‘Labor of Love’ a poignant look at romance

Wednesday, July 6, 2016 - 7:04pm

Hardly a week goes by without an article popping up on Facebook or Twitter analyzing the current situation regarding the love lives — or lack thereof — of millennials. “They’re doomed,” the critics always seem to sob. “All they do now is hookup.”

“Romance is dead” has become a battle cry, though what war we’re fighting is still unclear. Some blame technology, some blame party or hookup culture, some blame feminism — the list continues, each reason more ridiculous than the last.

Moira Weigel’s “Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating” traces the idea that romance has sputtered out through history, mapping out where and how courtship and dating started and how it has evolved over time. She reveals how people have always been worried — dating has, in fact, died several times. And people have never not been preoccupied with marriage; she concludes her introduction with a shrewd observation that may alarm students stressing about the intersection of careers and relationships.

“If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land, dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship,” Weigel writes. “You cannot be sure where things are heading, but you try to gain experience. If you look sharp, you might get a free lunch.”

Weigel’s style is blunt; she lands her points neatly, the emphasis always hitting home where it needs to. Dating customs change as the economy changes; privacy is a recent invention; dating has always seemed to be “work for women and recreation for men;” beauty is currency for women; gay bars preceded single bars for straights. “Labor of Love” is a quick and informative read that makes it easy for readers to retain the information after they’ve finished.

Weigel highlights how customs and traditions that seem routine and normal to us now would be shockingly inappropriate in the past, but it also shows how the opposite is true. Parents and other people have always been worried about the sexual promiscuity of college kids. Before there was DTR-ing (defining the relationship), there was going steady, and, before there was going steady, there was calling (the kind without phones). Before there was hooking up, there was necking, and, before there was necking, there was petting.

In other words, teenagers have always been misbehaving in the eyes of their elders. Who knew?

Weigel does a fantastic job of exploring dating and relationships with a lens towards class differences, inviting readers to consider fresh perspectives as to why we value the institution of marriage the way we do and to learn about the myths surrounding women’s biological clocks.

Her book is sprinkled with anecdotes that provide insight into social mores of different times, which she then fleshes out well with nuanced analysis.

But the book is lacking in some significant areas. Weigel dedicates a substantial amount of time to online dating, or dating apps, but never addresses one of the biggest gender divides regarding meeting people online: women are much more likely to be scared that their date could be a potential rapist or serial killer. Relatedly, she glosses over how the pervasiveness and threat of sexual assault colors the experiences of women on college campuses. She also glosses over many of the social difficulties that members of the queer community still face, painting a much sunnier picture of current realities than many members of that community would like.

The conclusion almost completely negates the validity and possibility for total satisfaction in a single life and hints at the importance of reproduction in all relationships. This teleological ending point may feel insulting to those who don’t feel the need or want to think about it, for any reason, at any point in their lives.

“Labor of Love” delivers on its promise of a fresh and fun — at times even poignant — perspective on love, dating, sex, relationships and marriage and the intersections of those four. 

But as for proof that romance isn’t dead? Keep looking.