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Moira Weigel ... "This obsession with loving work can trick us into giving too little of ourselves to actual love.” (Jean Ervasti)

Modern mating

How is dating like a job? A new history of sex and romance reveals all

By Amy Finnerty on May 12, 2016

Sitting down with a glass of wine in her Brooklyn neighborhood to discuss her forthcoming history, Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating, Moira Weigel refers to the title by the text-y shorthand “LoL.” But the 31-year-old has come to believe that the rituals of modern mating are no laughing matter. She spent two years immersed in the economic theories, psychology and gender politics underpinning the evolution of courtship to finish the book while simultaneously working on her Yale Ph.D. dissertation (on an entirely different subject at the intersection of philosophy, film and media history).

As dating has adapted to technology and the gig economy, she discovered, old courtship norms and time frames have dissolved. The Monday phone message —“Pick you up at seven on Thursday for dinner”— has given way to last-minute hook-ups at awkward, unromantic hours, accommodating our ever-wired extended workdays. And long-term commitment is now a luxury, given job turnover and the need to travel or relocate in pursuit of career opportunities.

Today, not only does dating hug the contours of the insecure freelance economy, Weigel notes: dating is a job, of sorts, demanding “all the things that glossy magazines suggest a straight woman must do to be baseline datable.”

“We brand ourselves as mobile, free agents, try to optimize our skills, make ourselves available on demand,” she says. “Why does it surprise anyone that many of us also opt for more flexible, ad hoc relationships, or use mobile apps that work like Uber for dating?”

Labor of Love by Moira Weigel

Weigel came somewhat late to these labors of love: As a teenager, she prioritized studies over matters of the heart. Commuting from her “fairly strict” Brooklyn childhood home to the intensely competitive Hunter College High School in Manhattan, she rode the subway not with a sweetheart or female besties, but with her academic “crew,” all of them boys.

“I joked at the time that I was never interested in boys romantically because I knew too much — their gross habits, crude senses of humor, and especially how they talked about girls among themselves. They were sweet kids, but still — teenage boys at a magnet school. You can imagine the dorky braggadocio.”

Weigel remembers that due to her  “obsession with school work, sports, the school paper, orchestra, Model U.N.,” not to mention Kant and calculus, “I didn’t have time to think much about romance.”

Since then she’s earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, worked toward completing her Yale Ph.D., studied Latin, German, Chinese, Spanish, and French, worked in Asia, lived in Europe, taught at Yale while writing for assorted national publications, and gotten married (to the author Ben Tarnoff). Yet her greatest accomplishment may be her ability to stand back, train that critical mind on her younger self, and reflect with brutal honestly on the driven girl who had not yet developed a true sense of female solidarity. She’s since evolved.

“I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I didn’t have any particular interest in feminism until my mid-twenties. It took me until then to look at my bookshelf and realize that it was 80 percent or 90 percent male authors. Crazily, it had never even occurred to me that it might be a problem that almost none of the oracles I went to for wisdom on how to live were speaking from female experience.”

It was her work-at-home, Irish-Catholic mother, Weigel says, who enabled her achievement by supporting and promoting her tirelessly. And it may not be entirely coincidental that Weigel identified so strongly with the boys in her high school class: she and her sister got to be the main event.  Now, she says, she worries that some high-achieving women are “encouraged to feel competitive with, and even mistrustful of, other women,” and to “diminish or dismiss any subject, such as dating, that seems ‘girly’ or ‘female.’” That, she believes,  “is really to our detriment — it’s a real loss, not to have close, deep, loving friendships with women and not to consider, analyze, examine what it means to be female in our time and place in a serious way, among those friends.”

In her twenties, Weigel did connect with a community of women she cherishes, and she says one colleague, in particular, has sustained her both personally and intellectually: the film historian Mal Ahern, whose friendship Weigel calls “life-changing.” In collaborating with Ahern at Yale, Weigel “discovered that I could use this massive methodological and theoretical toolkit that taking seminars and writing papers and reading a gazillion books was giving me to tackle the questions that my friends and I constantly discussed: What we wanted, from work and love and life.” Labor of Love “grew directly out of that friendship and out of ideas we developed together. Conversations that we had, and jokes that she made, are still all over it.”

Ahern is also Weigel’s collaborator on a related project, a dating-themed film series that opened on May 4 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. An event there on May 17 will feature a screening of the 1927 movie It, starring Clara Bow, the original “It Girl,” who figures in Labor of Love. The BAM screening will be followed by a conversation between Weigel and Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.

