As springtime air thaws the nation’s winter hearts, elaborate, show-stopping prom-posals are soon to be dreamed up by ambitious high schoolers from sea to shining sea. Local florists will be dangerously low on rose petals, and Michael’s craft stores will be emptied of glitter, confetti and puffy paint. But maybe this year, after a viral story about a boy in Colorado getting rejected by his crush in front of the whole school, kids will think twice about the very public romantic gestures that have for so long defined adolescent life in the United States.
On Valentine’s Day, Heather Starr made a Facebook post about her 14-year-old son who asked a classmate to be his Valentine the previous day at lunch. He offered her a handmade poster “in front of everyone,” and the girl said no. Roman, Starr’s son, whose autism makes him “very shy and socially awkward,” she wrote, came home from school that day feeling “very sad” but assured his mom that he would be okay.
The next day during lunch, Roman was greeted with posters and cards from numerous classmates offering to be his Valentine. “He said yes,” Starr wrote on Facebook. “Then the entire cafeteria cheered so loud that they disrupted nearby classes and everyone got in trouble and had to have a silent lunch period after that.”
It’s a sweet story of youthful compassion and redemption — until, as one eagle-eyed TikToker did, you zoom in on some of the messages scribbled on the back of Roman’s pity poster. Two common themes arose: apologizing on the girl’s behalf, and assurances that Roman “can do better than her.” Mandy, the TikTok user, found these notes troubling. Roman was being “coddled,” she said, while the girl, who never asked to be put in this position, was being “demonized.” Mandy worried that the situation was only perpetuating the idea that “if a girl says no to you, she’s beneath you,” and that girls and women should feel guilty for turning down unwanted romantic or sexual advances.
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The TikToker shared screenshots of the original coverage of the story, which, on Today.com, had been given the headline: “After a 14-year-old boy was publicly rejected at school on Valentine’s Day, his classmates came to the rescue❤️”.
“Rescue him from what?” Mandy said on TikTok. “He’s not Timmy in a fuckin’ well. He is a boy who asked a girl to be his Valentine, and she, from all sources I can find, politely declined.” Amid the controversy, however, it seems Today.com changed the headline and removed some of the images showing the back side of the poster from the original story, which was “updated” after the article “sparked conversations on social media about a person’s right to say no,” according to a disclaimer at the bottom.
That a bunch of kids rallied around their neurodivergent peer to cheer him up when he was upset is a lovely turn of events. For her part, Starr said she had no idea about her son’s plans, and had she known, she “would have suggested that he consider a less public approach.”
But in the weeks since, many feel the series of events illuminates bigger issues around the cultural cues teens pick up about romance and how to woo a partner. Too often, these are rooted in a tradition of manipulative power exchanges wherein women and their desires are subjugated to pacify men. This line of thinking has very real consequences for women who are frequently harassed, assaulted and even killed for rejecting men whose pride and sense of entitlement to their bodies is considered more worthy of protection than a woman’s bodily autonomy.
If you don’t know how someone feels about you, there are plenty of low-pressure ways to express your interest, whether it’s a note in the locker, a curated Spotify playlist or even a respectful DM-slide — basically the modern-day equivalent of launching pebbles at a window.