Moira Weigel, Labor of Love. The Invention of Dating, New York, 2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pages

The dream of “settling down” forever-or of anything being steady forever-is fast fading. For more and more people, the future feels impossible to predict. (p. 122)

As gloomy these words might sound, they echo the present day marked as it is by growing political, financial, material, and personal insecurity of which the ascent of the far-right movements and the multiplication of terrorist acts are probably the most visible at the wider scale. One of the background ideas of the book we are about to review is that one should not look for hidden mechanisms, or find metaphysical explanations, or simply cover reality by a romantic veil when it comes to sentimental things like love and marriage, but instead search for the mundane economic ones; in short, Labor of Love leaves from the assumption that love do come together with money.

Although it mainly deals with the modern and contemporary American culture, readers will recognize in this book social and economic patterns that, thanks to Capitalism, may work worldwide, hence the possibility to borrow and apply many of its theories to the local scene, be it Eastern European or Asian one. Accordingly, like in many other places at a later time sometime during the twentieth century, we are told that the American economy based on industry became obsolete, and it was replaced by service oriented economy in the 1970s; in other words, the prosperity of the so-called Steady Era of the 1950s, including the associated moeurs of the well-off people, gradually faded away to never return, to this day. Skillfully placing the American economy within the wider context provided by the European markets of the time (i.e. during the WWII), the author hints to the by-products of this state of affairs: “In the Steady Era, large corporations had offered lifetime employment with good salaries (…) However, during the 1970s, this model gave way. As competitor manufacturing economy that had been destroyed during WWII recovered, stagnation mounted, and corporate profits crashed, more and more companies began to rely on temporary, contract, and freelance employees (…) As more and more Americans went from being in-house employees with benefits, to being workers who moved from job to job, the future seemed newly precarious (…)”. (p.216)

These, apart from the logical economic consequences, deeply changed the life of people[1], including patters of love, mating, dating, sex or romance. Mediated methods to found couples (e.g. via relatives, chaperones), the centrality of wedding in the life of the traditional family, as well as the idea of the traditional family itself, were all confronted with new roles that women assumed (e.g. the urban professional, the civic activist), and with alternative life arrangements like co-habitation, single parenthood: “Since wages stagnated in the late 1970s, working class families (…) have collapsed under the strain. Cohabiting relationships without marriage and single-parent households have long since become a norm” [indeed, R.G.] “shifts in the American economy did begin to turn marriage into a luxury good. The sense that only upper-middle-class and wealthier, college-educated people could manage to get and stayed married dramatically changed the landscape of dating”.  (p.121; p. 155)

The author of Labor of Love underlines the reality around the so-called service economy very expressively by appealing to the popular movie, of the time, Pretty Woman. The main characters are the embodiment of the service economy, the businessman and the escort, the financial aristocrat who is a male, and the she, the poorly paid call girl; “neither had anything he or she would not be willing to sell” (p. 178) in a financial  environment defined by the demise of the middle class. Therefore, it roughly can be said that dating and the kindred rituals became a conspicuous consumption, by that time:  “(…) College dances were explicitly sexual. Your sexuality was the currency you put down to play (…) where spending money on clothes and flowers and cars and tickets allowed young people to consume one another conspicuously, too”. (p. 85) Yet, it is important to add that in the age that defined love life in terms of consumer behavior and encouraged singles to arrange relationships as they did business, the inequality of gender was adamant: the character interpreted by Richard Gere was a competitive entrepreneur that performed quality work in his expensive suits-symbols of a new masculine icon, whereas the streetwalker interpreted by Julia Roberts was a sex worker, aimed at performing a second class jobs in which both her body and mind were trained out like in the fitness room. His romance was playful and easy, hers was an incessant fight to stay upmarket, his was entertainment, hers was work.

