By Sophie Lewis
What would the most thrilling and intimate moments in our collective social reproduction feel like in the cities of our dreams? It is far harder to answer this than to identify the lack in what we’ve currently got. Most people currently live for, in large part, the joy of flourishing in communion with their love-mates. Yet there is a dimension of burdensome labor to the process of tracking down those ‘other halves’ – as they are still called – just as there is work in the process of making a life with them, not least creating the home within which love can be tended. What one can think of, then, as the housework of finding and cultivating sweethearts is today more private and individualized than ever. At the same time, a certain forced collectivization of living has lately been imposed on more and more of us. Unaffordable housing markets, stagnant wages, austerity and widespread job precarity represent class violence that metes itself out along gendered and racialized lines even as racism and gender oppression are treated as though they were dead in many of the discourses of the western powers. Even as subsidies for proletarian social reproduction are everywhere slashed, against all odds, proletarians (gay or straight) are still supposed to couple, wed and procreate. Under these conditions, what does it mean to date? What is it for? To what uses can we (still) put the date? How might we date otherwise?
Anyone familiar with the British reality TV show First Dates has witnessed the operation of our era’s dating ideology in full force. In between the caricaturally French maître d’hôtel’s earnest pronouncements on “Love” – a bombardment as pitiless as the commercial breaks on Channel 4 – the viewer is intermittently gratified with edited clips of pairs of strangers who have sat down together in the show’s dedicated restaurant, in search of personal salvation. Like any people, these people are frequently compelling, ‘relatable,’ adorable. “You see, I’ve been hurt in the past, so I find it difficult to trust people,” contestants confide off-stage, “but I’m looking for that special someone who will make it right”; “I’m ready to settle down”; “I’m nearing 30! I always thought I’d have kids by this point”; “My parents are still together, which is lovely – at the end of the day, I want that life.” At the same time as it is proclaims, in this way, that it is catering to spontaneous desires, First Dates is theorizing “Love” as the only and ultimate need. The show produces the submission of individuals to these oppressively high stakes, at least as much as it responds to it. Staging the process makes everybody’s uniqueness look commensurable.
“Dating,” as it is currently known and practised, casts ordinary people as perfectible investment opportunities in competition with each other across myriad platforms (OKCupid; Tinder; Grindr; Match; Ashley Madison; Plenty of Fish, etc). And the jovial First Dates TV restaurateur’s supposed amatory expertise promises every diner a special competitive advantage. The set venue, his magic laboratory, is his brokership, an exclusive trading floor. Under the influence of his twinkling Gallic smile, contenders consent to expose their blushing faces, courtship strategies, unconscious class markers, table manners, and nervous tics to our gaze on a blind date on national television. In return, they gratefully receive nothing other than the opportunity itself. What does the opportunity promise? How was this powerful draw constituted historically?
Reading Moira Weigel’s new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), one begins to understand this ‘date’ that one can see repeated ad infinitum on First Dates, to be anything but incidental or simply natural. The date, instead, appears as the ever-morphing factory floor for producing subjects with the right kind of dreams; namely, as Laura Kipnis puts it, subjects who dream of “Love™” (Kipnis 2003). For Kipnis, to dream in this limited, “deadening” way can itself be seen as a form of gendered labor or housework “functional for society” (94). Thinking of love as a kind of competitive date-to-marriage superhighway reconciles us to having to voluntaristically police, privatize, and take personal responsibility for large swaths of our needs within the bounds of the nuclear home (for, as we know, couplings necessarily result in new homes). To scrutinize dating through this lens allows us to unsettle both the dyadism of the format – its presumption of two players, no more and no less – and its repro-normativity, a teleology geared towards child-having.
