“Labor of Love”: An Interview With Moira Weigel -The Toast

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Nicole electronically sat down with Moira Weigel to discuss her new book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating

Hi Moira! We went to college together but never dated the same person, which is good, because that would make this awkward! You have the most beautiful hair in the world, apart from Mallory’s. Let’s begin!

Did we never even make out with any of the same people? Because that seems like an oversight. I would crawl to Oakland in a hair shirt for a coffee date with Mallory. I’m living in San Francisco now, so I really could do it! She tells my favorite historical jokes on the Internet.

Also, I have been gathering images of Impressionist paintings that look like bad dates. If you look closely it’s almost always about some man annoying some woman who is just trying to sit in a cafe. This collection is my homage to Mallory.

Anyway, this interview.

Labor of Love hits one of my favourite notes, which is that handwringing over the doings of young people in relationships is as old as time itself. Can you talk a little about the manner in which young women first started to make dates with strangers? I found it (and the horror of the public) utterly fascinating.

Certainly! Really, the whole reason I wanted to write Labor of Love was to push back against the o tempora o mores kind of laments that I was reading every other week in some style section or other. The end of men, end of sex, end of courtship, end of everything type articles that make it sound as if human relationships had been the same since time immemorial until the founding of Tinder and that now, thanks to Tinder, we were doomed. I could not quite bring myself to believe those claims–either as a mostly straight single woman who was still “on the market,” or as an academic, trained to question broad generalizations. There were no restaurants for cavemen to take cavewomen out to, in cave-times, much less movie theaters. So Netflix and Chill cannot have been the first alternative in human history to dinner and a movie. It didn’t make any sense.

One of the first things I learned felt obvious in retrospect: the history of dating began when women entered the workforce. Before large numbers of young women took jobs outside private homes, for pay, they did not have many chances to meet or mix with men. For most of human history, in most times and places, parents and relatives, or religious and community leaders have controlled how young people meet up. The working class women, many of them immigrants and women of color, who were driven to work by necessity in the 1890s and early 1900s, changed all that. They had more freedom to meet who they wanted when they wanted, and also the responsibility of finding romantic partners. Their parents or ministers or rabbis were no longer there to take care of it for them. Dating was their invention.

The expression “make a date” came from the practice of penciling in the day and time when you were going to meet someone in your calendar or date book. It is hard for us to imagine now, but the idea of a young woman doing this–making plans, on her own, to meet a stranger–was quite shocking at the time. The idea of that stranger buying her something in return for romantic or sexual attention (or consideration) was even worse. The authorities took it for a kind of sex work or prostitution.

Many of the first young women who made dates were insulted, called names like “charity girl” or “charity cunt,” dragged in to see social workers or even arrested on vice charges. Dinner and a movie could turn into dinner and a night in jail quick. Then, as now, of course the police used sexual morality as a pretext to police populations they wanted to police anyway. Immigrants, unruly women, queers, etc.

To what extent is our popular conception of Dating: The History of It skewed by race and class? (A bunch, obviously, but I would love your thoughts. I’m thinking of Wake Up Little Susie and how it reframed my concept of mid-20th-century women’s history.)

I am so glad you asked: the popular conception of dating is profoundly shaped by race and class, and the question of how to handle that fact was one of the most challenging things about writing the book.

Labor of Love is a history of a social construct–dating–and for most of its hundred or so year history that construct has focused only on a limited part of the population: straight, and mostly college educated, white, and urban. Dating might seem like a frivolous subject. But there is a very serious and indeed insidious aspect to the blinding straight whiteness of classic rom coms and sitcoms. The culture is telling young people: You have to reproduce the world in this image. The implied message is that other kinds of lives and loves don’t count.

I hope, by the way, that this is finally changing.

