‘Our dating scene needs to go back to the 50s:
Ice cream parlours.
Bring that mindset back.’
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook not long ago, and for some reason, it really irked me. At first, I thought it was the fluffy idea of love, something to which I have historically been adverse to. But then, that didn’t feel right. Usually, my knee-jerk reaction to fluff is an eye roll, maybe an exasperated sigh, but this made me feel more uncomfortable the longer I sat with it. It had to be something else.
There is, no doubt, a growing nostalgia for ‘days gone by’. Nostalgia, as the critic & radio presenter Natalie Haynes points out, literally means ‘pain for your journey home’. In the modern sense, it describes a specific sentimental wish to return to a certain period of timebut that idea of ‘pain’ seems ever-present. The simplicity of the past is often so alluring, soothing the scars of the world around us; the ‘old days’ are mythologised and cleansed by the sadness we feel over their absence. Much like a bad boyfriend after a few years have passed; You might send them a drunken text at 4am because you miss them but, in the stark morning light, you remember their controlling nature and the way they chewed with their mouth open, and you are comforted by the fact it ended for a good reason. The problem with nostalgia, is that it uproots old ideals and tries to disconnect them from their context, to repurpose them for now, and what better example than romance?
That Facebook post, for example, outlines that a specific set ideal locations are directly connected to a particular way of falling in love, with romance ‘proper’. It lays out the act of ‘dating’ as within these locations, and that is something crucial to a more palatable form of romance than the current alternative. It does not suggest in what ways modern romance has fallen short, but it denotes that something, in the past seventy years, has gone wrong and thus we need to get back, course correct and find what we’ve lost. Never mind that all of the above still exist and, if you so choose, you could attend almost all of them in some capacity.
It suggests the 1950s as a haven, a place in which it was all easier. It ignores that after years of marriage as transactional and love playing second fiddle to business and commerce that those carnivals, diners, and drive-ins were the stages on which deeply unequal courtships took place. It ignores magazines that devoted themselves to telling women how to find good husbands and maintain decent marriages, to get a degree simply to make themselves more appealing as a wife. There was a binary when it came to romance, and it was simple; it was a woman’s role to find a husband, to make a house a home, and a man’s role in making a living, earning the cash and doing whatever he wanted. It was pre women’s liberation, pre-civil rights, pre-gay rights.
The post says something, culturally, has stopped people from acting in that way. It is not a stretch to assume that the cultural shift referred to has something to do with the internet. As the pre and post Internet boom ideologies often exist at odds with each other and the 1990s acts as the barrier between the ‘good ol’ days’ and this sordid future we live in and, the idea of what romance is exists as a perfect example of that. The longing for country fairs, dances, and courting are set against the shallow nature online dating, and, by extension, against the casual sex it facilitates.
So the questions become: Has Tinder made us swipe left on the idea of roses and chocolates? Are we no longer a match with candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach? Does the shifting meaning of sex, altering its status within romance, mean it can’t be special anymore? Do any of the rules still apply or has the internet rendered them moot? Those that ask the questions come to a conclusion: Here lies romance, may it rest in peace.
In the early part of the last decade, this question was raised frequently by journalists. By, 2010, and the introduction of smartphones, online dating had regenerated into app form. Readily available on your phone you could check messages, peruse matches, and organise dates on the bus home. Theoretically, romance was at our fingertips but, did this mean that we had lost something culturally?
In an article for the Independent in 2013, Amy Loudon wrote:
There was a time when dating was simple […] finding a date was more of a natural process. Whether you were introduced to a potential partner through a friend, you met someone at work or you simply approached someone to show your interest […] You had one phone that people could either contact you on or not contact you on. Better still, you didn’t even have a phone, you had love letters.
She theorises that our connectivity hinders our ability to be aloof, to play ‘hard-to-get’ because everyone can see when you updated your status or posted on Instagram. It means that the old rituals of waiting three days to call back or acting as though you’re too busy to respond right away are impossible because you carry your phone with you everywhere.
The fact we have filled out profiles also makes it harder, as she suggests that our online personas take away our sense of mystery. If you want to date someone you can scrutinise their interests, look through their tagged photos, see where they’ve been on holiday. You can even understand their political affiliations through what they post, like, or share. Regardless of whether your potential date likes Neo-Nazi posts on Twitter or images of inspirational quotes on Instagram (both of which are deal-breakers) Loudon laments that it takes no work to find out about someone. There’s no effort, no questions, no asking ‘Where did you grow up?’ on a first date. Even in the face of these issues, however, Louden still thinks romance is alive, but in actuality, it is us who are ‘neglecting’ it in a digital world. Like a skinny dog on an advert for the RSPCA, romance is sat in the corner, quivering, longingly hoping we haven’t forgotten about it.
More pointedly, in 2015, the historian Lucy Worsley wrote in the Radio Times that Grindr and Tinder were ruining the ‘exquisite torture of love’. She positioned casual sex and long term relationships in opposition writing that nowadays, instead of looking for love, ‘bored singletons search for one-night stands with a few clicks.’
Worsley’s reference to Grindr, an app that caters to gay and bisexual men as well as transgender people, speaks to a problem with how these conversations often take place. Launched in 2009, Grindr uses the geolocation software built into smartphones as a way of locating other users within a certain vicinity, the distance between two users visible in kilometres. The app, which boasts ‘millions of daily users’ on its website, calls itself as a ‘safe space where you can discover, navigate, and get zero feet away from the queer world around you.’
