Every February, elementary school children across the United States open countless bags and boxes of candy conversation hearts, emblazoned with sayings like “1 on 1,” “Love Me,” or “Hold Hands.” They eat them as snacks, use them in crafts, and hand them out as gifts in each other’s homemade Valentine’s Day mailboxes at school.
And while many of the children simply see the candy as fun, Russell Sage College Sociology Professor Michelle Napierski-Prancl always takes a closer look. She’s interested in how the messages on the tiny, chalky, candy change year-to-year and provide a basis for analyzing current cultural norms around love, romance, and sexuality. (For example “Fax Me” and “Page Me” in the ’90s gave way to an “@tweethearts” series in 2014, and a 2024 series acknowledges “situationships” with “messages as blurry as your relationship.”)
And now, college students in Napierski-Prancl’s classes also open dozens of packages of conversation hearts every February. The candy sparks discussion in her Gender, Feminism, and Society course, and Research Methods students use them to learn how to conduct a content analysis (the study of communication patterns in a systematic manner).
“It’s a way of getting students to investigate what’s taken for granted, what are these messages, and who’s consuming and giving these things,” Napierski-Prancl said.
In “Critiquing the Sweet ‘Somethings’ on Candy Hearts,” which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Academic Exchange Quarterly in 2018, she shared a brief history of conversation hearts, an outline for faculty who would like to adapt her assignments for their classrooms, and her own students’ reactions after being asked to consider the candy more seriously.
“Ultimately, my class was surprised, amused, and even more importantly, critical, of what was implied in the messages,” she wrote.
At that time, as now, double entendres abounded. Napierski-Prancl offers the example of the message “1 on 1,” which could be an invitation to play basketball but students interpreted as about sex.
While students found “positive and cute messages that did not raise concerns” — like “Puppy Love” and “Sweet Pea” — closer examination showed that the majority of sayings demanded that the recipient of the heart do something to show affection or perform for the giver.
“We discuss whether or not messages such as ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Say Yes’ are problematic or if they in fact work to encourage affirmative consent,” Napierski-Prancl wrote in the “Sweet Somethings” article.
“Students spill out a handful of hearts in front of them and move the candy around, much like magnetic poetry,” she explained more recently. “Some students will read their candy poem out loud changing the volume or tone of their voice to illustrate the message they think is being sent. It can be a little over dramatic, but it gets an interesting conversation started.”
“I don’t mean that candy hearts are going to change the world, or have a negative impact on children,” she continued. “I just said, let’s look at them with a critical eye. Is there something here? Maybe it’s nonsense stuff. Maybe it’s not-so-nonsense stuff. What are the messages you see? Most of my students will say they actually don’t really like the taste of the candy hearts, preferring something chocolate instead — yet, candy hearts persist, and are everywhere this time of year. Why? Perhaps there’s something about them that keeps them popular, so let’s take a look.”
More About Michelle Napierski-Prancl, Ph.D.
Russell Sage College Sociology Professor Michelle Napierski-Prancl became “the baby-name expert the media calls first” after her article “Brandy, You’re a Fine Name: Popular Music and the Naming of Infant Girls from 1965-1985” appeared in the journal Studies in Popular Culture in 2016. She continues to comment on baby name trends for major media outlets, most recently The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She is also contributing author and co-editor of Persevering During the Pandemic: Stories of Resilience,Creativity and Connection and author of Mothers Work: Confronting the Mommy Wars, Raising Children, and Working for Social Change. Napierski-Prancl teaches sociology and women’s studies courses and is faculty director of the Women’s Institute at Russell Sage College. In 2023, she received Russell Sage’s Susan Warren Beatty Faculty Award for superior creativity and success in research.