What else does dating reproduce? As though in recognition of dating’s contentiously gendered economic foundation, participants on First Dates don’t just offer their labor gratis but must also pay real money for the dinner. This means conducting a highly sensitive negotiation with which most of us will be painfully familiar (“shall we go Dutch on this?”) under the glare of national cameras. Because one’s performance on a date represents one’s relation to the cult of love (Love™) itself, a date – particularly a first date – threatens to determine one’s subjecthood wholesale. At the same time, where love is concerned, money is supposed to be ‘no object.’ Given that money is finite, when love has failed to germinate by the end of a date, the politics of the ‘bill’, ‘tab’ or ‘check’ becomes a freighted matter. Myriad advice columns on the topic attest to this. Reluctance on the part of the masculine figure to shoulder it – given the endurance of patriarchal power in society – communicates a low assessment of his interlocutor’s value. While many men know this and use it consciously to communicate this, innocence is also no defence. One cannot escape this symbolic grammar, on a first date, simply by willing it away.
The possibility of not being deemed worth ‘buying into’ disproportionately affects women, well outside of the bounds of the date itself. And the repercussions of this core economic dynamic in dating are powerful. Donning high heels can express the very opposite of anxiety, but the point is I don’t think I’ve seen a single woman on First Dates not wearing high heels. The “ladies” invariably show up bearing (or wearing) the fruits of several thousand cumulative pounds and labor-hours of aesthetic grooming and accessorizing investment. For Channel 4, makeup and costumes are thus independently taken care of. Thanks to the banal tyranny of the couple form, First Dates must be incredibly cheap to run.
Who pays for the comestible commodities that mediate an encounter? I do not have the available data on this ‘in real life,’ but from my experience of the show it seems it is never the straight women, who almost unanimously state – in interviews backstage – that they expect a man who “knows how to be a gentleman,” which is to say, who pays the bill. Whether or not the majority of the men have learned about this criterion of success or failure from first watching First Dates, they, in turn, tend to make a gallant performance of picking up the whole bill and refusing to hear a word of protest.
That said, departures from this script aren’t uncommon and can sometimes elicit violent backlash from other men. Following an appearance in Series 3 Episode 5, for example, an extremely vain professional “male model” with long hair, Sam Reece, told The Mirror he’d received “death threats” for snubbing the upper-class “nice girl” he’d been paired with. “It was a really expensive meal,” Reece complained, “and I knew I wasn’t going to see her again, so what’s wrong with asking her to split the bill?” (Bourne, 2015).
That Reece’s prerogative not to “invest” in the woman wasn’t simply accepted without comment, in the context of British patriarchy, seems to have a lot to do with the specific old-world whiteness and quasi-aristocratic purity of the “girl” in question, and the villainous contrast, not to mention threatening effeminacy, of Reece’s personal narcissism and disinterest in her. Chivalry was ever an opportunistic and discretionary logic, and so it remains. Men don’t threaten just any man in the name of just any woman. After all, men’s supposed ‘duty to pay’ is on the whole viewed by men collectively as an oppression, even as they police this duty themselves. Some male First Dates contestants might suggest in forcibly casual tones that she pay for the drinks. Particularly those who haven’t enjoyed their encounter. Even if they lack Reece’s chutzpah and (as they doubtless saw it) unmanly lack of pride. There are others who mention pointedly (even as they pay) that they appreciate the woman having “offered” to split it.
Very occasionally, however, the tensions embedded in this delicate heteronormative choreography explode.
In one horrifying episode, the class and gender of accountability for the dinner bill became an explicit argument (Waring, 2015). Mid-date, the plainly dressed single father of three, “Marc,” bitterly muttered “Does money grow on trees?!” when the permed blonde “Elle” (decked out in stilettoes and backless hot pink gauze) requested that he order her another tequila. Shortly thereafter, the date ground to a frosty close despite her encouraging laughter, high-octane smiling and continuous all-round performance of childlike coquetry.
