We’ve all wasted more time on attempting to make lousy relationships work than we’d like to admit, but few of us have channeled that determination (and the fury that inevitably follows) into changing dating culture. Enter 31-year-old Moira Weigel’s first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. A non-fiction investigation into the history and culture of dating, the book—which the Yale PhD student jokes is like self-help for nerds—pokes holes in popular theories about how to date courtesy of franchises like The Rules and He’s Just Not That Into You.
The impetus was highly personal. When Weigel was 26, she found herself in a tortured entanglement with an older, self-involved man-child. Juggling her and his ex, he couldn’t decide what (or who) he wanted. In the thick of this romantic crisis, it dawned on Weigel that she was equally baffled by her own desires.
“What should I want? Like many women I had been well trained to focus on what other people might want,” she confesses. “[The culture of] dating trained us in how to be if we wanted to be wanted.” What it didn’t cover off: the importance of knowing your own heart.
That realization was the starting point Labor of Love, which will have you seriously reconsidering your approach to relationships. Here’s why.
A central theme in your book is that the culture of dating teaches women to conceal their real desires in order to not scare men off. What does the history of dating—and, in particular, how it’s been sold to women—reveal about that theme?
As I got deep into this history, which I wasn’t initially planning to frame in a very personal way, I thought more and more about why this matters to me and all the ways that women are taught to be this way, and I think that there is a huge industry in teaching women [how to be desirable]. It’s the most profitable industry in the world, making women hate themselves, and then [making them] feel that they have to buy things or work a certain way to be lovable.
The title of the book makes it clear that dating and love is work. But as you point out, it’s traditionally poised as work for women and recreation for men. Why?
I do believe that history and material conditions play a force. I think some of the origin of this is in early forms of sex work—men had more money and women needed access to that money. Now, that is changing but it’s interesting that our romantic ideals have not caught up with reality. Women are socialized to place our emphasis on romance and affection and enjoy connection. I think that’s a part of why there’s this idea that a woman should be willing to work more [for love] because she needs it more, whereas a man is happy to sleep around. But I don’t actually think that’s true. It’s very hard to know what happiness is for people but I definitely have spoken to lots and lots of straight men who are living what should be “the dream” according to those theories and who are really unhappy.
The sense of anxiety or the sense that courtship is in crisis is as old as dating itself. And that anxiety seems to be very deep in the DNA of these things, but at the same time it is ridiculous—this idea that someone needs a manual to explain who they are to themselves. This is anecdotal, but I guess the authors of The Rules got upset about what I wrote [about them in the book] and started writing all these mean things to me yesterday and some of their fans started [doing it too]…Some of their fans said The Rules taught them how to do this and that…and it’s like did you really need to be taught? It’s a very infantilizing idea that you can’t figure out how to have a conversation or make a phone call.
It’s not about being honest, it’s about ‘What can I say to get him or her to do what I want?’ other than, ‘I love you and I want to have a real relationship.’ It shouldn’t be called The Rules, it should be called The Tricks.
Again, this is just my anecdotal experience, but of course I was not immune to doing that kind of trickery. I just found it never worked! It just makes people anxious and extremely poor at communicating with their partners.
I also think it doesn’t work because even the creepiest dude is savvy enough to intuit that you’re full of shit when you pretend you don’t want the things you want.
There’s a part of me that feels like saying, ‘Can we just call time out and everyone stop playing this game?’ I think the worst part, and the part I experienced personally during those years of my dating life [Weigel is married now], is that to seem like you don’t care, you really have to not care. And I think that’s where we get into “chill” culture. There’s this writer named Hannah Black who has said that feel-shaming is more common than slut-shaming. What’s embarrassing is not having sex with someone, but feeling too much about it.
After I read the book, and learned about how women are constantly taught to hide their real desires or who they really are from men, I began to think that your initial question to yourself, ‘What should I want?’ was really just you wondering, ‘Should I dare to say what I want out loud?’