Indeed, Labor of Love has a marked gender approach by suggesting that, just the way women are held responsible when it comes to fertility issues, although statistics show that these are equally caused by men, who, similar to women, have their own ‘biological clocksʼ[2], the same can be said about the connection between women and dating. Put it differently, the bond uniting the two was indelibly traced by the first so-called sexual revolution happening at the beginning of the twentieth century, when many women were forced to leave their rural areas and search for work in the urban realm. This revolutionized the dating patterns inasmuch as it revolutionized the status of the woman per se. Provided that work was until that moment a male opportunity, and it was defined by a precise time slot (say it from 09.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.), and regulated by payment, the inclusion of women in this process, not only that democratized the notion of work, but it also extended it to new areas and manifestations (i.e. looking after babies, the elder ones, taking care of the house, and of her own body). This way, work for women was beyond the office hours, was not necessarily expressed in hours and compensated by money; contrary to being considered the innate female resources of tenderness and care[3], it still was work that was taking place in a world still dominated by the male definition of work. It followed that the more freedom women had towards the opposite sex, the more duties they took on them. To re-iterate the idea of the last paragraph is to say that the more the men explored the fun side of dating (e.g. see the Playboy culture and Hugh Hefner), the more the women faced the labor side of it. Applying this simplistic reading to the book we are reviewing, we find this ‘drudgeryʼ of work in all stages of women emancipation via dating, starting with the so-called calling culture of the 1890s (e.g. men were paying surveilled visits to the would-be fiancés or wives) and ending with the yuppie culture of the 1980/1990s (e.g. the urban professional class). Labor of Love, aiming at showing the mating/ dating patterns, and the dynamics of romance, as well as the evolution of sex trends in the American society of the last one hundred years or so, singles out the varieties of work that women were compelled to do, initially under the pedagogy of the family towards being nice and ‘grabʼ the suitable guy in the attempt to marry, and then, once with the advent of corporations and the glossy press, under the social pressure, to plan via online dating, in-vitro fertilization, egg freezing (e.g. the culture of ‘Cosmo girlʼ, the female who strives to keep the perfect balance between professional and private life, between mind and body).

Letting aside the scrupulous exploration of the causes that led throughout time to the transformation of dating culture in yet another parameter of the market, Labor of Love is careful to set things straight by sharply pointing to what we should understand when talking about umbrella concepts like ‘datingʼ, ‘workʼ, ‘loveʼ, ‘settlingʼ. In America, dating was mentioned with the present meaning in 1896 in the national press (p. 12) when, referring to ladies working in factories or department stores, it was commented that they were seeing men, in other words they were meeting up ‘with a love interestʼ (p. 215); the context of this phenomenon was provided by the already mentioned wave of migration of women from the rural to the urban areas, and the significance of dating should be related to a view of the world in which ‘going outʼ/entertainment was separate from work. This was the transit phase between, on the one hand, the courtship rituals that deemed love in the previous decades as separate from economy, and defined marriage in terms of community and bloodline, and on the other hand, dating seen as a simple transaction. Similar to the idea that dating is after all a modern concept, closely related to the logic of Capitalism, the notion of labor has a Marxist flavor about it in saying that, as long as it dehumanizes the individual (e.g. via ‘repetitive, exhaustive tasks, working too much for too littleʼ), himself or parts of his body become mere ‘instrumentsʼ or ‘toolsʼ (p.252); this way, if one takes into discussion the plethora of lifestyle magazines and self-help manuals having the young metropolitan woman at the core, one realizes that all the effort evolving around being successful and loved owe much to this understanding of work. In which love is concerned, the author favors that kind of understanding that stresses self-esteem, giving, sharing, and charity over the understanding of ‘love as trademarkʼ namely the search of this feeling in the name of lifelong romance, effort under whose pretext, the structural inequalities of society demand from us various quantities and intensities of work (p. 264)[4]. Finally, discussing about ‘settlingʼ, the book offers insight into this concept employed as early as the 1600s when referring to people who would marry each other (p. 241); this traditional concept has always played on gender inequality, being  lately reinforced by themes like the biological clock and online strategies of how to pair off. What all these notions have in common is the fact that they are processes and not a priori truth: each epoch, each culture brings its own contribution and experience in interpreting them.

Labor of Love is a combination of oral and social history, of statistics and anecdotes, a successful blend between serious, academic matter and funny blog articles expressed in a language sprinkled with slang and academic jargon, in which the back and forth leap between the past and present is achieved gracefully. It employs a wide range of resources, of which we mention films, dating apps, cartoons, printed media, but also the most important works of behavioral sociology and names in European and American psychoanalysis of the twentieth century; to give just few examples: Margaret Mead and her classic Coming of Age in Samoa serve for a better, that is anthropological, understanding of Western patterns of dating and marriage, whereas works of activists like Silvia Federici and Angela Davies offer a comprehensive view of the feminist movements, including their shortcomings. Labor of Love is the debut book of Moira Weigel, author known for her contributions on kindred topics in The Guardian, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Inquiry.