When the bill arrived, he challenged her directly: “You’re giving it to me…?!” “Of course I’m giving it to you,” said Elle, “I never pay on dates – why would I?“ “Why WOULDN’T you?” snapped Marc. Shocked and humiliated, she patiently explained her reasoning: “Come on. I’ve been hot, and fun.” “Can you tell me what it is?” he coldly rejoindered, ignoring this claim and holding out the piece of paper, “I can’t see.” “Yeah,” she obliged brightly, reading off it, “it’s £136.69.” (Pause.) “WOW.” Faced with Marc’s hostile facial reaction, Elle swiftly reached into her purse, hoping to put an end to it: “Look, I’ll give you thirty quid. I understand your situation – you have three babies . So of course I’ll go halves- er, well, not halves…”
But Marc was already interjecting “You haven’t gone anywhere NEAR halves!!”; in response to which the woman’s forced a burst of placatory laughter: “You’re so funny. (Pause.) Shall we get some more tequila?” “NO!” (Elle pouts.) “Why nooot?” “Because I’m broke!” (Elle frowns.) Cut to Marc backstage, explaining to the show why he thought they should have “split the bill.” Cut back to the restaurant for more. “Why wouldn’t you split it?” repeats Marc, staring at Elle with intense contempt. (Elle grimaces in disbelief and downs half of a glass of wine.) Marc persists: “Because you’re a WOMAN?” (Cut to Elle backstage confirming, yes, because she’s a woman:) “I’m just more used to not having to pay. Usually, if I’m on a date… You get treated nicely, you get treated like a woman.” (Cut back to the restaurant.) Marc: “What, are we not equal? (Pause.) We’re equal when you want us to be!”
In the final interview – when asked side-by-side if they “want to see each other again” – Elle generously offered: “we’ll definitely see each other again as friends.” To this, Marc said “maybe.” He called Elle “high maintenance,” and then, as she choked him awkwardly from the side in a reconciliatory hug he did not want, he repeated “hard work … hard work.”
This ugly debacle seemed to expose a form of latent potential violence at the heart of the First Dates template, sending palpable tremors through much of the viewership. Metro referred to the incident as “billgate.” Commentators bemoaned how a male working-class single father of three had been squeezed dry by some unashamed party-girl. Embedded in their moralising reaction was shock that Marc had been compelled to hear the explicit desire for compensation of the person who did the greater share of emotional “hard work” that night (and who, by articulating this, momentarily threatened to cease to do it). By referring to an exchange of goods and services taking place under the aegis of romance, Elle had broached something taboo in bourgeois British culture. And Marc’s words – “hard work!” – appropriated her claim in order to delegitimize it. He collapsed the meaning of “work” in this context into its opposite, namely the hard cash he’d had to part with.
According to Marc’s logic, to consume without enjoyment, to spend money unwillingly, is work. If the deployment of this point was misogynist, it may, simultaneously, be true, naming the dimension of contemporary capitalism that thrives on mining and coercing consumers, not just producers; blurring the boundary between the two. Certainly, the particulars of the encounter seemed perfectly selected to underline the limits of contemporary patriarchy’s ability to mystify dating along the usual idealized bourgeois lines. The emasculating presence of “three babies” points to an already-existing burden of potentially precarious social-reproductive work on his side. Meanwhile, his bad-faith inability to “see” the bill apes ladylike nicety, which is – structurally or symbolically speaking – her role. So, too, the inversion performed by the accusation “we’re equal when you want us to be” – appropriate to Elle’s situation, yet colonised and voiced by Marc.
We all have experience of sharing. And we all see the price-tags and bills attaching themselves to practically every experience. So, what is it that makes us equal on this commodity-saturated terrain, other than that we want to be, striving together to determine how? What rituals of making-explicit and keeping-implicit, gifting and negotiating, thanking and not-thanking, expecting and appreciating, succeed at honouring and erasing inequality? People debated “billgate” as though they had suddenly been provided with a much-needed proxy through which to parse the rights and wrongs of gendered spending under capitalism. In some people’s eyes, it was totally unfair “in this day and age” for a guy to be stung for the expensive meal and cocktails consumed by a woman he disliked. Any self-respecting woman pays her share, they argued. The prettiness and the emotional labor Elle claimed she had “contributed” hadn’t been consensually brokered in advance in monetary terms. Who says he wanted that kind of girl, that kind of vibe, that kind of date?