Anyway, my primary goal was to investigate, expose, and deconstruct the discourses about dating that dominated American culture for the past century. For this reason, I focused on the kinds of subjects those discourses have constructed. However, the most exciting thing about human desire is that it can traverse and transgress boundaries, including those set by race and class. Despite all its flaws, dating makes mixing more possible than older courtship systems did. I wanted the book to be expansive, to show how the history of modern love is so much more diverse, so much more inventive than the ways it has typically been presented, say, in Hollywood movies, or on network TV.

So I felt a constant push pull between wanting to sketch the outlines of dominant dating ideology clearly and wanting to investigate the rich set of alternatives, sexual and romantic subcultures that developed in the twentieth century. I think that they will give us the best road maps for what I call the “third sexual revolution.” I wish I could write whole books about the dozens of topics I did not even get to touch on. Better yet, I hope other people write those books. I will read them, eagerly!

Can you (I apologize for this, but I love asking people) give us any general advice for our relationships, marital or otherwise? You are an expert now, and I love advice.

Hm. One thing I’d say is that, while dating has always been an activity that mixes work and play, it seems that most of our current advice literature aimed at straight women overemphasizes work. We constantly hear that relationships are work, love takes work, that we have to invest in ourselves in order to date, etc. While there is surely some truth to this, the amount of emphasis placed on work strikes me as suspect: a way of coercing women into performing all kinds of emotional labor, and often into ignoring their own unhappiness.

I think that it is time for a swing back in the other direction. It’s time to LEAN OUT of dating. The constant exhortations to perform emotional labor and particularly to repress your own emotions make many straight women so anxious and confused that it clouds their clarity during the process anyway. I spent months and years with men I never would have if I had been able to see, e.g.: He was treating me terribly. I was bored.

No amount of work is likely to change another person.

Feelings are facts. Acknowledge how you feel, grant it the legitimacy and dignity of a feeling, and then describe it as such rather than insisting to your partner that it is the one truth.

Don’t stay on apps too long. Apps are designed to keep you on the app. Get off as fast as possible. Some like OkCupid will reward you for constantly tweaking your profile by piping it into the search results of more prospects at high traffic times, in reward for changes you make. If you have to do this, fine: Add one comma to your profile as 8 PM. Then get out and meet people! If finding an IRL partner is your goal.

Another thing I noticed talking to young people, or reading interviews conducted by sociologists who study so-called “hookup culture” is this tendency to speak as if the world divides cleanly into girls you take home to your Mom versus girls you take to bed, fuck-toys and Prince Charmings. As if every romantic – sexual interaction is either A Relationship–destined for marriage and reproduction–or Not A Relationship, which means it is nothing. I have seen this a lot more among straight folks than queer folks, but I have heard this kind of language among gay men as well. Just today I got a question from a young woman, asking whether it would impede her search for a serious relationship to keep a “fuckbuddy.” I was like, “Does it feel ok to you?” I think that this way of talking and thinking comes from a cartoonish, gender-stereotyped notion of male sexuality, where sex could be completely detached from emotion. And then women seek to empower themselves by imitating that. Whereas really, it seems to me that what would be more progressive would be to acknowledge many kinds of relationships. Two people can be in relation to each other for a night or for a lifetime, and all relationships end.

Is there anything that surprised you in a good way while you were researching and writing Labor of Love? Whether about humans or love or dating or yourself? Did the book exist roughly in its current form in your mind at the outset, or did it evolve away from what you thought it would look like?

I am going to answer those questions in the reverse order:

When I began charting the idea for the book, I thought that it would be a chronological history, moving from past to present. Very early on, my editor suggested trying to tie past and present more directly in each chapter, and it was this suggestion that lead me to the structure I used in the end, organizing each chapter around an idea–like “tricks,” about what I call dating’s Prostitution Complex, or “likes” about the idea that we will be well-matched with folks with similar taste, or “plans,” which investigates the idea that women cannot “waste time.” I decided to take a fact or belief about dating in the present that we take for granted and to investigate where it came from. This provided a useful principle for organizing research, and also for limiting the scope of my investigation into each historical era–because really, you see once you start to dive in, that a history of dating is a history of almost everything.

