On Valentines…and Other Media Messages
With February being the month of hearts, flowers and Valentine’s cards, we turn to Assistant Professor Emily West (communication), who is UMass Amherst’s “expert” on the greeting card—the subject of her dissertation. In Greeting Cards: Individuality and Authenticity in Mass Culture, West focused on “how cards are incorporated into personal, emotional communication—despite the fact that they are mass-produced and commercial—and how that tension is managed by both producers and consumers of cards.” But when it comes to Valentine’s cards, they came into being long before the “Hallmark holiday” phenomenon and mass production.
As West explains, for centuries Valentine’s Day has involved “tokens of exchange,” dating back to the Roman Empire. The romantic love connection began in the high Middle Ages, in Geoffrey Chaucer's circle when the tradition of courtly love flourished, but the Valentine wasn’t familiar in the U.S. until the mid-19th century. What became a “Valentine craze” was led by Esther Howland, who created the first lacy Valentines in nearby Worcester, Massachusetts. Howland had received a fancy February 14 greeting from England shortly after her graduation from Mount Holyoke College in 1847, and decided to emulate the concept. Before long, demand exceeded what she could produce on her own, resulting in a thriving cottage industry and then an assembly line operation. Retiring in 1881, Howland sold her concern to the George C. Whitney Company. This wholesale stationery store on Worcester’s Main Street became, by 1888, one of the largest Valentine publishers in this country until 1942.
Even so, West’s research has found that the contemporary greeting card industry manages their public image very carefully, working hard to distance themselves from the images of mass-production or the “industrialization” of sentiment. “The notion of ‘Hallmark holidays,’ that has wide currency among the public,” West says, “is something that Hallmark works against in their communications. In fact, half of greeting card consumers buy cards because that is the expectation, particularly for major holidays like Valentine’s Day. This highlights exactly the kind of cynicism about greeting cards that the industry is trying to counter. The argument is that the consumer is really the one in charge, and the industry responds first and foremost to demand.”
There has been great demand among students for West’s expertise in media and society, including popular and consumer culture, gender performance, mediated emotion, and freedom of expression, since her arrival on campus in 2004. “I’ve also gotten to know students through honors instruction and independent studies,” she adds. “It’s been great working with students who are interested in doing some of their own research. I find UMass Amherst students to be hardworking, combining their coursework often with considerable obligations and time commitments outside the classroom.”
So, how does a person make a profession related to popular and consumer culture? “I went through both high school and my undergraduate degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, almost equally interested in the arts and sciences and had difficulty figuring out an academic—or career—focus. My undergraduate degree was so interdisciplinary that I didn’t even have a major!” she laughs. “In my final year I did an independent project about environmentalist messages that appeared in arts and culture and realized that I was interested in how forms of media and culture that seem like they are frivolous or just entertainment are in fact political.”
West discovered the field of communication (“I’d never heard of it!”) and after working for a nonprofit for a year moved from Ontario to Philadelphia to discover what it was all about at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “I found my place at last and never looked back!”
Through her analyses of forms of culture that are mainstream, middlebrow, and often overlooked—such as greeting cards and cheerleading—West is contributing in significant ways to her department and her field. “Because I have such diverse interests, I’m always thinking ahead to the next project,” she notes, indicating areas such as how nationalism is communicated through mass media, the rise of “advertainment,” visual culture, and the discourse of consumerism in healthcare policy. “Through my teaching and advising, I meet many students’ interests at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. My classes aim to provide tools for students to be critical, informed consumers of commercial media and other persuasive communications.”
Besides loving the life western Massachusetts has to offer—independent movie theaters, hiking, running, skiing, swimming, singing—West feels the UMass Amherst is a good fit for her. "The Communication Department boasts scholars at the cutting edge of our field," she says. "And besides being excellent researchers, the faculty really care about teaching.”
February 11, 2009