Sara Eckel is the author of “It’s Not You:27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Not Single.”
It’s a sad truth: No matter how much progress women have made in the workplace — and it’s still pretty limited — the message about our romantic prospects remains stubbornly mired in the past.
“I belong to a generation that grew up hearing that girls could do everything,” Moira Weigel writes in her fascinating social history “Labor of Love.” And yet Weigel, who is in her early 30s, contends that women are still judged in large part on their ability to secure romantic partnerships. “Since we were children,” she writes of herself and her friends, “we had heard that romantic love would be the most important thing that ever happened to us. Love was like the final grade: Whatever else we accomplished would be meaningless without it.”
Despite these monumental stakes, she notes, love and romance — the ways humans begin their most intimate relationships — are still dismissed as silly girl stuff, fodder for pink-covered books and scented fashion magazines.
The lack of serious conversation about dating has left Weigel with rich territory to explore, and she makes excellent use of it. “Labor of Love” covers a wide cross-section of social phenomena — the 1920s Harlem rent parties, the 1990s safe-sex movement, today’s swipe-right culture — showing how the ways people meet and mate are influenced by the social and economic conditions of their time.
Take the history of the singles bar. Today they’re mostly viewed as setups for jokes about over-cologned men asking, “What’s your sign?” But early singles bars such as T.G.I. Friday’s — yes, that T.G.I. Friday’s — were as revolutionary as the gay bars that preceded them, providing a rare space for “privacy in public.” Before the mid-1960s, unescorted women were banned from many bars — the popular New York ale house McSorley’s excluded them entirely until 1970.
Today the common wisdom is that dating is dead, lost to hookup culture. And yet, Weigel notes, each weekend throngs of online daters crowd restaurants, cheerfully offering data on the lengths of their commutes and numbers of siblings.
If middle-aged journalists are horrified by young people’s courtship rituals, Weigel shows it was always thus. Dating, she explains, didn’t even exist until the early 20th century. Before then, prospective spouses met under family supervision in homes or at church dances. After women began working in factories and shops, they started meeting gentlemen for movies and meals, scandalizing elders who saw scant difference between the shopgirl treated to dinner and the prostitute paid in cash. In the ’20s, the automobile prompted widespread concern about young people’s newfound privacy. You’d think the grown-ups would have been happy during the ’50s era of the steady; instead, columnists expressed outrage at these mini-marriages.
Throughout the book, Weigel draws connections between courtship and commerce. She explains that early-20th-century shopgirls were possibly the first to follow the maxims “sell yourself” and “dress for the job you want,” mimicking the look and manners of their upper-class counterparts in the hopes of snaring rich husbands. This kind of artful flirtation, used to peddle oneself as well as merchandise, is what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotional labor,” work that requires one to manage her feelings — think the flight attendant’s glazed smile or the car salesperson’s jokey camaraderie — to elicit a response in someone else.
Dating, Weigel explains, is work — and primarily it has been women’s work.
In the days before courtship involved spending money in public, women waited at home for gentlemen to call. Once women began earning income (however scant), they were tasked with creating the illusion of dependence, lest they kill the romance, and with policing intimacy. It was understood that a boy in the back seat of a car would proceed with abandon; the girl was not only left to navigate the razor-thin line between prude and slut, she was also given no means of comprehending her own budding desire.
“Then, as soon as she married, America about-faced. Not only should a young wife have sex, it told her, she should have lots of sex, and she should like it,” Weigel writes.
The sexual revolution of the ’60s changed things somewhat, but even Helen Gurley Brown’s celebration of female desire, “Sex and the Single Girl,” still upheld the convention that pleasing men was the goal — and the reward.
On this front, not much has changed. Most dating guides still urge women to keep courtship light and breezy — for men. Meanwhile, they must quietly plot their personal lives and their fertility, while making it all appear spontaneous.
“Whatever she does, a woman on a date must not let her plan show,” Weigel writes. “In order to earn her happy ending,” a woman “must be willing to go to any length to make things easy on the men they get involved with.”
If a woman is confused about how to do this, there is no shortage of instruction. Though, in sharp contrast to the go-with-your-gut tone of business self-help, Weigel points out, most dating advice warns readers away from their instincts.
It’s also oddly self-defeating. Whether you’re a Rules Girl attempting to snare a man with feigned apathy, a pickup artist undermining a woman’s self-esteem to manipulate her into bed or an ambitious college student who prefers hookups to relationships, the message is remarkably uniform: You win at love by not showing it.
“Ironically, dating advice sometimes seems to be training its reader how to steel herself against the very emotions that she says she hopes to experience,” Weigel writes.
Her deliciously incisive observations run throughout the book, making it a thoroughly enjoyable read.
At times, however, her attempts to tie each dating trend to the economic circumstances of its time can seem forced. Is it true that the going-steady era of the ’50s was linked to lifetime employment, while hookup culture is an expression of the gig economy? Did the materialism of the yuppie ’80s prompt Americans to view their partners as just another consumer choice? Is there really a connection between the (admittedly unfathomable) popularity of “Pretty Woman” and the U.S. trade deficit?
I’m not sure, but either way, Weigel presents an insightful analysis of a topic that has largely been left to hucksters and scolds. Weigel shows how, by commodifying our deepest emotions, the “experts” turned dating into a job requiring calculation and deception, but not much love. Maybe it’s time to give notice.
By Moira Weigel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
292 pp. $26