Here’s a secret I’ve been holding onto for a while now: My favorite movie is very, very different from the one I used to have on my online dating profile. The real answer is Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, a wildly underrated campfest that, fine, is also an objectively terrible film. The answer I put down was The Godfather.
I know, I know — be true to yourself and don’t hide who you are and all that. Whatever. I also know that having terrible taste in movies doesn’t inherently make me a bad person or a lousy girlfriend. But I also know that if I clicked on the profile of a guy who proudly proclaimed to love, I don’t know, Jackass, I’d probably click away pretty fast. For better or worse, we treat taste — in movies, in music, in fashion — as a marker of romantic compatibility.
As Moira Weigel explains in her new book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, not so long ago this would’ve been considered a pretty weird way to do things. Weigel devotes a chapter to the history of what she calls “likes” — a relatively new phenomenon, she writes, that first functioned as a tool for class mobility before evolving into the sorting mechanism that it’s become today.
Throughout most of the 19th century, courtship in the U.S. was largely a family affair; men would typically call on women at their homes, with their families present, and matches would be established from there. The idea of an acceptable partner was rendered in broad strokes: from X place, Y religion, Z socioeconomic background, and good. “In the 19th century, Americans had used concepts like ‘character’ and ‘virtue’ to describe themselves,” Weigel writes. “These terms had moral valences. A person revealed her character through kind acts, true friendships and deeply held convictions.”
But toward the end of the 1800s, as young people began flocking to the country’s rapidly growing urban areas, the rules of courtship — and ideas about what made for a good partner — were upended. “All of a sudden you have young people moving and mixing in cities, as opposed to in your mom’s living room with relatives around,” Weigel told me. “The way people talked about it then is the way they talk about Tinder now, or cybersex in the ‘90s — these very uncontrolled spaces where all sorts of people can meet, and ‘Who knows who anyone is?’”
Around the same time as this uncontrolled space was growing, so was the rise of the consumer economy, which gave people new vehicles with which to communicate their personal styles or tastes. “Until about the 1910s or ‘20s, there just weren’t that many kinds of clothes to have or music to listen to,” Weigel says.
But with greater variety came more ways for people to signal their preferences — and, perhaps most importantly, their class backgrounds. The upsurge of young people seeking work in cities brought with it new opportunities for upward mobility, as they encountered all types of people — including wealthy ones — that they wouldn’t necessarily have met while living in their parents’ homes. The “like,” Weigel argued, started with the so-called “shopgirls” of 1920s department stores, who studied their well-to-do female customers — clothing, mannerisms, even the way they stood or held their hands — and adopted those same mannerisms as a means of attracting wealthy men. “If you learn the codes,” explains Weigel, “you can use them to date up.” A market for knockoff fashions emerged around this time — cheaper versions of what the upper class was wearing — and advice books with titles like The Duty of Beauty, meanwhile, urged young women to rip photos out of magazines to help them learn how to get the right look.
Even now, says Weigel, much of what we think of as taste is actually a way of communicating class: Consider someone who announces on Tinder that they like, say, wine and jazz — you’d likely assume different things about their background than if those interests were NASCAR and hunting.
But over time, Weigel argues, “likes” have taken on additional significance. These days, they’re not just a way to communicate socioeconomic status, real or desired; they’re also a way to deal with an abundance of choice. As rules for dating have become less defined, “likes” have become a way of maintaining some semblance of a system. “I joke that the invention of dating is the invention of the death of dating,” she says. “And when we start to see the disappearance of these very clear institutions for matching people up … you start to have this sense of a free-for-all and needing a way to sort things out. The ‘like’ is an expression of that freedom, and also that anxiety.”
And so, just as the shopgirls of the early 20th century carefully curated their appearances, daters today carefully curate the information they reveal about themselves to potential mates, either online or in person. “We are all shopgirls now,” Weigel writes. “In work and in love, we sell ourselves.” Sometimes it works, two people grasping onto a shared like as a starting point for building a connection — a love of mystery novels, say, or an obscure band, or even something more hyperspecific: On Weigel’s first date with her now-husband, she says, he made a joke about a philosopher who happened to be the subject of her undergraduate thesis.
And, you know, sometimes it doesn’t work. “The whole idea for this chapter started because I was riding the Metro-North from Yale to New York one weekend, and I overheard this woman talking about a one-night stand in obscene detail to her friend — how good in bed he was, how much fun she had,” Weigel says. “And then she was, like, ‘But then the next morning, when we were going to exchange numbers, he opened his laptop and he put on music and it was Limp Bizkit. And I did not give him my number.’” On occasion, at least in the beginning, it might be better to just lie.