To others, the implication that the bitter misogynist Mark was more of a feminist than Elle seemed laughable. This line of analysis represented, at worst, an already familiar anti-feminist reaction to certain hard-won cultural gains epitomized by the recent women-of-colour feminist demand #giveyourmoneytowomen (see Schaffer 2015). At best, it bespoke a truncated and merely formal equality.
Luna Malbroux’s comic proposal for a smartphone app designed precisely for these situations – “EquiTable” – pokes fun at formal feminism by reducing the issues to a calculus: “You pay what you should to balance out the wage gap.” The calculator “doesn’t split the bill equally – it splits it equitably” according to Labor Bureau statistics broken down by sex and ethnic group (Dickey 2016). Malbroux attests she has received “a lot of hatemail” in reaction to EquiTable.
As Malbroux’s both radical and radically insufficient date-costing device helps us see, the false egalitarianism of a blanket “pay your way” policy reproduces all sorts of inequalities. Beyond the still yawning income gap, it becomes obvious one must attend to sexual and affective economies that make a mockery of quantification. How exactly can one make unpaid, undervalued and invisibilized forms of gendered labor “count” without abolishing counting itself? How can one “account” in some way for the psychological norms and scripts that frame heterosexuals’ shared acts of consumption in the public sphere? Those of us sympathetic to “Elle” felt inclined, at least, to acknowledge her case for the (unspecifiable) sterling value of her aesthetic and affective labor. How could one ignore the extreme systemic pressure faced by women – and the expense they consequently shoulder – to observe physical and fashionable disciplines required to appear conventionally attractive on the “dating market”? Although it had admittedly not been negotiated as such, the dinner could still be presumed to fall within the purview of mainstream dating’s default roles, whereby the more masculine party’s non-payment would signify a serious insult to the feminine.
In short, the question of who does the buying on a date (and what exactly is bought) retains great political and moral virulence. What is clear, however, is that those who are indignant about asymmetric payment for shared recreation are deluding themselves in at least one substantive way. Namely, when we imply that dating is fundamentally distinct from escorting and sex work, we are mistaken.
As the confident first monograph by Moira Weigel – co-author of popular “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child” – elegantly lays out, the pursuit of Love has always intimately intertwined, as an end in itself, with the exchange, consumption and production of value. Labor of Love provides a brilliant historicization of these dynamics in the United States, which thoughtfully expands a transdisciplinary field of materialist-feminist study popularized by Viviana Zelizer in The Purchase of Intimacy (Zelizer 2005). It is a substantial archival study expressed in lucent, simple prose well suited to a non-academic press. In it, Weigel successfully crafts a theorization of the “date” as a longstanding site of morphing relations of reproductive labor.
Whether discussing the totalitarian propaganda of Cosmo magazine’s founder Helen Gurley Brown; marriage’s origins as chattel ownership, then – in Emma Goldman’s words – female “scabbing”; or egg freezing as a health benefit for female employees of Google, Facebook and Citibank, Weigel always shows compellingly that the slippage between romantic and pecuniary matters is altogether nothing new. Consider, for example, one of dating’s earlier incarnations as “treating.” Treating was a form of socializing, as Weigel argues, that largely determined access to leisure and even to subsistence for the emergent urban female professional class, who were paid on average “less than half of what a man would earn in the same position” (Weigel 2016, 15).
“When a woman accepted “a man’s treat,” she could later brag to her girlfriends that “he treated.” Women who did this were called Charity Girls. A 1916 Sexual Dictionary included “Charity cunt, n. Woman who distributes her favors without a price.” Meaning for only the price of a date. By the 1920s, the prostitutes at New York’s Strand Hotel complained that Charity Girls were putting them out of business. The key fact that distinguished a Charity Girl from a prostitute—and still legally distinguishes an escort from one—was that she did not take cash.” (21)
As such, the origins of dating lie as much in the realm of the “hustle” as in some transcendental domain of union between two questing hearts. Dating began as the informal work of hustling and hooking for treats and, today, Weigel argues, “our slang suggests that we still think dating is work for most women and recreation for most men” (24).
