“The history of cinema and the history of dating completely overlap”: Talking to Moira Weigel About Labor of Love

Movie Dates - Cruising

Dinner, a movie, and if you’re lucky, a parking lot—these are the ingredients for the classic teen date night, as least as imagined by Hollywood in the 1950s. Dating in the age of Tinder might seem less clear-cut, but as Moira Weigel illustrates in Labor of Love, her fascinating new book about the history of the phenomenon, what we think of as dating has always been in flux, to the extent we can define it at all. For more than a century, she argues, romance has not only been a form of work but a set of practices shaped by the push and pull of broader economic forces. Weigel traces the evolution of dating from the early twentieth century, when a morally anxious culture mistook female daters for prostitutes; to the affluent postwar era, when marriage rates spiked alongside ownership of cars and refrigerators; to the advent of speed-dating in a Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community in the 1990s, which turned out to be an unlikely forerunner of online dating. Of course, desire has never followed a formula, and Labor of Love also examines how class, race, and sexual preference have created new markets for daters and complicated ideas of what love is supposed to look like. Over the next two weeks, Moira and collaborator Mal Ahern will take this investigation onscreen through “Labor of Love: 100 Years of Movie Dates,” a two-week-long series at BAM from May 4-17, and look for love in films ranging from You’ve Got Mail to Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

When you started working on the lineup for Movie Dates, how did you decide what qualified as a “dating movie”? How does a film like, say, Cruising, which is all about the underground S&M scene in 1970s New York, relate to one like Clueless?

Perhaps the most consistent feature of dating throughout its history is that its definition is constantly in dispute—the invention of dating created an ambiguity around courtship protocols.

For Labor of Love, I moved back and forth between two approaches. First, I tried to take people in the archives or in interviews at their words: I counted as dating what they called dating. (Sometimes that meant sleeping with someone a few times, or having a few awkward dinners with a person and his non-monogamous partner, or living unmarried with someone for years.) I also looked at the associated language, like “going out,” “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”

Second, at the very beginning of the whole project, as I write in my book, I established this definition: that dating is the form that courtship has taken under capitalism in its advanced consumer-driven stage. It usually involves going to a public or semi-public place (a bar, a restaurant, a fraternity) and consuming something as a form of selling yourself and shopping around for a partner. A date is an ambiguous transaction in potentially romantic or sexual attention—an agreement to consider each other under these terms for a certain amount of time. So I looked for how different kinds of people were doing those things.

For the BAM series, Mal Ahern and I followed roughly the same parameters. We wanted to explore a range of historical eras, characters, communities and film styles. With some films we included—many of them, actually—we were looking at boundaries. Screening films people might not necessarily think of as “dating movies” was the exciting part. One of the points of my book was to think through definitions of dating, what different people say about it, and why certain things count. I wanted to raise the question of what sex work or ritualized murder might have to do with a Nora Ephron rom-com.

One more thing: While only some movies in the series depict or explicitly thematize dating, the movies have always been one of the prime date spots. The history of cinema and the history of dating completely overlap and shape each other. So, any movie could be a date movie. An ex-boyfriend once took me on a first date to Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days! That’s a bleak neorealist film about a woman trying to get an illegal abortion in Communist Romania, and it has to have been one of the most depressing, unsexy date movies of all time. But it was our date movie, and it worked for us: we fell in love and were together for a few years.

Movie Dates - Splendor in the Grass

Your book is organized around the idea that since the early 20th century, dating in the US has evolved not only in response to social forces but also to the invention of new “technologies”—birth control, college, and cell phones, for instance. How do you think some of these changes have been reflected in the movies?

It’s difficult to separate economic, social, or technological change from one another; they’re always so intertwined. As a historian of film and media, I tend to think of “technology” in a very broad sense. To my mind a bar is a technology, a way of organizing bodies in space and facilitating communication. Even a city street, where you hang out looking good and picking people up, might be a kind of technology. The telephone was a crucial dating technology, and so was the automobile—one that parents and teachers were really freaked out about in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. Cars let kids go anywhere! Suddenly they could “park” and make out—or more! They created a kind of mobile privacy, like cell phones, but in the flesh! (One funny discovery I made while researching swinger culture of the 1960s and 1970s was that a lot of swingers talked about the Interstate Highway System, which Eisenhower started building in 1956, as the technology that made mate-swapping possible. Before the highways made it easy to drive from state to state, it was just too hard to find a critical mass of people interested in “The Lifestyle.”)

