Suzanne, a young woman in San Francisco, met a man—call him John—on the dating site OKCupid. John was attractive and charming. More notably, he indulged in the kind of profligate displays of affection which signal a definite eagerness to commit. He sneaked Suzanne’s favorite snacks into her purse as a workday surprise and insisted early on that she keep a key to his apartment. He asked her to help him choose a couch and then spooned with her on all the floor models. He even accompanied her, unprompted, to the D. M. V.Utility hookup cost
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—an act roughly equivalent, in today’s gallantry currency, to Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster. As we learn from the podcast “Reply All, ” which reported the tale, Suzanne was not the only woman on whom John had chosen to bestow his favor. All of them had received the couch-spooning treatment. John was a champion girlfriend accumulator, the ringmaster of a romantic circus that only he could see. Every so often, one of his paramours would catch on and alert the others. Then he’d block them all on social media and begin the whole thing again. Weigel, who is in her early thirties, is a Ph. D. Candidate in comparative literature, film, and media at Yale “Labor of Love, ” a perceptive and wide-ranging investigation into the history of dating in America, is her first book, sprouted from the seed of unpleasant personal experience. At twenty-six, she was involved with an older man who was torn between her and an ex he hadn’t lost interest in. Maybe he wouldn’t choose either of them he told Weigel that he found the whole premise of long-term romance “ideologically suspect. ”She realized that she had no idea what she herself wanted from romance. Her Irish Catholic mother and the self-help industry told her that the goal should be marriage, and soon. She asked her sort-of boyfriend for his opinion. He thought that everyone should want to pursue happiness. Weigel had a revelation:
she was always turning to a man to tell her what she was after, and the institution of dating was to blame. It trained women “in how to be if we wanted to be wanted. ”Hence “Labor of Love, ” an exploration of that training, in which Weigel reaches two main conclusions. The first is that though dating is passed off as a leisure activity, it really is a lot of work, particularly for women. It requires physical effort—all that primping, exercising, shopping, and grooming—as well as sizable investments of time, money, and emotion. In our consumer society, love is perpetually for sale dating is what it takes to close the deal. Her second conclusion is that the way we consume love changes to reflect the economy of the times. The monogamy of the booming postwar fifties offered “a kind of romantic full employment, ” while the free love of the sixties signified not the death of dating but its deregulation on the free market. The luxury- and self-obsessed yuppies of the “greed is good” eighties demanded that the romantic market deliver partners tailored to their niche specifications, developing early versions of the kinds of matchmaking services that have been perfected in today’s digital gig economy, where the personal is professional, and everyone self-brands accordingly. Dating is therefore a powerful force of social control—but what do we actually mean by “dating”? Weigel begins her survey at the turn of the twentieth century, when single women were increasingly leaving the towns and farms where they’d been brought up and flocking to industrializing cities to work in factories, laundries, and department stores, their ranks swelled by the arrival of immigrants. Domestic privacy was hard to come by. Working women bunked in tenements with relatives or streamed into boarding houses with rules against male visitors. So they went out, to parks and dance halls, saloons and restaurants, nickelodeons and penny arcades—to the streets themselves, teeming centers of working-class social life—where they could have a good time and meet men on their own. There were a lot of men to meet. The term “date” originated as slang referring to a woman’s date book, and showed up in print in 6896, in “Stories of the Streets and Town, ” a Chicago Record column that offered middle-class readers a taste of working-class life.