Yeah, that’s right. I probably did know what I wanted, which was not to be treated like garbage, and that it was just about being brave enough to say that.
You talk about the high emotional cost of women repressing their desires but you also talk about the effect it has on men and their development. You suggest that it really infantilizes them…
It completely infantilizes a man because it means never confronting him with an emotion. There’s this book about egg-freezing—I mention this in Labor of Love—and in it, a woman talks about how getting her eggs frozen made her not stress out the people she was dating. So, this is the end of bourgeois feminism, or middle-class white feminist empowerment? That you get to spend $80,000 on egg freezing so your date doesn’t feel stressed?
You talk about how dating culture has been affected by the digital revolution. One thing you suggest is that maybe we’ve fallen in love with dating tech—with dating apps like Tinder—more so than each other.
Yeah, I think Tinder is a video game you play about people who would consider sleeping with you. Tinder is so divorced from actual human encounters a lot of the time. I think what’s really interesting about the era of dating—or the century of dating—is that all kinds of businesses learned how to harness that desire for love and affection and sex that, most if not all humans feel in some form, and make it an engine of business. The digital stuff is especially pronounced where we get totally addicted. What we are doing when we play Tinder for three hours at a time is we’re doing free work for Tinder, which is a corporation. The dating stuff is incidental.
In the book you point out how economics and market forces have shaped our romantic lives for generations. For example, you draw a line between the gig economy and how that affects contemporary dating ideals. How do they interact with one another?
I see two big points of connection. I think the first one is that if you think of how in old time-y dates someone would say, ‘Oh, I’ll pick you up at six.’ We don’t work that way anymore. We work longer or different kinds of hours so that traditional kind of dating culture, which was so predicated on the separation between work and leisure [has changed.] Now, it’s more ‘Are you up?’ than ‘Pick you up at six.’
Also, I feel that a lot of young people feel that their economic prospects are uncertain…and that that has discouraged people from pairing up in a lot of ways. This sense that you might move to another city for your career, or you might have to take another job, or you don’t know where you’ll be in the future, is definitely affecting dating and makes it harder to commit. I think more spiritually or psychologically and emotionally, our values are all about flexibility and not committing to anything and being able to adapt to any kind of role.
I see a parallel between things like Uber, Citibike and Airbnb, and a lot of contemporary dating: I don’t want to have an official girlfriend or partner but I want to have all the trappings of one.
Oh, no. That’s so depressing. I never thought about it that way. You’re right. I was an Airbnb for those men…
You’re a fancy Airbnb, too. Because you went to Yale. You’re equivalent to a villa where Beyoncé stays.
I think that’s right. It’s like a way we can make a certain type of temporary connection on the fly and then dissolve it at no cost. I’m going to be depressed about that all day!
The sexual revolution is often deemed a failure. But you say the problem isn’t that it happened but that it didn’t go far enough—what didn’t happen that makes things so difficult for women?
What would make it better is non-problematic, non-difficult access to contraception and legal abortion, social services… like basic health and health care, and subsidies and better provision for child care. Those are very real reasons that the sexes still aren’t equal.
What’s your advice to women looking for love? Is this book your version of self-help?
I think it kind of is. I joke that I’m such a nerd that I wrote the advice book that I would have wanted, which is a 300-page history. What was useful to me about thinking about it in terms of these labour dynamics or economic dynamics was this idea of the exploitation of labour, i.e., Are you getting enough for what you’re doing?
A lot of [popular relationship] advice feels like, ‘hate yourself, hate yourself a little harder and you’ll get this prize.’ What I really hope the book does is give people a framework for thinking about the subject matter with a kind of seriousness and clarity because there’s so much pressure to be certain ways and buy certain things and do certain things that do a lot to benefit the people who sell those things by making them rich and do nothing for [our] happiness. We’re also encouraged to make someone like us by repressing everything about ourselves—and my advice is to not do that stuff and try and be mindful if you’re getting what you want from your labour and whether it’s worth it.
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