So, new dating technologies definitely show up in dating movies! Some seem easier to visualize, or make for better visual storytelling than others. Cars appear in many of the movies that we’re screening, from Splendor in the Grass to Clueless; countless filmmakers have used them to represent speed and intimacy, the sense of excitement and danger that surrounds modern romance. One technology that does not feature in our series, but which now seems obligatory in any comedy that involves pregnancy, is the fetal ultrasound. Think of Knocked Up, Juno, Labor Pains, The Switch, The Backup Plan—all the recent romantic comedies in which an unplanned pregnancy brings two characters together. (The philosopher Kelly Oliver has dubbed this subgenre “mom-coms.”) There is always that scene where the characters see the fetus on a screen; it’s the turning point, the moment of revelation. No matter how immature the lead couple is, no matter how ludicrously ill-matched and unprepared they are to become parents, this scene always brings them together.

It’s sort of amazing to me that we still haven’t really had a big comedy about dating and mobile apps, at least not that I can think of. The closest the BAM series gets is You’ve Got Mail, which we’re showing with a short from 1902 called How A French Nobleman Found A Wife By Placing an Ad in the New York Daily Herald.  But I have to imagine that a younger generation of filmmakers who have grown up with mobile phones will start to figure out exciting ways to visualize how they function in our lives—even if the rom-com as a genre has long been in decline. Maybe the medium those stories will work themselves out in is television.

Movie Dates - My Beautiful Laundrette

I know your book focuses only on the US, but the “Movie Dates” film series goes farther afield—Masculin Feminin and My Beautiful Laundrette, for example, are set in Paris and London, respectively. Do you think dating is a specifically American phenomenon? Do you think the foreign films offer any insights into American dating culture?

When I began writing Labor of Love, I actually planned to include an international chapter. It seems that no matter where in the world you are, young people will start making up their own dating protocols as the consumer economy grows, as massive numbers of women start working outside their homes (especially if they live away from their families in urban centers), and as and the marriage market is deregulated. It begins to seem natural to “shop around” to find a mate. Of course, in every place this shift takes different forms.

I am particularly fascinated by dating culture in China, where I have studied and lived for several short periods of time over the past five years. To me, the case of China proves the thesis that dating applies the logic of capitalism to courtship: When the country joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, there was no word for “dating” in Mandarin; last I checked, there are over two dozen competitive dating reality shows currently running on Chinese television. They’re incredibly popular, as are movie remakes of classic American rom-coms. (We thought about including a popular Chinese remake of Sleepless in Seattle, called Finding Mr. Right, in the series, but ultimately decided against it.)

I have also spent time in England, Germany, and France, and was eager to contrast American and European courtship cultures. But this all threatened to bloat the book to unmanageable proportions. Moreover, I do believe that, while many other places have their variants, the invention of dating happened in America—like the invention of so much of modern consumer capitalism and entertainment culture. There is something deeply American about the combination of idealizing romantic freedom and endless possibility, and in our faith that if you shop around just a little longer and work just a little harder on yourself, you will find the partner of your dreams.

Anyway for the series, we wanted to focus on the United States. But we included the foreign films we did—well, honestly, because we love them! And we thought they provided interesting and illuminating points of comparison and contrast with the American movies. Jean Luc Godard absorbed so much American pop culture, digested it and incorporated it into his films in his playful, Brechtian fashion. And at least for a certain class of cinephiles, his films embodied the sexy, sophisticated, exploratory, jaunty spirit of the 1960s. (I remember there were two different dudes, both film lovers, I dated at the end of high school and beginning of college who had the same exact walk. Then one day I saw Breathless and realized that that was where the walk came from! Two Jean-Paul Belmondo wannabes.) So in a way, Masculin Féminin is ideal for looking into the hall of mirrors that is international dating culture—how American ideas influence young people abroad, and how their refractions are transmitted back and influence us in turn. The female lead, the real life yé-yé girl Chantal Goya, is a European interpretation of an American musical tradition—the kind of star that provided the soundtrack to, and shaped, so many American romances.

And while it has many other things going on, I think of My Beautiful Laundrette resonates in interesting ways with the American workplace romantic comedy, epitomized in our series by the classic we are showing on the final night, the 1927 Clara Bow smash, It. (Fun fact: the phrase “It Girl” was coined by the press after this movie to describe Bow.) My Beautiful Laundrette is a queer version, and is explicitly concerned with race and class relations, not to mention the utter bleakness of Thatcherism and neoliberalism. But in the context of this series, it jumped out at me as a friends-and-coworkers romance. And in that way, I like to think of it as showing the porousness and possibilities of the categories that we are exploring.

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