Overall, what surprised me the most in a good way was simply the amount of change that I saw across the decades. I think it’s exciting to realize how contingent contemporary social arrangements are. All kinds of dating advice tells us Men are this one way and Women are this one way and woe to anyone who tries to dress these facts of nature up in a pantsuit. Nonsense. As depressing as history can often be–because it is a history of violence, sexism, racism, oppression, exploitation–it is also exciting. It shows that things do not have to be the way they are, and that we have the power to change them.

CASTING YOUR EYE FORWARD into the future, what’s next for dating? What’s the Tinder of 2020?

If I knew what the Tinder of 2020 was I would be building that app so I could sell it for a billion dollars. Not really. Maybe.

One thing that I will say is that I think that successful apps are successful not because they’ve identified some timeless thing about how men are or women are or straights or gays are but because they manage to successfully recreate something about established kinds of non-digital spaces, relationships, connections. People sometimes ask me why there’s no Grindr for straight people. I say that it’s because Grindr is based on the gay bar, locker room, bathhouse. Tinder is not the Grindr for straight people: It’s a college party as an app.

Like everything in America, courtship patterns have become increasingly split along class lines. Rates of marriage are holding strong in the college educated demographic, albeit at a later median age of first marriage, whereas these rates are falling for working class folks. In the latter cohort, serially monogamous relationships and childbearing without marriage have become a norm. I anticipate that dating culture will continue to be split.

Very broadly speaking, I think that trends we have seen toward flexibility in all things will continue–for better and worse. What I mean is that individuals will find themselves freer, with more tools, to pursue many kinds of relationship configurations. Even OkCupid has an option for folks in open relationships now! But that flexibility will also serve as a cover for on demand dating that really exists so that we can work all the time and not reserve any time for our non-waged personal lives. Remember that from the perspective of capital, increased flexibility is just a way to enclose and more intensively exploit new markets.

Also, contrary to what the cybersex utopians of the 1990s predicted, dating apps and sites do not encourage a free for all. They actually sort people very clearly along lines of socioeconomic and educational background. Studies have shown that even Tinder sorts people quite effectively by class.

Another subject that fascinates me is the way that real estate costs in urban areas in the US will reshape courtship and marriage patterns. The whole ideal of the married couple, founded on sexual attraction and affection, and nuclear family, which springs out of their relationship–the ideal that a majority of never married Americans still hold out as the reason for dating–was an invention of the Industrial Revolution. Before that, extended families tended to live together on farms. That’s why your family got so much say in who you married: A marriage to a neighbor whose lands adjoined yours, and whose family would work with yours, really was a business decision that affected anyone. It’s only with industrialization and urbanization that we get these smaller family units forming and the idea that choosing and creating such a unite freely is life’s highest good becoming such an ideal.

Now, we are seeing the real estate in many American cities become increasingly unaffordable. That has many different effects on how folks date: it can encourage partners to move in together early in a relationship, to save on rent; it can mean keeping roommates into your thirties and forties; it might very well lead to the spread of more co-living spaces like WeLive–at least for certain classes. I wonder whether the increasing interest and public conversation about non-monogamous or “monogamish” relationships won’t get a boost from such arrangements–whether we won’t see more people forming alternative kinds of kinship groups. Of course, non-monogamy is also on the rise because we have more couples of equal partners pursuing separate careers, spending time apart for work.

Let’s talk a little about queer relationships! What pre-1980s materials were available to you, and in what ways do you think queer people transcend/emulate existing patterns in hetero relationships, and is that changing? (I would love you to talk a bit about gay house parties and Harlem, which was one of the most interesting parts of Labor of Love.)

