Why do you date? If you’re like most people, it’s most likely because you’re hoping to never have to date again — which means you find someone special to settle down with and be a committed, loving couple and perhaps even wed.
What other purpose would there be to going through all the time, energy and expense that dating requires?
Dating is work, or so says Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University who explores the history of dating in the new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. The history of dating is a lot more interesting and complicated than I ever imagined, and her book is especially illuminating when it explores how the process of finding love has turned singles into commodities in order to sell themselves to potential mates.
I spoke with Weigel right before I went to see The Lobster, a quirky, dark new comedy that’s a deliciously scathing examination of the societal pressure to couple and the stigmatization of singles.
But the issues the movie, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, brings up are worth exploring, especially since so few of us do: Do we really know what we’re doing when we’re looking for love? How much are we influenced by what others say we should or shouldn’t look for in a romantic partner? How far are we willing to change who we fundamentally are in order to be coupled? If we weren’t seen as such societal outliers if we didn’t want a romantic partner — or at least an “until death do we part” kind of partner — would we choose to live differently?
That’s just a taste of the provocative questions the movie raises.
A world of couples
In the movie’s future world, being coupled is the most important thing; couples get to live in the city, they get to shop at the malls, they have it all. Singles, meanwhile, aren’t allowed to have contact with couples, and are routinely hunted, shot with tranquilizer guns and humiliated (and worse). Singles are rounded up, taken to a tacky hotel and given 45 days to partner or be transformed into an animal of their choosing (thus the title, based on what Colin Farrell’s Dave says he’d like to be turned into) — even if they’ve just become widowed or divorced. (Just like in real life, the pressure to find a replacement and carry on with our coupled lives is huge.) But singles can’t just pick any partner — it has to be someone who’s their perfect match, based on their professed character flaw. Anyone who has ever tried online dating knows just how real that is; don’t all the dating websites show you what they consider a man or woman — often laughably — to be your perfect match based on your professed likes and dislikes?
How do we really know how “right” or “wrong” someone is for us? Because we like the same music or books or films or food — or don’t? Because we have similar values (except sometimes we ourselves don’t even pay much mind to our own professed values)? Because we’re looking for someone like our dad or mom — or the opposite? Is it all a crapshoot, especially if we’re basing a “perfect partner” — aka The One — on a few tenuous characteristics?
The few singles in the movie who couple up based on those tenuous characteristics, struggle — as we’d expect they would and often do in real life. But the powers that be, in one of the film’s most deliciously wicked moments, “solves” it for them: “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children; that usually helps.” So much like real life — how many couples decide to have a baby to salvage the marriage? — that it hurts.
The ‘freedom’ of singles
Being coupled doesn’t seem all that much fun — the scenes in the city and mall are dreary — but being single doesn’t either. In fact, in some ways it seems worse. Considering the stigma singles still face today, as Singled Out author Bella DePaulo relentlessly battles, there’s a price to be paid for their freedom.
The Loners, living ostensibly “free” in the woods, are actually under more restrictive rules than the movie’s couples. They must avoid having or showing any romantic interests in anyone else, or face severe consequences.
Given some of the criticism directed at Weigel as well as All the Single Ladies author Rebecca Traister, both married women writing about the single life, it’s clear that the anti-couple single community can seem just as judgmental and limiting.
Consider, in a Chicago Tribune review of Traister’s book, what the writer says about Traister — no longer “one of us,” aka single (emphasis mine):
A virgin until 24 (this may be one of the book’s more shocking revelations), with a checkered romantic history, and a young adulthood focused on work and strong female friendships, she ultimately got lucky: She met her future husband at the bar of a restaurant where she had stopped to pick up a takeout dinner. She married at 35 — late, but not extraordinarily so for her generation and social class — and managed to have two children before her window of opportunity closed. tweet
She got “lucky” — a word we use for men who get laid — before her eggs shriveled. Weigel’s book addresses the pressure put on women to couple up, marry and start popping out kids, always mindful of their biological clock — a term that has been used to reinforce sexist ideas and strains romantic relationships between women and men.
As Weigel writes:
The role of the biological clock has been to make it seem only natural — indeed inevitable — that the burdens of reproducing the world fall almost entirely on women. There are moral as well as practical implications to this idea: if you do not plan your life just right, you deserve to end up desperate and alone. tweet
Anything but being alone
Ultimately, the film brings up the desperate things we’ll do to avoid loneliness, and how being partnered is the only answer we can envision to avoid loneliness. Do we truly believe that or is that what society tells us?
Except anyone who’s ever been lonely in a romantic relationship knows how misguided that thinking is. Still, the pressure is on and so we forge on — dating and sometimes following oppressive dating “rules” and questionable self-help books — in our search for The One and the happily ever after we’re promised to have if we find him or her. It’s better than being alone … right?
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