Labor of Love is made up of ten chapters ordered by decades. The book opens with the decades of the 1890s and 1900s and it investigates the passage from calling[5] to dating culture (p. 20), when ‘love ritualsʼ left the coziness of the house and went public (p. 14), and when women stopped being monitored by the respectable relatives and, instead, stated openly their tastes and preferences (p. 37), in a context in which the likes of the individual stood at the basis of consumer society (p. 42). The third chapter goes on in the interwar period and elaborates on the symbolic understanding of ‘going outʼ as claiming of public space for oneself (p. 64), by choosing as case study the local gay culture. The fourth chapter, ‘Schoolʼ, stays in the same time span but it details the connection between college and dating culture; the replacement of parentsʼ control with other forms of social control like fraternities brings new understandings of the relation between sexes, in which courtship becomes a contest and dating a monitor of the social success (pp.84-85); consequently, the jargon of dating is enriched with new notions like ‘hooking upʼ and ‘rating and datingʼ that translate the extension of the purpose ascribed previously to dating (e.g. marriage), but also its essentially competitive nature. The next chapter recounts the story of a fashion existing at the end of WWII, namely ‘going steadyʼ, which referred to the tendency of the individuals to develop stable connections with their peers starting with a very young age; the author links this tendency to the general prosperity existing in the epoch, and concludes that ‘going steadyʼ turned dating into a middle class pastime, and forged it more coherently into the mass consumption type of society: “The wealthy [kids of the 1920s and 1930s, R.G.] had vied with one another to rate as many dates as they could. However, by the 1950s, many more young people could afford to go out dancing, or for burgers, or to the movies. And so the battle for survival of the fittest that had dominated fraternity dance floors gave way to a kind of romantic full employment”. (p. 117) The Chapter ‘Freedomʼ re-takes into discussion the hippie generation and its social activism by providing a reading into a feminist key; the bone of contention is that, albeit self-entitled the ‘sexual revolutionʼ, the programme of the 1960ers aimed at demolishing the old world of structural economic inequality, but did not bring anything coherent in place, so the envisaged relations between the sexes was after all the old middle class ones. (pp. 148-149) Drawing on the seeds planted in the 1960s and mid 1970s by Playboy and Cosmo (e.g. the ‘fun fearless feminismʼ), namely their stress on sex as play wrapped in glossy package, and as a motivator for working harder and harder (p. 138), the chapter ‘Nichesʼ describes the so-called ‘yuppiesʼ, the generation of young urban professionals of the 1980s that practiced dating in exclusive market terms; dating corresponded economically to the segmentation of the market, in other words, an individual, in order to find a partner, was supposed to narrow down his searches as much as he/she could by becoming as specific and peculiar as one might be (p. 163); this was the decade that brought into discussion concepts like ‘working nonstopʼ (e.g. eating out, working on the diet (p. 167)), assortative mating (p. 165), and saw the full blossom of the model of the business single in search for someone but too busy to date (p. 169), phenomenon that  led to the explosion of online dating platforms starting with the 1990s (p. 176). The eighth chapter, ‘Protocolʼ deserves special attention as it recounts the story of the appearance of AIDS in the early 1980s and of the social reactions to it; the chapter suggests that the rituals of dating were changed, furthermore, HIV revolutionized the relations between gays, too (p. 188), people would talk about sex for the first time in public (p. 192), and, in any case, talked about health with prospective sexual partners (p. 189). The Chapter ‘Plansʼ shows how the trends that announced themselves in the 1980s (e.g. the business single, the corporate culture, the online romance) are being led to a climax in the 1990s and the 2000s, when individuals are torn between traditional clichés like finding ‘the love of lifeʼ, even under the guise of ‘cyberloveʼ and securing ‘posterityʼ via artificial and costly means like sperm banks (p. 226) and egg freezing (p. 232). The final chapter discusses the case of the vast literature of ‘romantic adviceʼ, emphasizing how connected it still is with the truisms of the calling epoch, and, finally, how stereotypical these imagine the woman in relation to the man (to paraphrase the comment of the author in relation to online dating: as woman you need to be gorgeous, under 35, and with an amazing job, in order to qualify yourself for a man who is under 65 and has an ordinary job…).