In a memorable anecdote, Weigel describes a male friend’s use of the Tinder app both to find women to invite out to dinner, and to hire women to come to his apartment, interchangeably—the only and key difference being that profiles in the latter category include discreet payment URLs (they also go offline when their owners stop working for the night). As that anecdote also implies, the privileged moment of seduction in this epoch’s imagination is no longer associated with the streets, the neighbourhoods, the home, or any of hooking’s amorphous locations. Instead, the most valued date under neoliberalism doesn’t just double down on the trendiest possible venue of leisure consumption, but becomes a conscious spectacle and as such, a type of multi-tasking: think of the work taking place in and through “getting to know you” in the First Dates restaurant.
Even though people “date” on the other side of that camera – watching television together in their pyjamas while eating breakfast cereal – it seems that dating’s aspirational definition has become at core, an expensive one. As such, in Weigel’s book, over time, one might expect the subject matter to simply skew towards subjects with above-average purchasing power and (for instance) priorities such as egg freezing. But in fact, the skew towards straight, marriageable and moneyed subjects is relatively slight. In many passages, Labor of Love vividly sketches forms of erotic desire, negotiation and manipulation both proletarian and professional, Harlem and Wall Street, queer and straight. High and low protocols for love in the United States reveal themselves in these pages to have a history, not just of recuperation and co-option, but of unruly interweaving.
Weigel’s date-form translates booms and busts in the economy, moments of class recomposition, and radical cultural disruptions like Free Love and AIDS. From parlour “calling” (province of “the Calling classes”) to “going steady” with milkshakes and movies, from “rating and dating” to “shopping around,” Weigel’s thematic scope deftly encompasses a long tradition of public women and their johns, beaus, boyfriends and/or abusers. We meet “woman adrift” from the “treatee” to today’s “Tinderella,” via the moral panic over so-called white slavery, the Charity Cunts harassed by erstwhile vice squads, the contradictions of television’s Real Housewives™, and the rise of Career girls, hippie chicks, shopgirls, Cosmo-reading Single Girls, fags, fairies, embryo bankers and fuckbuddies. These coupling scripts, unearthed by Weigel from the oral and narrative archive, take on an unfamiliar resonances in her hands, fatally troubling the boundary between sex-work and romance while also evoking the possibility of liberation, mutual respect, and joy. “The point of recognizing the labor of love,” the author affirms, “is not to reject it but to reclaim it, to insist that it be distributed equally and directed toward the ends that we in fact desire” (266).
What stands in the way of such a reclamation? After all, “Americans,” Weigel observes, “seem to have gotten over the ambiguities that once made vice squads worry that dinner dates were just another form of sex work” (31). As A Theory of the Man-Child also argued, “we are all shop girls now” (48) – in the sense that work and leisure have become increasingly indistinguishable. But there’s a rub: instead of initiating post-gender-binary solidarity, the ressentiment of the “emasculated” dies hard, very hard, as the merest glance at Pick-Up Artist (PUA) culture attests. There is a long tradition of blaming shop girls themselves, not only for “gold-digging” or otherwise seeking empowerment, but for supposedly complying with their own exploitation and thereby opening floodgates for a generalization of the trend. Remember:
“At the dawn of dating, the idea of a man taking a woman somewhere and paying for something for her was shocking. Many early daters—the female ones, anyway—were arrested for it. In the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks, or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.” (11)
Love was – and is still, on paper – supposed to lie outside the economy; “women could only give it away” (177). In 1910, Weigel notes, the Bureau of Investigation “warned women that making dates with strangers could send them down a slippery slope toward disrepute, disease, and death” (18). Yet, a century later, “respectable people were celebrating the possibility that courtship might be made to behave as rationally as the market was supposed to, via technologies that let you ‘do comparison shopping of potential dates from the comfort and privacy of your own home’” (177). At the surface level, this looks like a momentous cultural about-face. But if the male-supremacist culture of capitalism has had to adapt itself to the shopgirlification of us all (i.e. the feminization of labor), all signs point to it not having been destroyed.
