it soap, shampoo, clothes, or perfume, advertisements carried illustrations of couples in close embrace and in stylish apparel. “Opulence and soft eroticism were part of the new model of “hot” romance exploited by advertisements in their efforts to promote mass – produced consumer goods”( Teo, 2009, p 4). The commoditization of romance during this period therefore began to ambiguously incorporate romantic love into the culture of consumer capitalism.

Sternberg, (1998) suggests that our lives consist in battling for legitimacy to purchase commodities. We live in an excessively commodified world with requirements that are created in the interests of the market and that can be met primarily through the market (Robbins, 2008). Illouz (1997), proposes that “although the market does not control the entire spectrum of romantic relationships, most romantic practices depend on consumption, directly or indirectly, and consumerist activities have thoroughly permeated our romantic imagination(Robbins, 2008).

Today, it is important to spend money to be “loveable”, to sport the right apparel, perfumes and hairstyles (Robbins, 2008). It is also important to have money to define romantic moments. Romantic moments are in effect similar to religious rituals, processes wherein we reiterate that the world exists essentially in the way in which we perceive it. In commodifying romance, most of these moments have come to be governed by food, drink and travel. Eva Illouz, (1997), observed that even children, who have had no prior romantic experience, mention restaurants when asked to define their concept of the constitution of romantic moments.

The commodification of romance has transformed it into a ritualistic process, wherein time and space are self contained. For one to ‘act’ in love, one should be able to finance and implement the rituals of love; “those activities that convey the appropriate meaning to the actors”, activities often labeled as romantic moments”. At restaurants, “The meal, unlike eating at home or at a fast food establishment, is separate from the schedules and constraints of the outside world”. An intimate dinner at home becomes special only if it is aided by ritualistic attributes of a restaurant dinner, like candlelight and wine (Teo, 2009, p 4).

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Another commodity often associated with romantic moments is travel (Teo, 2009). Travel, akin to restaurants, requires freedom and separation from a world guided by effort, work, profit and self interest (Robbins, 2008). Travel entails travel expenses, accommodation expenses and significant contribution to the tourist trade, with the pursuit of the romantic moment thus being elaborated and defined by consumer culture. Travel, in numerous ways involves the commodification of landscape to generate ritual settings to enact the creation and development of romantic relationships (Robbins, 2008). Illouz (1997, p 34), states that “Capitalist society has appropriated and destroyed both the natural landscape uncontaminated by the visible hand of capital common to tourist resorts”. Travel advertising, with its consistent portrayal of pristine landscapes ironically depicts what has been ruined and made more expensive, all the while denying the presence of money and other commodities. Romantic landscapes are typically the most luxurious and pricey, primarily ‘wild’, uncontaminated, isolated and far removed from the industrial world and middle class vacationers. When people recall romantic moments, they however fail to recognize them for what they actually were, namely “the commoditization of romance” (Robbins, 2008)

The culture of Romantic love in Australia, in the early nineteenth century, was similar to that of the United States, Britain and Canada (Teo, 2009). Love was a moral, emotional and spiritual attraction that was deemed to be an important prerequisite to courtship, with companionship and marriage as its ideal goal (Teo, 2009). Romantic Love was believed to have a morally, spiritually and ennobling uplifting effect, especially on men. “It was bound up in class consciousness and the demonstration of ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘ladylike’ behavior”. (Teo, 2009) This was a result of the wider spiritualization of love in addition to partaking in the nineteenth-century belief in evolution and idealism in all aspects of society, most importantly love and morality. Whilst physical attraction was crucial and lovers wrote of their desire for contact, the heart of courtship rested on the exclusive and mutual disclosure of the self (Teo, 2009).

“In sharing their ‘essence’ with each other, it was expected that romantic love might produce great unhappiness, bitterness and despair, as well as ecstasy and a feeling of empathy and completeness”. (Spurlock, 1998, p 2) Since marriage was often taken for granted and often considered the chief aim and accomplishment of romantic love, almost everything that was a part of married life could probably be understood as a characteristic of romantic love(Spurlock, 1998, ). Some lovers therefore felt that they did not essentially expect love to produce consistent happiness after getting married as they differentiated between the emotional fulfillment and physical thrill of ‘infatuation’ while courting, “and the steadier, more mundane serenity of married love in which bouts of boredom or apathy might well be expected in the cycles of domestic life” (Teo, 2009)

Whilst certain features in the conventional idea of romantic love still exist, most nations have begun to develop an increasingly American and ritualistic understanding of romantic consumerism as an important expression of love (Robbins, 2008). As exhibited in the article, ‘Money Can Buy You Love’, in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 February 2005, Con Stavros observed that ‘Valentine’s Day … has become less about intimacy than the grand, expensive gesture: the jewelry, the mink coat, the impromptu hot air balloon ride’ Marketing has transformed Valentine’s Day into a festive enterprise, “If you go back even a decade, people used to just exchange private cards and have some kind of romantic [dinner]. These days the gift has to be public, conspicuous – people [at work] ask each other: ‘What did you get?’ (Robbins, 2008, p 61)

Although the process of romantic consumerism may have become more excessive in prominent ways at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the development of this occurred in unequally gendered ways in the first half of twentieth century as consumer culture across the world became Americanized (Robbins, 2008).

Whilst evaluating the consumerist quotient of romantic love in the twenty first century, it is important to observe its role in the functioning of society (Zax, 2009). Romantic love, in addition to establishing basis for marriage and reproduction, contributes to feelings of solidarity and social order. Since it involves the use of commodities, Romantic love encourages people to acquire an income. It is however important to realize the commodification of romantic love has aided in debasing or trivializing the romantic bond (Zax, 2009). The need for money has reduced spontaneity and naturalness in love and inhibited those with without money to “act in love”. (Zax, 2009) Whilst people do feel empowered with the experience of romance, it is important to realize that commodities primarily serve as potent aids for merely the dramatization of expression and should therefore be regarded as such.


This essay aims to discuss the relationship between romantic love and consumer culture.

A consumerist society is defined by the purchasing and spending power of consumers, but differs from capitalism in that it is not as focused on monetary power as it on happiness that can be achieved through ownership of personal property. Romantic Love, perceived to be a repository of genuineness, is an intimate component of modern American affluence. It has now become inextricably linked to the mass market and adopted the economic mechanisms of American society.

Sociology previously advanced the theory that that certain emotions were derivative of subjective experiences and not to be associated with study of symbolic and collective life. Romantic love was thus not discussed in terms of class conflicts, public rituals and social relationships. It however became an important cultural phenomenon in the early eighteenth century, with people, especially Americans determining their marital choices on the basis of emotions than on social or economic considerations. The advertising systems also started relating romance to numerous values, in addition to leisure, physical attractiveness and consumption. Advertisement, irrespective of advertised products, started carrying illustrations of couples in close embrace.

The commoditization of romance has incorporated romantic love into the culture of consumer capitalism. Romantic moments are now strongly associated with food, drink and travel and have become intensely commoditized. Whilst certain features of conventional romantic love still exist, most nations have developed an American and ritualistic understanding of romantic consumerism as an expression of love. The need for money has reduced naturalness in love and inhibited those without it to act in love. Whilst the experience of romance does empower people, it is important to understand that commodities serve mainly as aids for dramatization of expression and should be regarded as such. Romantic love certainly contributes to feelings of solidarity, involves the use of commodities, and encourages people to acquire incomes. It is however also important to realize that commoditization of romantic love debases and trivializes romantic bonding and be able to sift genuine emotion from its consumerist manifestation.


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