Weigel: Especially if you live in a city like New York, or San Francisco, where I live now, dating can be a very expensive proposition! I forget who first coined the phrase “the makeup tax,” but that tax is real. If a straight woman even attempts to approximate the beauty standards that popular culture tells them they should maintain to be baseline dateable, she will be paying out the ears in time and money. Then of course, going out to dinner or drinks or a movie also adds up.
Without downplaying the importance of any of that, the subject I found most interesting while writing this book was the question of emotional work or emotional labor. Dating doesn’t only require us to spend money. It requires us to work on our emotions, manage our emotions. Not to mention our online presences and our apps.
If you happen to be a writer, or work in media or publicity, you may identify: Managing an OkCupid account can feel exactly like your job. And the pressures that conventional dating advice puts on women—I’m thinking of The Rules here, or, say, Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the way these books constantly tell you that you have to seem warm but not too available, affectionate but never needy, that you basically can never spontaneously express any emotion or desires without managing them. That sounds like a service job to me.
I remember working behind a cash register in a bookstore when I was in college, having to be polite to every jerk who came in angry because we didn’t have the Harry Potter book he wanted for his daughter. I think of this any time I fly on an airplane now, watching flight attendants be warm but not meddlesome, or in a restaurant where a waiter must be attentive but not interrupt. The work of managing your emotions in dating often very closely resembles these forms of paid work. Which are, perhaps not coincidentally, often thought of as female jobs.
Lam: Economists often use the metaphor of a market to discuss dating and marriage, where people are making choices and mental calculations as they’re dating before they commit. It’s also where each gender and each person has stated and revealed preferences—what someone says they want, versus what they really want. Has this appeared in your research? Were there time periods where this is more prevalent?
Weigel: The idea that there is a marriage market is an old one and in many ways very literal. For centuries in the West, marriage has been seen as a legal institution, a contract freely entered by two individuals, to bind property. And in some respects it still is.
I think that dating makes the market dynamics of courtship very explicit—in an era of online dating and apps, sometimes painfully so. One thing that struck me at the very beginning, when I was working on this book, was how completely permeated our slang for dating is by market language—“on the market,” “off the market,” friends “with benefits,” “investing” in a relationship, etc. The other main kind of metaphor that our slang contains is of dating as a game—“player,” “baller,” “wingman,” “score,” etc. So as an activity, it occupies this weird terrain between work and play. These two sets of metaphors are gendered, by the way. I think that, while we’ve made a lot of progress—this is where dating’s original “prostitution complex” comes back in—people still tend to think of it as more like work for women and play for men.