Weigel makes this point at the end of her chapter about the 60s:
“The sexual revolution did not take things too far. It did not take things far enough. It did not change gender roles and romantic relationships as dramatically as they would need to be changed in order to make everyone as free as the idealists promised. It tore down walls, but it did not build a new world.” (153)
Later on, in another characteristically thought-provoking gesture she points to a post-60s dynamic of symbolic colonization and appropriation of feminine marginality. Specifically, a connection is drawn between the 1980s avatars of macho finance entrepreneurship, who facetiously compare themselves to hookers in the movies Risky Business and Pretty Woman; and the “satanic” yuppie protagonist of American Psycho, a murdering rapist – “the dark underside of a dating market that said that anything anyone wanted and could pay for was fair game” (182). Pursuing this antinomian chronology into the next decade, Weigel drops another similarly crisp point: “in the 1990s, the purist and the punk were just two kinks in the long tail of a market that was growing ever more segmented—and staying open 24/7” (210).
In the 21st century, we detect a departure from the possibility of alpha bankers securely and playfully comparing themselves to high-class hookers (as in Pretty Woman): “we both screw people for money” (178). The joke, one might infer, no longer makes sense because the phenomenon has become literalized too far: economically, unprecedented sectors of society are experiencing what it feels like to constantly get screwed and smile while it’s happening.
Symptoms of male melancholia in the face of this trend include: the aforementioned Man-child – who resentfully scapegoats the emerging figure of the ‘Young Girl’; the “Nice Guys of OKCupid”; the Pygmalion-like protagonists of movies like Her (Spike Jonze, 2013); and opinion pieces titled “Do Dating Apps Have a Prostitution Problem?” Equally tellingly, the work of maintaining an online dating profile – communicating with potential lovers, updating and maintaining an authentic presence – has become something one can delegate to professional assistants. Anyone who can afford it can simply outsource the legwork of getting to the first date, and even the art of getting beyond it; that is, conducting an online relationship.
The ‘anyone’ in this relational surrogacy market possesses an implied but in fact ambiguous gender position. While it is men who are targeted by virtual dating assistance services, the buzz around the ‘Emotional Labor’ extension for Gmail (‘lighten up your emails in one click!’) suggests that it is women – after all – who might be the most enthusiastic consumers of affective outsourcing and emotional surrogation. This gives rise to the hypothesis that it isn’t so much women, in particular, who ethically flinch at (say) communicating with a future sexual partner by commercial proxy; rather, it is men who need to feel that women would flinch. Weigel’s final chapters, like First Dates, suggest that the narratives around dating produced by patriarchy are undergirded by men’s need to believe in women’s belief in a version of emotional authenticity predicated on noncommercial purity. These dictate – in tones of increasing desperation – that it will be women who spring to the nostalgic defence of the date. Marc has nothing but hatred and incomprehension for Elle when she – without shame – lays bare the sex work he has consumed: “I’ve been fun and hot.”
For the best part of a hundred years, the ideological marketing of dating – always laced with some version of “stranger danger” and “white slavery” – has tacitly policed women’s desire, infantilizing and monstering it by turn, attempting to ‘disappear’ it, and at the same time recuperating it for profit. It has threatened women with the label “whore,” the gendered calamity of becoming “cheap” or “fallen,” even as it has shooed, cajoled or starved them out of their homes and into higher value-added arenas of the commodity economy.
The discussion thus far has fleshed out the stakes of the moment when two people on British national television explicitly argued about the deal they were getting respectively, from their participation in this centuries-long racket. When Elle and Marc are both acting as though Elle’s time and energy are natural and effortless extrusions of her spirit, the structural danger (which we saw demonstrated in fact) is that Marc may call her bluff and refuse to count it. Because, as Weigel puts it, “according to this theory, women had no desire to be compensated” (17).
Bracketing patriarchy, as long as the money-commodity orders society, is it simply too much to hope that two strangers can succeed at trusting one another on a non-instrumental basis? Given the terrain, what men and women like Marc and Elle need to understand – and make explicit in their interactions – is the following contradiction: many feminized people need compensation, yet to discernibly harbour a desire for compensation is to risk becoming a whore, which is the ultimate feminization that also paradoxically strips a person of (white) femininity.
