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Looking at Dating from a New Perspective

July 5, 2016

Moira Weigel (Comparative Literature) is writing a dissertation on “The Life of Nature in an Age of Celluloid: Animal Media Theory 1889–1951,” advised by Dudley Andrew and Katie Trumpener, but she just published a book on a very different topic: Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016).

In Labor of Love, I explore how the history of the form of courtship we call ‘dating’ in America overlaps with the history of other kinds of gendered labor since the late nineteenth century,” Weigel says. “Drawing on a wide range of sources, from YA novels to police reports and romantic advice manuals to sociological monographs, I argue that waged work and the emotional or affective labor involved in courtship have shaped each other in turn.” 

Labor of Love describes how the nature of dating has changed as social norms changed. Weigel’s analysis begins at the close of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of young people migrated from small towns and farms into the city for work. Unmarried girls no longer sat at home in their parents’ parlor receiving callers who came to woo them. They typically lived in rooming houses or tenements with little privacy. For fun and to meet potential mates, they went out after work with men who could pay for an evening’s entertainment at a dance hall or nightclub. The custom was so novel that these girls were sometimes mistaken for prostitutes and arrested. By the 1920s and 30s, dating was more widespread. Working-class shop girls and waitresses dated in the hope of marrying a middle-class customer who might boost their social status. Office workers began to wear makeup and dress up to attract potential partners in the workplace. On college campuses, dating became a competition among the girls to determine who was most popular. World War II and its aftermath brought still more changes, and in the 1940s and 50s, “going steady” became the norm. Parents cautioned their offspring to “shop around” rather than “settle” on a life partner too quickly, using language that commodified the romantic relationship.

Today, women post profiles on dating sites as if they were advertising a product. Weigel points out how many similarities there are between creating and maintaining profiles at the match-making site, OkCupid, and the professional site, LinkedIn. Comparing the current social scene to “the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship,” she argues that, like an internship, dating today takes a lot of work and demands a serious investment of time, money, and emotion — with no guaranteed reward.

Labor of Love has garnered rave reviews. New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz called it “a perceptive and wide-ranging investigation into the history of dating in America.” Amy Finnerty of The New York Times said it was “An addictive and accessible read,” and author Alain de Botton called it “remarkable at many levels: Formally, with its interweaving of theory, personal anecdote and social history. Politically, the way it deftly manages to say hugely important things about power and money that so often get left out of the discourse on love. And most of all, it's elegantly written, fun and plain hugely readable.” Weigel is spending part of this summer on a book tour.

Weigel’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and The New Republic, among other publications. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard, majoring in English and American and German Languages and Literatures, and then completed an MPhil in Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge University, where she was the Harvard Scholar in residence at Emmanuel College.

Weigel says she is “passionate about the history of ideas,” which applies not only to her book about dating, but also to her dissertation. “I have always recognized cinema and literature to be powerful modes of thinking as well as seeing, hearing, feeling.”

Her dissertation investigates the themes of animacy (the concept that something is sentient or alive) and nonhuman life in cinema and media theory before World War II —in the decades before the discipline of film studies was established and before the concept of “posthumanism” was articulated.

Weigel proposes that “the cinema became a key ‘sensory reflexive horizon’ in which dreams and anxieties about the mass disappearance of ‘the life of nature’ were negotiated during the first half of the twentieth century — from New York and Chicago, to Paris and Berlin, to Shanghai.” She defines the term “sensory reflexive horizon” (based on work by theorist Miriam Hansen) as a “public sphere created by cinema in the early twentieth century — a space where experiences of modernization and modernity were both depicted and discussed by a mass audience.” Weigel contends that around 1900, the ways that most people related to nonhuman animals and environments began to undergo dramatic changes. Within the space of a few decades, urbanization, the industrialization of farming, public hygiene campaigns, and the invention of the automobile meant that animals disappeared from the lives of urban people. Simultaneously, they reappeared in cinema and other popular entertainment.

Culturally, the proliferation of animals and ‘wild’ environments on screen served a kind of compensatory function,” she says. “New technologies also became tools to generate and explore non-human perspectives on the world — and even on the human body.”

Her work analyzes the interconnections that link the history of technology and the history of aesthetics and ideas. She argues that focusing on the circulation of technologies allows scholars to investigate truly global histories. This history does not break down neatly into differences between East and West, she says. Weigel, who studied Chinese at Yale, received two Richard U. Light Fellowships to study in Beijing, and translated essays of Chinese film theory, hopes to show how much of the same language about the life or liveliness of film in American, French, and German texts can also be found in Chinese film theory of the 1920s and 1930s.

When not at work on her dissertation, Weigel spends most of her time reading, writing, watching movies, and working out ideas for future projects while taking long runs. She recently moved to San Francisco to join her husband, Ben Tarnoff, author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise and The Bohemians and the independent film Quitters (to be release in July). Ben works at a software development firm with a focus on cloud computing. Yale played a key role in their courtship: They first met as college freshmen at Harvard, and reconnected eight years later at Mory’s at the engagement party of a mutual friend, who was then studying at Yale Divinity School. They spent several early dates exploring East Rock, watching films at the Whitney, and enjoying Miya’s Sushi —their favorite New Haven date spot.