As of 2017, 37% of same-sex couples met online, according to the Pew Research Centre, as opposed to only 11% of opposite-sex couples. Another study, published in the American Sociological Review, suggested that those with a smaller pool of potential partners – i.e. those searching for a same-sex partner – were more likely to meet someone online. When talking about the ‘death of romance’ at the hands of the internet, it suggests that its existence, which disproportionately serves people who don’t have the same privileges when it comes to publicly engaging with dating, is the effecting the perceived norm. As such, a system that works to level the playing field, to allow LGBTQ+ people (and various others that might face cultural barriers) to meet and form relationships is to blame for your losses.
But that’s not important today, is it? LGBTQ+ people are visible and have rights, so surely the need or desire to utilise dating apps is moot. Worsley agrees with you, as she later goes on to suggest that the ‘approval of same-sex marriage’ in the UK means everyone is now free to search for their ideal partner out in the open, like many of Jane Austen’s heroines did. I could speak for hours about the idea that same-sex marriage requires ‘approval’ from straight people to be valid and worthy, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll point to Worsley’s seemingly odd naivety, for someone who calls herself a historian.
In 2019, the Home Office recorded a 25% rise in hate crime offences linked to sexuality. They also saw a 37% increase in crimes towards Transgender people. In that same year, groups of religious protestors pulled their children out of school in Birmingham based on the fact they were going to be told gay people merely existed. While three weeks ago, The Church of England stated that ‘sex belongs only within heterosexual marriage’ and that God was A-Okay with the gays as long as they lived a sexless existence.
So tell me, where exactly is this ‘period drama’ world in which queer people can date out in the open? Where they can experience that ‘exquisite torture’? I can’t see it. It’s not anywhere to be seen on the bus on which two lesbian women were physically assaulted for refusing to kiss as entertainment for group of rowdy straight men last year? It’s certainly not present in counties like Russia, Chechnya, or Uganda who have hunted down, murdered, ‘correctively’ raped, and imprisoned people for their sexuality. The fact is, even in this country the debates around whether you hold hands in public, attend work functions together, disclose your relationship to homophobic family members, or kiss on the street during a night out are torturous in their own way. There isn’t the privilege of that torture being exquisite.
Internet dating has not killed romance, it has publicly expanded it. In her essay ‘A Question of Culture’, Rose Jordan, a queer academic, explained that the invention of gay bars in pre-Stonewall America was a way of expanding social circles that LGBTQ+ people were able to access. As straight people used ‘church socials, weddings, [and] formal introductions’ to meet potential partners, the gay bar was the queer alternative (just as apps can be today). As such, certain practices exist within queer culture that don’t fit within the heterosexual mould of romance such as clubbing, a disinterest or distrust of monogamy, or casual sexual encounters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be considered romantic because who gets to define what is or isn’t?
In their paper ‘The Social Construction of Love’, Anne B. Beall and Robert J. Sternberg note that we often conceptualise love as ‘a universal emotional experience that is defined similarly within all cultures’ and that this is not true. Our attitudes towards love are constructed culturally and so, to claim that internet dating has killed romance is to admit that you’re not able to see beyond your singular definition of romance. You’re acknowledging that you believe the straight western experience is ideal, on which all other experiences should be modelled. You’re expecting people to exist within a structure they had no say in building, and you’re angry when they don’t like it or when they try to alter it. You’re telling them that for you to recognise something as ‘valid’ it has to conform to these standards. Never mind that your ritualistic dating practices aren’t even beneficial to you with their gendered expectations, capitalist leaning ideals, and roots in patriarchal oppression, they still must be upheld, pined after, considered lost in the face of an ever-changing landscape. God forbid that the system morphs into something more inclusive.
I am not here to tell you that romance, as you knew it, is alive and well. I’m here to tell you that romance, abstractly, is undeniably still here. It’s a socially constructed concept one that depends on our culture. It stands to reason that people might think romance is dead or unrecognisable to them because culture has changed. The world of the 1950s, with its ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs, its unequal pay for women, the illegal nature of homosexuality and abortion, the deep-rooted class divide, the post-war austerity, the absence of seatbelts in cars, lobotomies prescribed for those with mental health issues, and the lack of sun cream and bicycle helmets is a totally different culture to now. So it stands to reason that we would have a form of romance that reflects that new culture, not one that still acts like women can’t open bank accounts and gay men could be chemically castrated if they were discovered.
Maybe romance exists in each app notification, in each algorithm working behind the scenes. Perhaps it exists in seedy bars, public toilets, and sex clubs while at the same time existing in high-end boutiques, prayer circles, and the Conservative Party conference? Maybe, that’s what romance is now; down to the individual to define. Online or offline, that’s up to you. What I find romantic is not the same as what you might, but does that mean romance is dead? No.
Romance, as a word defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary in this context, means ‘the feelings and behaviour of two people who are in a loving and sexual relationship with each other’ and the rest is arbitrary. To claim that romance is dead because there is no cultural consensus is short-sighted. It is to try and force your inner idea of it onto someone else, to say that your version is right and theirs is wrong. Romance is how you perceive it. If you want flowers, ask for flowers. If you want jewellery, surprises, and weekends away in twee cottages listening to Taylor Swift then be my guest. Just don’t tell me that I need that too if I want romance. Who are you to say that candlelight makes a meal more romantic? We’re still eating the same food.
This speech was first presented on the 11th February 2020 at the Chester Debating Society for which the motion was ‘Internet Dating Has Killed Romance’.