In order to learn about queer dating before the 1980s, I drew on the work of many wonderful scholars of gender and sexuality. Off the top of my head, George Chauncey, John D’Emilio, Lillian Faderman, David K. Johnson, Susan Stryker… Recently I have been telling everyone about this book by a professor named Clare Sears, called Arresting Dress about cross dressing and the law in San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that I thought was incredible. Not strictly scholarly, but classic lesbian pulp of the 1950s, like Ann Bannon novels, is also worth checking out. Then there are histories of queer life in individual cities…

Some of the most fun material I found reading about speakeasies downtown, and rent parties in uptown New York in the 1920s and 1930s. In illegal spaces for drinking during Prohibition, members of different social groups and sexual orientations could mix far more freely than they might have been able to in public, public. In Harlem, the parties were wild! There was a famous annual gathering called “Faggots Ball” that took place every March and was attended by socialites like the Astors and the Vanderbilts, as well as countless others. Mae West was an especially popular character to impersonate. I remember first reading about a performer referring to herself as the “sepia Mae West”–it took me a minute to realize that this was referring to being non-white, adopting a kind of racial drag as well as engaging in gender play.

Is evo-psych as the One True Key to hetero relationships a new development, or have people been talking about it forever?

It is new! And particularly in the form that it manifests in pop culture and dating advice, it is, in my opinion, mostly nonsense. (My dear friend and collaborator Mal Ahern and I wrote about this for The Nation a while back.)

The first academic studies that use the methods of we would now call evolutionary psychology were conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s and not published until later in the 1980s; the field did not really take off until the 1990s and 2000s. At risk of being unfairly reductive, to me the fascination with hunter gatherers of the Pleistocene seems to have everything to do with the every-man-for-himself mood of neoliberal capitalism during that period, and very little to do with immutable truths of human nature. It’s like, you take Clinton era financial deregulation, cross it with the fixation on DNA and computers dovetailing in pop metaphors about “hardwiring,” and voilà: you get the core principles of ev psych.

The field is cited to give scientific legitimacy to fantasies about returning to “traditional” gender roles, to indulge nostalgia about The Way We Were in the 1950s, before women had to try to get decent paying jobs and the Civil Rights movement had to unsettle white male privilege, etc. It’s so appealing, as clickbait because it offers something to everyone: it spurs panic at the same time that it comforts you that, since this stuff is supposedly hardwired, it’s not your fault.

What do women want?

I may be becoming “too Northern California,” as my partner teases me since we moved to San Francisco. But I believe that humans in general want the same things: affection, equality, intimacy, respect.

If you had to tell us what you learned from your research in a SINGLE PARAGRAPH, what would it be?

I focused on dating because I think dating is the theater where modern people learn and rehearse their gender roles. It is a space where we can play with possibilities, but also where existing scripts are enforced and policed. What I learned from my research was that the scripts that have been available, the possibilities of dating, have constantly evolved in tandem with the economy. I mean this in a few ways: The invention of dating happened because of the epic change that was masses of young women entering the workforce. The ways that people date have always changed with the ways they work, and the kinds of consumer entertainments available to them. I already made a joke about dinner and a movie vs. Netflix and Chill. Think about how in old timey movies men ask women, “I’ll pick you up at 6?” and then think how few of us get off at six. It makes sense that we now text each other, u up? instead. Finally, the hardest-to-measure but also maybe most interesting dimension, to me, was how these concepts of economic value shape our intimate lives. So in the 1950s, for instance, this era of mass culture and mass middle class wealth creation, of full employment, you start to see young people taking for granted that everyone should get a partner, that this is the clearest way for everyone to participate in dating culture. And today, in our gig economy, many of us use apps to date on demand, we all act like sexual freelancers, or work on temporary contracts. In the end, I think it is very encouraging to see this. The core message of my book is anti-hysterical, and maybe even optimistic: Love is not dead. It is just changing like it always has been. The main thing now I think is to try to liberate it from the narrow notions of value that have come to dominate it too much. Some reviewers have been like, But you don’t really say how to fix capitalism! I am like, Keep your eyes peeled for my next book.

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