In the New York Times this weekend, reporter Alex Williams mourns “The End of Courtship.” Texting is to blame for dating’s demise. “Instead of dinner-and-a-movie, which seems as obsolete as a rotary phone,” young people today “rendezvous over phone texts, Facebook posts, instant messages and other ‘non-dates’ that are leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend,” Williams reports. The rise of the “hook-up” has left an entire generation “unhappy, sexually unfulfilled, and confused about intimacy,” one author claims. New technologies have made us “Ph.D.’s in Internet stalking,” but amateurs in love.
Williams’ report treads familiar ground: Back in an arbitrary time period that predates our own, interactions between men and women were simple, the argument goes; advances in technology have led us astray of this most fundamental human relationship.
It’s true that dating used to be simpler, but not because our grandparents were spared from mining the flirtation potential of Words With Friends. No, dating was simpler then because men and women were both forced to conform to distinct gender roles and follow a preset romantic script with the mutual expectation of marrying and procreating as soon as possible.
Williams claims this old system relied on “charm,” but it sounds more like “sexism” to me. Williams quotes our own Hanna Rosin on how shifting gender roles have thrown a wrench in that old routine: “It’s hard to read a woman exactly right these days,” [Rosin] says. “You don’t know whether, say, choosing the wine without asking her opinion will meet her yearnings for old-fashioned romance or strike her as boorish and macho.” Yes, women are individuals nowadays. It is impossible to know what a woman wants without first understanding her as a person, and her preferences are liable to extend far beyond the wine list—she could be pursuing a man for marriage, dating, friendship, sex, networking, or a new buddy for trading emojis with.
Of course, dating wasn’t a cakewalk back when courtship reigned. Consider The Rules, the dating handbook produced by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider that claimed to instruct women on how to navigate new technologies (Should I leave him a voicemail?) in another time of great social change (the '90s). The Rules relied on the idea that men and women are naturally different—“Men love a challenge, while women love security. Men love to buy and sell companies as well as extreme sports like mountain biking and bungee jumping, while women love to talk about dates and watch romantic comedies”—but that shifting gender roles (those high-powered modern businesswomen, with their call waiting!) had disrupted traditional courtship strategies.
So The Rules instructed the women of the '90s to carefully modify their behavior in order to force men into their rightful role as relationship aggressor, regardless of a particular man's individual personality (plenty of “Pick-Up Artist” books cropped up to guide any type of man through his own journey). The book’s strategy of “playing hard to get” required women to be outwardly passive, emotionally distant, and perfectly polished, while secretly rearranging their lives and personalities to always play by the rules. The key is to always “make him think you’re busy and running around,” even if you’re not. Perform the dance correctly, the book promised, and a woman could find a husband. (Who that husband ended up being was always a secondary concern).
This month, Fein and Schneider released an update to their book for a new generation—the one Williams describes as rendered hopelessly unromantic by modern tech. In Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets of Dating, Fein and Schneider (both now, yes, mothers who quote their children extensively throughout) tweak their strategies to reflect these new technologies like “texting, Facebook, BlackBerry Messenger, iPhones, Skype, and Twitter!” But the gender roles and one-size-fits all relationship expectations established back in the rotary phone era have not changed. In one section, "Rules Girls" are all advised to wear their hair long, stick-straight, and preferably blonde to secure the best chance of conforming to what “most men” like.
The technological aspect manages to make Not Your Mother’s Rules even more sinister than the original. Previously, women were only forced to alter their personalities when directly interacting with a dating prospect. Today, with the rise of social media and the expansion of mixed-gender networks, women are instructed to follow the Rules in every medium and social situation in the hopes of landing a husband. Remember how women inherently love romantic comedies? Not on Twitter, where they’re counseled to never “tweet about love songs or chick flicks,” but instead to project an interest in “politics, sports, and the world in general” (even though we know women can't actually be interested in those things!). Under the Rules, even the fun aspects of online culture are reserved just for husband-hunting. Fein and Schneider tell women to employ acronyms like “LOL” in order to communicate to men that they are just too busy to write out three whole words.
Even when dating rules for men and women were set in stone, dating was a difficult and charmless process—particularly for women who preferred their hair short and curly, men who preferred women with short, curly, hair, and both men and women who weren't looking for a relationship with the “opposite” sex. Technology has only accelerated courtship’s “confusion” because it offers so many opportunities for men and women alike to project their individuality and to explore relationships with each other that end short of marriage. Sometimes your Words With Friends partner is just that.