Weigel says she’s “grateful to the universe” for Ahern, and for other writers she’s met through The New Inquiry magazine: she credits them with helping to create a “new culture of writing about feminism, sex, gender, and theory online that didn’t exist before and is growing bigger and bigger, really changing the conversation.” Yet she’s wary of reflexive cheerleading about women’s careers and the overuse of the term “empowerment,”— the notion that “employment should be your greatest fulfillment, that you should invest your entire identity in your job.” She laments  “corporate feminism,” a doctrine that “tells women that this is empowerment.” She believes that “it can have the opposite effect. It makes people feel that if they don’t love their crummy work conditions, that’s some personal failing.”

Moira Weigel spent two years immersed in the economic theories, psychology and gender politics underpinning the evolution of courtship. (Jean Ervasti)

While she’s encouraged that “women can imagine lives that don’t revolve around getting married or having children,” she believes that “the cult of work is a sad, exploitative alternative. This obsession with loving work can trick us into giving too little of ourselves to actual love.”

With LoL, she has produced an addictive and accessible read that springs from a deeply personal revelation — one that she disarmingly relays in the book’s early pages, huddling in with her readers like a solid girlfriend.  In the midst of having her heart broken by an older man on Manhattan’s High Line a few years back, the then 20-something single realized that she couldn’t answer what should have been a no-brainer: What do I want from this?

Dating was central to her personal life, but often she was “so focused on being desirable, or on what I should be doing to meet certain expectations,” that she had hardly thought about her own fulfillment. What did it all mean? In Labor of Love she peels back layers of history, ranging across subjects — from market capitalism, industrialization and the AIDS crisis to Tinder hookups and pre-assignation waxing — to reveal the roots of an activity that we all take for granted and too often dismiss as trivial.

Dating, it turns out, is not only potentially romantic or sexy, but also a profoundly political phenomenon firmly grounded in economics. It emerged when women left their homes, or the plantations and domestic positions in which they toiled, moved to cities, and took paying jobs, mingling with men in unsupervised settings. “Think what a big deal it is,” Weigel writes, “when one new single shows up in a Jane Austen novel.” Then imagine “how many men a salesgirl who worked at Lord & Taylor in the 1910’s would meet everyday.” (Previously, any contact between the sexes had been chaperoned in the home, and matchmaking dictated by family, class and religion.)

In the early 20th century, Weigel writes, mating became entwined with personal taste and consumer markets as never before. Salesgirls and waitresses were on public display, at first raising alarms about moral degeneracy. Many of them aspired to the manners and style of their better-off (married) female customers: by saving up for the right clothing, and the products being churned out by the emerging cosmetics industry, a “shop girl” could catch the eye of a wealthy male patron. They might “set a date” to meet up later in a public place. She’d flirt, or go a little further, and get a transactional hot meal or a gift. Dating became a “lucrative business,” we learn. “For the first time in human history, dating made it necessary to buy things in order to get face time with a prospective partner.”

Weigel explains that gay history has intersected with — and helped shape — contemporary straight dating, but focuses mainly on straight women. Empathetic and funny, she speaks directly and specifically to her generation: they came of age alongside the personal devices that changed everything. They never had to make plans in advance or wait at home by the phone for a boy to call. They were told that they were at liberty to do whatever they wanted sexually. Their romantic lives were — and are — entirely improvisational, which confers advantages and disadvantages.

“If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land,” Weigel writes in her introduction, “dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship”— and a heavily gendered one at that, in which women’s own desire and goals too often get lost in the effort to please, and to keep up with the exhausting pace. In this pitiless, amped-up marketplace, women must affect “steely” indifference in order not to appear overly needy, or too giving, says Weigel. Yet, ultimately, she concludes that the “exhilarating new freedoms” enabled by the invention of dating (and all the innovations and political breakthroughs that came later) have been worth the exertion, and that “there is no better life than a life spent laboring at love.”

Her book, her journalism and the film series all grew out of her determination to “take ‘girly’ concerns seriously … start conversations about topics that had been dismissed — that I myself would have dismissed — as ‘girly’ or trivial. ”  With Labor of Love she has pulled off what she says more and more of her peers in academia and journalism are trying to do today:  “Apply our intellects, together, seriously, to questions that are vital to our lives.”

That includes the question she struggled to formulate to herself during that date-gone-wrong on the High Line: What do I want?  “Although centuries of ideology say that women should always put others first — that that’s what being feminine or lovable as a woman is — our happiness is not trivial,” she insists. “It really isn’t.”

Further insights by Moira Weigel:

Oscar hopeful shot on iPhones tells a story of being young and trans in L.A.

A fresh take on teen comedy aims to bring black female friendships to the fore

“It was exactly the kind of film I wanted to make: provocative, exciting, original”

Chantal Akerman: Remembering a pioneering feminist filmmaker