This ideological threat, which makes women psychically as well as economically precarious in their interaction with men, is fundamentally a threat of racialization. Many of those who historically did reproductive labor for money were working class women of colour: maids, nannies, cooks, servants, comfort women, domestics, wet-nurses, escorts, and companions. So, to be understood in terms of the full subjecthood these figures were denied, the knife-edge most women still try to walk when they meet up with men (especially women of colour, and very much including actual sex workers) is to give a convincing performance of not working and not wanting money.
Weigel locates the macro-economic drivers of the rise of this paradoxical art in the mass entrance of young white women into the white-collar workplace. “Early books of dating advice urged … that in order to make themselves desirable, they would have to create the illusion that they were… still as passive as they had been when they were homebound … To the extent that their work and their new mobility did empower them, they had to hide it” (247) – at the risk of losing the attributes of white womanhood. Of course, the extent to which entering the workplace empowered white women was not great. And against this historic background, spanning at least the fifty years separating Betty Friedan’s and Sheryl Sandberg’s injunctions to women to get a job, the disruptive feminist power of unapologetic anti-work injunctions like #giveyourmoneytowomen and indeed Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” are thrown into stark relief. A T-shirt design by Kitty Stryker has begun to appear in cities around the world bearing the slogan “Emotional labor: $5.99 an hour.” We’re the economic bedrock of society: pay us! So said the 1970s Wages For Housework campaigners, and increasingly, so say many of us; not because we desire work, but precisely because we have to differentiate work from what we do desire, in order to attack it. Indeed, the fact that the apparent demand ‘wages for housework’ in fact encrypted the political position (clarified by Silvia Federici in 1975) ‘wages against housework’ aptly encapsulates what Kathi Weeks reminds us, in The Problem With Work, is “the contradiction between social reproduction and capital accumulation” (Weeks 2011:27).
As we have seen, within the work of the dateable, the most cunning and self-undermining element or contradiction captured by Weigel is that of erasing its every trace: “to be the one who does all the work of courtship and then hides the effort it costs her” (233). In other words, we all know that effort is involved; but, as the penultimate chapter of Labor of Love notes, many of us simply seem to believe that “when it comes to romance … planning is a woman’s work” (212). And while this prerogative – to plan – may come with a certain quantum of power, in practice this power is granted only under the table: at the price of the very things that many women live for in the first place: comradeship, solidarity and recognition. In this way, conservative dating advice “sometimes seems to be training its reader how to steel herself against the very emotions that she says she hopes to experience” (252). Although it promises you the world you want, “self-help tells you to bow to a world the way it is” (259). For instance, “for almost a century, dating self-help books have warned women that they must repress their emotions in order to avoid making their partners think that they expect something” (257).
To-recap, saying “women’s work” (regardless of who does it) has long been tantamount to saying “not-work,” even as it associates itself with some of the hardest of society’s tasks: mediating, organizing, caring, bottoming, childbearing, supplying discreet assurance, sustaining willing service, pretending not to be laboring at all. As far as the last of these go at least, in a hiring economy predicated increasingly on “loving what you do,” most people on earth (including those of who are women) are becoming “women.” Our not-work gets harder and harder and more and more pervasive, insofar as austerity starves the ways we socially reproduce ourselves and, technologically, the distinction between our work and leisure slowly vanishes.
As Weigel consistently reminds us, the gendered division of labor has historically allocated women’s “time and energy to others as automatically as a cow grazes or the grass grows” (17). It is an ideology undeterred by the millions of (largely) women of colour who received wages for, or had to be enslaved in order to provide, many of the skilled domestic and caring actions it typified as quintessentially natural, free and antithetical to the wage. Despite the adaptations Weigel describes, this apparent contradiction still serves as a double-edged moral divider of women along class and racial axes – in Weigel’s phrase, “the myth of the all-giving wife and mother and her twin, the prostitute” (19).