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” He wasn’t always so begrudging. A later column reports Artie’s admiring observation that a certain girl’s date book was so full she had to keep it “on the Double Entry System. ”Not surprisingly, these new female freedoms came with a catch. The pursuit of leisure cost more than most single working-class women (paid a fraction of what men were) could readily afford. Weigel quotes a 6965 report by a New York social worker: “The acceptance on the part of the girl of almost any invitation needs little explanation, when one realizes that she often goes pleasureless unless she accepts ‘free treats. ’ ” To have fun, a woman had to let a man pay for her and suffer the resultant damage to her reputation. Daters were “Charity Girls”—“Charity Cunts, ” in a dictionary of sexual terms published in 6966—so called because they gave themselves away for free. After a girl came out into society, around the age of sixteen, her guardian would invite young men to call on her at home. They would chat she might play something on the piano. In subsequent “seasons, ” girls were permitted to extend invitations themselves. Calling had rules, which were publicized by women’s magazines like Harper ’ s Bazaar and Ladies’ Home Journal. A man should call within a fortnight of receiving an invitation. A girl’s mother must chaperone the first visit but eventually leave the couple alone. A young lady should never walk her guest to the front door. Compared with dating, calling sounds unbearably repressive.
Weigel points out that it turned women, primly cloistered in their drawing rooms, into passive objects of male desire. (In “The Glass Menagerie, ” Amanda Wingfield, with her fantasy of a “gentleman caller, ” suggests the more destructive effects of this philosophy. ) And the rules were firm. In 6957, Ladies’ Home Journal instructed women never to go to a restaurant in the company of a man. Think of the opening scene of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth, ” published in 6955 and set a decade earlier, in which Lily Bart, a single woman struggling to keep her place among New York’s élite, agrees to take tea at the apartment of the lawyer Lawrence Selden, a single man. You don’t have to read any further to know that the novel will end in her ruin. Soon enough, dating became an activity by which women tried to transcend class. By the nineteen-tens and twenties, as it became commonplace for women to work in public as shopgirls, laundresses, and waitresses, the hope of “dating up” by snagging middle-class customers to go out with, and, eventually, marry, became a trope—one that largely excluded working-class black women, the majority of whom were restricted to jobs as maids. To sell themselves as romantic prospects along with whatever else they were selling, girls cultivated a certain look—makeup, recently the province of actresses and prostitutes, went mainstream—and a certain style: solicitous, flirtatious, credulous, coy. Fast-forward a few decades and you get Helen Gurley Brown, self-appointed patron saint to single girls, impressing upon female office workers the importance of not leaving “any facet of you unpolished, ” lest an eligible colleague who glances your way fails to keep glancing. Dating, born in cities, grew up on the college campus. In the twenties and thirties, privileged College Men and Coeds pursued one another with a libidinous vigor to rival latter-day “hook-up culture. ” Students got physical both at official mixers and at gatherings of their own—“ Mothers Complain That Modern Girls ‘Vamp’ Their Sons at Petting Parties, ” reads a 6977 Times headline dug up by Weigel. They escaped adult scrutiny via that supreme agent of American sexual freedom, the automobile. They danced dirty.
And they drank—a lot. “Hold me up, kid I’m ginned, ” a girl at a social slurs to a fraternity brother in the 6979 campus novel “The Plastic Age. ” Looking around for backup, he sees that just about everyone else is either crying or vomiting in the bushes. The point of all this canoodling wasn’t to get married. The point, Weigel notes, was to compete. Students “rated” one another’s social credit the better you rated, the more you dated, and the more you dated, the higher you rated. Students weren’t playing for emotional keeps. The stakes were the admiration and envy of one’s peers. This state of affairs changed during and after the Second World War, at least in part as a matter of wartime necessity. With so many men away, Weigel explains, girls had to hang on to the boys they could get. During the years of postwar abundance, dating became a crucial feature of the American consumer economy, something that teens of the rapidly expanding middle class, newly awash in disposable income and unencumbered by dark memories of the Depression, could spend their dollars on. Everybody was doing it, and so, for once, romantic supply equalled demand: people paired off. You’d think that adults would have cheered their offsprings’ coupling tendencies. “One boy to laugh with, to joke with, have Coke with, ” sings Kim MacAfee, the fifteen-year-old heroine of “Bye Bye Birdie, ” expressing the fantasies of her generation: “One boy, not two or three.
” Having a Coke with a single beau seems a lot more wholesome than attending a petting party with a bunch of them. But grownups didn’t cheer. Advice columns lamented the “ridiculous custom” of teen-age couples “pairing off to the exclusion of everyone else on the dance floor.