Moira Weigel analyses a range of sources, from newspapers to novels and movies, in her analysis of the world of dating.

ReviewBook review: why dating feels like work, and how it’s changed in past 100 years

From its invention at the start of the 20th century to our current age of hooking up via smartphone apps, each generation remakes dating to reflect changes in technology and expectations

Labor of Love

by Moira Weigel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

3 stars

Tinder became one of the dominant dating apps in a field already thick with them thanks to the following insight: dating needed to be more like a game. Things that are genuinely fun don’t need to be turned into games – no one needs to swipe right on a picture of an ice cream to be convinced to eat it.

Dating, on the other hand, something that we do to ensure our happiness and pleasure, can make us miserable. Stressful, time-consuming, emotionally taxing, frequently disappointing: it can feel like work. Moira Weigel’s Labor of Love, a historical survey of dating in the 20th century, advances the common-sense argument that dating feels like work because it is work, and, like work, it is subject to market forces.

Using a wide variety of sources – newspaper cuttings, research studies, non-fiction books, novels and movies – Weigel winds her way from the 1900s to the present, outlining the popular mode of American dating in each decade and how it reflects that moment’s economic conditions. She begins in the 1900s, when dating began. Courtship has always existed, but dating – meeting up with a potential romantic partner in a public space – started only when enough women were working outside of their homes to encounter strange men without the oversight of friends and family.

By the 1920s, dating had moved beyond the working classes to increasingly mixed colleges. There, “College Men and Coeds” – Weigel uses cutesy capitalisation to identify dating archetypes throughout the book – danced and dated abundantly, a reflection of the roaring ’20s’ general profligacy. In the ’30s, those same college kids spent less, but dated even more, as collecting dates became the only kind of conspicuous consumption they could afford, a type of romance Weigel calls “Rating and Dating”.

Online dating has almost entirely lost its stigma, says Weigel.

This eventually gave way to “The Steadies” of the ’50s and ’60s, when young people paired off with one another, a reflection of the abundance of the postwar boom, when there was enough for everyone. Late in the ’60s came free love, a “deregulation of the dating market”, followed by taste-obsessed yuppies, who mirrored an increasingly niche consumer-oriented economy. Our current era is defined by hook-up culture, the “permalancing” version of dating, in which one’s relationship, like one’s employment status, is never clearly defined.

Weigel states from the outset that most writing about dating – her sources – concerns itself with straight middle- and upper-class white people. It becomes clear as Labor of Love progresses that most of such writing concerns itself with hysteria about how straight middle- and upper-class white people are dating. Each new style was reliably met with opprobrium. The first daters were assumed to be prostitutes. The College Men and the Coeds’ dances were considered scandalous.

The prolific daters of the ’30s were criticised by, among others, Margaret Mead , who saw them engaged in competition, not romance. Even going steady in the ’50s, now understood by many to be the most wholesome thing two teens could do, was decried for encouraging youngsters to settle down too soon (it did increase premarital sex). This litany of histrionics helps put more recent fears about hook-up culture and “online predators” in their proper context.

Weigel questions and argues with many of her sources, but in some instances she is not critical enough. She says, for example, that The Steadies invented Breaking Up, which seems to suggest that before Steadies, groups such as Raters and Daters would have just gone on another date, unperturbed, if someone they fancied didn’t fancy them back. This is like saying no one with access to a dating app was ever gutted because they could always just go out with someone else.

Labor of Love is scattered with compelling anecdotes: bars and dance halls were a form of social media; “personality” was not a commonly used term until the 1910s and 20s; the family friendly chain restaurant TGI Fridays started out as a singles bar, inspired by New York City’s gay bar scene. But for every inspired comparison, there is a less than perfect aphorism. “The ways people date change with the economy,” Weigel writes in her introduction. “You could even say dating is the form that courtship takes in a society where it takes place in a free market.” You could, but I don’t know why you would.

She makes an entirely convincing case that there never was and never will be one static way of dating. But as we approach the present, Weigel is hesitant to leave behind her sources and authoritatively identify our new moment, in which online dating has been almost entirely destigmatised. She writes about various aspects of online dating, but is hesitant to state clearly how online dating fits into her scheme. Whatever comes next, she is likely to have concerns that it, like all the previous manifestations of dating, will be a barrrier to real emotional connection instead of a conduit to it. Dating teaches women to make themselves desirable, rather than how to desire. It reflects the impulses of the economy, not of our hearts. And yet, as flawed as dating can be, it works; people find each other in the marketplace.