Labor of Love finishes in an optimistic note by expressing the wishful thinking that it may lead to a sort of third sexual revolution under whose guidance people would re-consider how they think and act when it comes to love, in a social context in which women should enjoy better health care and child care, improved maternity leave policies, etc. (p. 265). Overall, the book represents a middle, compromising, way between radical feminism, like the one of the Atlantic Review, which advise women to pursue sex as fun or, at best, as serial monogamy or part of the job competition, and Conservative views rooted before WWII according to which women should do their best to find an eligible bachelor and to marry as conveniently as one could hope (pp. 90-93). Instead of these, Moira Weigel suggests, women should explore and enjoy more their sexuality instead of seeing themselves as machines scheduled to perform endless work, be it under the pretext of out wining their corporation male colleagues or, at the opposite specter, of finding a future husband.

As a criticism, we firstly mention that the author sometimes falls prey to her own catchy phrases and does not explain entirely things that deserve a closer look. For instance, the idea that the philosophy that stood behind the civic activism of the 1960s had points in common with the laissez faire economic principles of Milton Friedman (e.g. minimal state and reduced social protection)- (p. 133), in other words that the leftish worldview of the hippies could be related to the champions of liberal individualism that served as inspiration for neo-liberalism seems a daring association that needs a further elaboration; the same can be said about the distinction between the so-called glossy feminism (as cultivated by glossy press and pioneered by Cosmo) and the intellectual feminism (p. 137), and why the former won so many adepts in the detriment of the latter. Secondly, the book, as the author herself mentions at a certain point, is addressed to urban women and ideally located in a political and cultural center. Indeed, keeping in mind the place and time peculiarities, Labor of Love looks familiar to any urban individual who came of age, let us say, in the 2000s in any capital-city that offered a decent access to information. Apart from understandable historical distinctions like dating/marriage patterns (e.g. Western Europe, being socially less democratic than the US, experienced the opposite trend, namely the rationale behind dating were first economic and only after emotional, whereas US, as we saw, witnessed the opposite development).

Since rather than national, ethnic, and cultural gaps, we talk about generational and family gaps, as well as cleavage between the urban and the rural, and, more importantly, between the center and the periphery (i.e. the pages where the author renders the differences in school curricula when it comes to sexual education between the liberal New York schools and the rest of US are epic), a book like Labor of Love should be accompanied by case studies that comprise as many metropolitan areas of each continent as possible. Labor of Love explores in depth the environment of online dating, hence its quality of being local is ineffective to a certain extent. Since Internet bridges the gap between cultures and continents, it would be very useful to have a study that would inquire into center-periphery relations re-enacted by online dating platforms and apps. Are the latter prone to re-instate a colonial order among countries that were once colonies of certain European metropolises? How are the peripheries influenced by the erotic narrative presented and sold by the Northern-American producers and developers of online dating platforms and apps?

 

[1] The said social transformation is illustratively represented by the changing meanings of university in the life of the individuals: “The first American universities were founded to train ministers; the secular schools of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries still were thought to perform a key civic function, preparing young people to be productive democratic citizens. Since the heyday of campus activism in the 1960s and ʼ70s, a new consensus has emerged. Rather than seeing public universities as social goods, with an important moral vocation, more and more public figures speak about them like businesses. (…) By the twenty first century, corporate universities and defunded state schools were allowing students to conduct their private lives pretty much however they wanted. The new philosophy held that students were customers, and they were always right”. (pp. 87-88)

[2] “Our society speaks as if only women had bodies. Our assumption seems to be that reproduction is a female responsibility first and foremost”. (p. 223)

[3] To express this in the words of the author: ‘Love was supposed to lie outside the economy; women could only give it anywayʼ. (p. 177)

[4] This view is developed by Laura Kipnis in her book Against Love. With reference to love as giving and sharing, we need to mention the articles written by Alain de Botton within the educative project called ‘The School of Lifeʼ.

[5] An exhaustive contribution to what was ‘callingʼ in the epoch are the memoirs of Alma Mahler Werfel as a young girl: Diaries 1898-1902, London: Faber and Faber, 1997 (particularly pp. 254, 258).

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