The ideal woman in the field of dating is one who pretends she is not a prostitute. She is not-working and “all-giving” even when it comes to the bill after a dinner; perhaps, like Scarlett Johansson in Her, an Artificial Intelligence operative or machine-girlfriend who does not consciously labor, she just magics such inconveniences away without so much as a blink. This monstrous construction is part and parcel of the real elaboration and disciplining of a class of sub-womanly service-workers and surrogates who, like Elle, threaten to make the labor of love completely visible to men.
At the same time, in sex-segregated spheres, this labor has long been extensively admitted to – indeed, as Weigel says, it was invented. Relationships are hard work! Time is ticking! Make him work for it! Don’t be needy! Put yourself out there! To quote Laura Kipnis once more: “When did the rhetoric of the factory become the language of love?” (Kipnis 2003:19). The end of Weigel’s book provides a thoughtful conversation with this provocation from Against Love. Revisiting such best-selling titles as Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Weigel concurs: “The love that self-help books hold out as the prize for following all their rules rarely sounds worth it when you get there” (260). But despite this binarizing discipline, as Weigel clearly intimates, millions of people do snatch forms of love worth living for from the very jaws of Love™:
“The problem that Kipnis highlights is not with love per se. The problem is with a world where Love™ is the only love going, and where structural inequalities compel the individuals who buy into it to put in different amounts of work. We may need more words for all the forms love can take. The Ancient Greeks had three: eros, philos, and agape. These meant desire, friendship, and the love of God for the world he created. The Romans translated agape as caritas, ‘charity’.” (264)
Could practicing a shameless and intentionally communist charity towards one another start to undo the invisibility of emotional labor within dating? This would certainly destroy Romance, at least as defined by dating’s historical evangelists. But could it awaken romance for the first time, among the rest of us?
If not a modified revival of the historic Charity Girl, how else can we fight and abolish the panoptic power that imprisons so many of us in a first-dates machine that seems to produce nothing but divided and anxious – albeit occasionally exhilarated – subjects? The answer must lie, at least in part, in a musing articulated recently in a round robin from marine artist Maya Weeks: “I’ve been thinking about a city where friendships got as much care and attention as romantic relationships.” There has been an uptick of late in sometimes joyously “sex-negative” feminist writing that expresses a radical refusal of the organising myth of the date (the UK-based zine series Fucked is just one example; see also Hannah Black on the couple form; and Lies). Equally, we’ve seen people in multiple cities move against the gains of ‘gay marriage’ to get recognition for avowedly non-sexual intimacies or social reproduction conspiracies and myriad non-dyadic sexual partnering practices, all of which experiment with resisting the propertarian conventions of mainstream pro-monogamy.
Perhaps, although Weigel does not explore this, in order for the date to be reborn anew it would do well to break apart and lie fallow for a spell. Certainly, in the context of dating, the madonna/prostitute imaginary serves to deny or occlude the fact that – as Weigel wrote together with Mal Ahern – “social reproduction … is not mere replication. It can be creative. … it might offer opportunities for social transformation” along the lines imagined by Weeks (Maya and Kathi). The possibility that love – cliché as it inevitably sounds – might change the world entirely, for those who live in it, is clearly what originally excited Weigel to write on the labor of love. Who knows what even greater techniques of tenderness we will have modeled on the day when we can map the postcapitalist genealogy of the date?
Look for Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-3741-8253-3, $26.00 (Hbk); ISBN: 0374713138, $12.99 (e-book).
Lewis, Sophie and Andi Sidwell. 2015. Demand #23: Stop Allocating Social Resources and Privileges on the Basis of Marital Status. “Demand the Future” Project.
Kipnis, Laura. 2003. Against Love: A Polemic. New York: Pantheon.
Schaffer, Jennifer. 2015. “We Spoke to Lauren Chief Elk, the Woman Behind #GiveYourMoneytoWomen, About the Power of Cold Hard Cash” Vice, 2nd August.
Waring, Olivia. 2015. “First Dates billgate: Should the man have agreed to pay or should they have split the cost?” Metro, 16th October.
Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.
Weigel, Moira. 2016. Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Weigel, Moira and Mal Ahern, 2013. “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child,” The New Inquiry, July 9th.
Zelizer, Viviana. 2005. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.