Reviews — From the June 2016 issue

Game Theories

The past and future of dating

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Discussed in this essay:

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, by Moira Weigel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, by Ellen Wayland-Smith. Picador. 320 pages $27.

“The reason why Wall Street guys party so hard is because they’re not happy with their jobs,” Roselyn Keo, an enterprising stripper turned con woman, told Jessica Pressler of New York magazine last year:

You make money, but you’re not happy, so you go out and splurge on strip clubs and drinking and drugs, then the money depletes and you have to make it again. The dancers are the same way. You make money, but then you’re depressed, so you end up shopping or going on vacation, and the money depletes, so you go back . . .

I imagine that Moira Weigel, the author of Labor of Love, a lively new history of dating, would enjoy this story. The strippers and the finance guys they eventually rip off have much in common, not least the exhausting symmetry of their hamster-wheel routines: work is a slog that never ends, until finally it’s time to go out and spend the money — at which point you notice that leisure feels like kind of a slog as well.

The Lovers, by René Magritte © akg-images/C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York City

The Lovers, by René Magritte © akg-images/C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York City

It’s not news that all sorts of supposedly fun activities — going to the gym, playing video games, maintaining a social-media presence — have grown harder to distinguish from work. But dating, Weigel would have you understand, is among the worst. Its dissatisfactions are similar to those involved in many a job: a vast investment of time, effort, and emotion for inadequate reward; a lot of responsibility and not much power; and a setup that feels rigged against you. The physical demands aren’t negligible, either. New York dating, at least from the sidelines, looks taxing enough, but I hear that in California there’s such a thing as a running date, where, presumably, instead of grabbing a drink or a coffee, you throw on your spandex and sweat until the best man wins.

Dating feels like work, Weigel tells us, because it is and always has been. She traces its beginnings to the late nineteenth century. In chapters loosely organized around themes (“Tricks,” “Likes,” “Niches”), she moves through the frantic, competitive dating of Twenties and Thirties co-eds, the more stable pairings of the Forties and Fifties, and on into the fractured present. The book’s early pages describe women indoors: the girls who sat with their parents, waiting for their suitors to call; the sex workers who received clients one by one, like “artisans” or “small-business owners.” As the century turned, more unmarried women joined those flooding into the cities in search of work. There, dating meant a free dinner for women who couldn’t afford to buy one, or free entry into night spots that required a male escort. Brothels and red-light districts sprang up, and even those “public women” who weren’t charging — “charity cunts” was one of the more colorful names given to them — sometimes risked arrest. Compared with the older tradition of home visits, going out offered both greater personal freedom and greater social mobility: shop assistants and stenographers could marry their customers and bosses; an heiress could marry a popular songwriter (in this case, Irving Berlin). All kinds of couples could escape family surveillance; out of the parlors and into the parks, they found a certain privacy in public. Reading Weigel on this period, I was reminded of the feedback left by one young man after a 1939 preview of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka: “Great picture . . . I laughed so hard, I peed in my girlfriend’s hand!”

Weigel attributes the rise of “going steady” — “all of the worst features of marriage and none of its advantages,” as Dorothy Dix wrote — in part to a shortage of men during World War II but mainly to a surfeit of cash after the troops returned. Many teenagers now had what would have been the “disposable income of an average family” only a few years earlier. “By the 1950s,” Weigel writes, “shopping had become the go-to metaphor” for dating, a comparison that she sees as symptomatic of a deeper link between the two phenomena. She herself has a soft spot for such language, describing the postwar period as one of “romantic full employment” or musing, “Does every year of hooking up simply put us in the emotional equivalent of more student debt?”

Yet the vocabulary of economics has bled into discussions of love at least since Freud, who wrote about the investments of the libido, and it’s hard to know how much that says about the way people actually date. Advertisers, of course, routinely use the language of dating to sell other things: for years, an online grocery service I’d used a few times in London sent me plaintive emails about the “Lidija-shaped hole” in its life; an airline, despite reassuring me that “we can take it slow if that’s your speed,” immediately skips all the way to “what to expect when expecting our emails.”

An engraving depicting the Oneida Community, 1871 © Old Paper Studios/Alamy Stock Photo

An engraving depicting the Oneida Community, 1871 © Old Paper Studios/Alamy Stock Photo

If the connections between work, commerce, and love seem fuzzy in Weigel’s telling, perhaps that’s the point. We all know that the economy determines many of our social and sexual mores, but the details of how it does so are hard to tease out with any precision. Weigel suggests, for instance, that the infamous hookup (defined, she notes, not so much by actual promiscuity as by the obligation to project nonchalance about whatever sex you do have) is a reaction to economic insecurity. College students must now be ready for careers in which “they cannot count on anything,” and must therefore cultivate “steely” hearts. Yet she concedes that hookup culture is a limited phenomenon — only a relatively small, white, affluent group appears to be taking part in it, and these students surely have a lot less to fear from the “precarious” economy than their peers.

As her title suggests, Weigel recategorizes whole swaths of what we think of as dating, love, and reproduction as forms of labor — and labor that disproportionately falls to women. Although she nods here and there to gay life, her focus is mostly on heterosexual dating, which she tends to figure, from the woman’s perspective, as a scary movie. When straight men aren’t violent, they’re often frighteningly indifferent. Weigel diagnoses Richard Gere’s commitment-phobic character in Pretty Woman as a “textbook sociopath” and the film’s plot as “basically” identical to that of American Psycho. A man who wants to understand how a woman feels when going out at night, a friend of Weigel’s suggests, should try watching Fatal Attraction before he leaves the house. At the very least, men are exploiting women’s labor: it’s women who must spend time and money on their looks, hide their feelings on dates, coax and plan and play hard to get, freezing their eggs rather than make a potential boyfriend uncomfortable by seeming in a hurry. The metaphor of the biological clock, Weigel points out, is a useful way to “make it seem only natural — indeed, inevitable — that the burdens of reproducing the world fall almost entirely on women.”

Evidence that straight men are work-shy in the sphere of love, Weigel argues, is easy to find. Just listen out for how often they’ll describe a woman they’ve dumped as demanding or not worth the effort. Analyzing retrograde self-help books for both sexes (such as Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s The Rules and Neil Strauss’s The Game), she insists that dating is “work for women and recreation for men.” Yet once we’re labeling so many other things as work, this seems an arbitrary line to draw. Weigel quotes Strauss as saying, “For me, meeting girls takes work,” and another pickup artist describing bars and clubs as “different levels on a video game I had to get through.” A whole network of books and websites and motivational speeches exists to recommend to men which tricks to learn and which insufficiently aggressive instincts to suppress. Those who follow this advice no doubt have all sorts of failings, but laziness hardly seems one of them.

Weigel’s real problem with self-help, though, is that it treats social problems as individual ones, and so trains you above all in self-blame. Later in the book, as she reiterates how unjustly distributed reproductive labor still is, she weakly gestures at more imaginative forms of social organization. What The Rules rules out is “the possibility that a connection between two or more people might be capable of changing the conditions in which they live.” She’s fairly scathing, however, about those who tried this in the Sixties and Seventies. Free-love types mostly re-created the gendered power dynamics of earlier generations, and they put too much emphasis on the individual freedom to do what you want, which Weigel equates with consumerism. It’s no coincidence, she claims, that Jane Fonda and Bobby Seale moved seamlessly from radicalism to commerce: free-market evangelists and free lovers were essentially sisters under the skin. The hippies “tore down walls,” but “did not build a new world.”

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is an associate editor at Bookforum.

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