Content warning: mentions of sexual abuse
Love sells. That’s why 58 million pounds of chocolate are bought every February. That’s why romantic comedies made $250.24 million at the box office in 2019. And that’s why the average American couple spent $3,756 on an engagement ring in 2020. Love is a highly marketable concept because it’s virtually universal and wholly aspirational.
But love isn’t just a means to an end. It’s a product in and of itself.
Love, at least in the way we understand it now, is completely inextricable from the 21st century’s economic market. Yes, there’s the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. There’s the wedding industry with its $57 billion net worth. There’s the Hallmark Channel pumping out a never-ending conveyor line of movies persuading everyone to move back to their small town and marry their high school sweetheart. But the extent to which we’ve capitalized on love has expanded even beyond all those things. Love itself has turned into a transaction via romantic clickbait, a transaction especially pertinent to dating.
Capitalism is all about optimization, and love is no exception. We feel entitled to the best that the dating pool has to offer, to that ‘one person’ out there who’s our perfect match. We all know someone who’s ended a relationship because they think they can do better. And we all know someone who’s stayed in one because they’re scared that they can’t. We’re constantly calculating the costs and benefits of who we’re with.
Even the words we use to describe dating — ‘on or off the market,’ ‘shopping around,’ ‘sealing the deal’ — are tied back to economic principles. When we support a relationship, we say we’re ‘invested’ in it. A newly-single person is a ‘hot commodity.’
It may sound cynical, but think of the way we shop online, whether it’s for an alarm clock or a potential partner: We imagine the ideal version of the thing we’re looking for and scroll through the available options until we find the thing closest to the image in our head. The only difference is, when we place our order on Amazon, we don’t keep looking at pictures of alarm clocks. We don’t look at other people’s bedside tables and think, “Would I be happier with an alarm clock like that? Did I choose the wrong alarm clock?”
But in the hegemonically-held understanding of dating, the search for that perfect outcome is never-ending. And so dating becomes a game of endless optimization where the goal is to somehow be in a relationship and always be upgrading at the same time.
If dating is an economy, then gossip magazines are cash and TikTok relationships are Bitcoin — something I sort of understand and think we’ll someday look back on as a flaming disaster. Influencer relationships have taken the theoretical transaction and made it a literal one, shaping the dating scene and compromising romantic authenticity in the process.
I think back to the issues of Tiger Beat or J-14 that my mom used to get me at the grocery store. They’d feature Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber or Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron on the cover — relationships I, for whatever reason, felt invested in. Each page would have paparazzi shots with written blurbs speculating which stars were dating. In retrospect, it’s been revealed that many of those couples were simply pawns in publicity stunts, using the hype of a relationship to amplify the hype of an upcoming movie or album release. They served as both a marketing strategy and a buyable product in their own right. I certainly bought it.
The issues always talked about how the stars had “cozied up on set,” which one had “made the first move” and when they had “made their debut.” They painted the picture of a relationship as a series of steps interwoven with cliches. I assumed that someday I too would “gush” about a new boyfriend.
I recently looked back at an issue of J-14 and was surprised by how generic all of the stories were. Few provide more detail than how the couple met and how happy they were to be dating. For stories about romantic relationships, they lack any sense of intimacy. Replace a few key words, and the pair could just as easily be business partners or friends or family members. So, growing up reading these magazines, I got the impression that relationships just occurred, as if dating were a state of being. I thought that people just decided to start dating which meant they were in love.
And, for the couples in J-14 — and their teams of publicity specialists — that might be a somewhat accurate picture. But for me, a fourth-grader still half a decade away from her first kiss, the seemingly impersonal nature of it made me think of relationships as highly transactional.
Over a decade later, social media has changed the media industry entirely yet the fake relationships have remained. TikTok couples have gained notoriety, not just as a way of promoting another project, but as a project in and of themselves. Perhaps the first major fake influencer relationship came about between Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau; the “couple” first announced their relationship in April of 2019. Fans couldn’t entirely tell if the relationship was real. Their posts together felt ironic in a very Gen-Z type of way — like the time Paul pretended to buy Mongeau a G-Wagon for her birthday as a prank. The relationship was the content and the content was the relationship.
The duo kept fans guessing, claiming it was real while acting like it was a joke, throwing in a few strategically-timed relationship updates for good measure. Mongeau posted a video titled “I got matching tattoos with Jake Paul.” He made one titled “I SURPRISED TANA with 100K DIAMOND WATCH.”
Two months later, they were engaged, a month after that they tied the knot, and a few months after that, they split. In May of 2020, Paul admitted that the marriage was fake. But, according to Mongeau — who you may or may not believe at this point — the fake relationship took real tolls. During an interview, she claimed that, while the relationship was fake, there had been real emotional involvement.
And this isn’t the only case of a publicity relationship gone wrong. Tiktok influencer Jake Wright released a video claiming that his relationship with fellow-influencer Sienna Mae Gomez had been a lie, stating the friendship they’d had became sexually abusive. Before that, it was speculated that model Olivia Ponton faked her relationship with TikToker Kaila Novak.
As viewers, we’re just as happy to revel in the destruction of these relationships as we are to support them when they’re happening. When I googled ‘fake relationships on TikTok,’ the first search result was a TikTok page full of videos exposing and talking about other peoples’ fake relationships. It has 61.5 million views. It was estimated that Paul and Mongeau’s breakup was worth more than $600 million in media value. They each used the publicity to launch their own careers even further, Mongeau producing her own perfume and Paul becoming a boxer. And viewers are taking note.
Many have deemed themselves worthy of the task of crafting an online pseudo-relationship. TikTok users are learning how to market love on their own with the ‘fake bae challenge.’ The challenge consists of teenagers finding a (usually online) fake boyfriend or girlfriend and “dating” for a month. There are a series of rules: You have to FaceTime frequently and actually get to know one another, with ‘good morning’ and ‘goodnight’ texts serving as a requirement. But the aim is simple: The first one to “catch feelings” loses.
Some of these videos get tens of thousands of views. I scrolled through the hashtag, interested to see if any of these fake relationships fostered real ones. The funny thing was that most of the top videos weren’t of people posting results but looking for someone to do the challenge with. Thus, the aim has always been the presentation of the relationship or, in this case, the presentation of the presentation of the relationship — not the relationship itself.
I try to look at my social media posts through that lens. Do I represent my relationships accurately, with my boyfriend or my friends? I think of the pictures of my boyfriend and me at football games and weekends up north, the pictures I post for Valentine’s Day and his birthday and our anniversary. Of course, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of our relationship, but I don’t think it’s a wholly inaccurate picture either.
I try to think about why I post those pictures at all. Is some part of me looking for the external validation of my relationship? Consciously, no, but maybe we’ve been habituated to believe that a relationship can’t exist without that external factor.
When all we see of a couple is the announcement of how in love they are – and when their value is determined not by how real the relationship is but by how real others perceive it to be – it can feel like an audience is an essential part of dating.
I don’t know how to disentangle myself from this net of influencer-driven conceptions of what a relationship is supposed to be. But, if anyone else figures it out, I’m sure I’ll see it on Instagram.
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at email@example.com.