Labor of Love

The Invention of Dating

nolead begins By Moira Weigel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pp. $26

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by

Peter Lewis


nolead ends There have always been rituals of courtship, and dating has its ever-evolving rites, training us, as Moira Weigel puts it in Labor of Love, "in how to be if we wanted to be wanted." But dating qua dating is unsupervised. So Weigel suggests we think of dating proper as starting around 1900, when women left domestic supervision to find work in the city.

There, in the pleasing urban paradox, one found privacy in public: dance halls, amusement parks, nickelodeons. Because of the wage and work gaps between the sexes, men were expected to pay, "to treat." This wasn't tawdry commerce. No money changed hands. This was romance, happiness, and desire. If sex was involved, what was new?

The "Calling Class" - the bourgeoisie, that is, who still needed supervision for their mating rituals - were predictably appalled. Some do-gooders hired private investigators to spy on this "dating" horror and report it to the vice commissions. Some warned that women who dated were on the road to "white slavery." But, no, they were working-class women who worked at jobs and worked to be datable.

 Weigel leads us from penny arcades to soda fountains to serial monogamy to Tinder and OkCupid.com, and from "painted lady" to "making yourself up." We learn of the semiotics of a red bow tie, of "rent parties" to outfox Harlem's white slumlords, why the threat of nuclear obliteration is good for sex, why dating puts less stress on our moral valence than on our displays of culture and taste.

The high point is Weigel's parallel between two institutions: dating and the economy. This parallel is utterly absorbing and makes for such exotic bedfellows as Herbert Marcuse and Milton Friedman, each of whom, in different ways, "wanted to liberate individuals from all external restraints." You shop for a mate, you sell yourself, too. The workplace is dating's game board; it apportions time and money. The rich businessman tells the streetwalker in Pretty Woman that they do pretty much the same thing for money. That's the service economy for you. Saying "no" to work, as to a date, is tantamount to never being asked again.

Labor of Love is a cornucopian investigation, bright and critical, though at times with all the music of a graduate term paper. Weigel occasionally regurgitates source material wholesale, rather than shading it into the otherwise engrossing narrative. Above all, we're left with that fascinating connection between work world and dating world. Dating, like work, is transactional, and work is the bottom line for everyone.

Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review.