Who Sank The Courtship?

The last thing I dated was carbon

Who courts anymore?

Everyone complains about the demise of dating. The notion that Harvard students are either “married,” consigned to an endless series of strings-optional hook ups, or unofficial members of True Love Revolution has become so widespread that it’s practically a truism. Visit HarvardFML, and amidst a sea of complaints about Ec10, loud roommates, and general academic difficulties, you notice a trend. People are in love with TFs who are contractually obligated to rebuff their advances; people can’t hook up; people hook up too often; messages are mixed, wires are crossed, and over it all emerges the mournful wail of a generation unable to find anyone to date.

One recent poster typifies this trend: “I settle for a new hookup each weekend since no guy wants a relationship. FML.” The half-dozen or so responses to this exclamation are illuminating, including one that reads: “I want a relationship. But you wouldn’t consider me, ever, since I don’t go to parties, am ‘no fun,’ and apparently am an asshole.” Whoever this is, he sure knows how to advertise!

David Brooks recently penned a column about how cell phones have destroyed the roadblocks that courtship used to impose. Constantly texting a whole universe of potential partners, he complains, forces you to maintain an ironic distance from any given person. But the thing about irony is that it has a time limit. Years ago, I started ironically using the phrase “totes” as a form of assent. Now I hurl “totes” everywhere, even at people who ask me if I want whipped cream on my lattes. “I didn’t used to actually say ‘totes,’” I apologize, ruefully. The barista nods. “I didn’t used to call people Dudemeisters,” he admits.

This is exactly why ironic dating is impossible. It escalates suddenly, and you find yourself married to a man you’d only approached because your friends thought his ears looked funny.

While Brooks’s account of oversexed people manipulating universes of multiple potential partners through their cell phones is, as he admits, a little too colorful to be representative—who are these people texting? How can I meet them?—he does make one accurate observation. Whether it’s thanks to the movies, the prevailing winds, or perhaps changing global temperatures that make bedsharing essential to survival, the culture has changed. We can’t pretend we still live in those halcyon days when your parents arranged your whole romantic life for you and the only things you had to worry about were catching polio or that your doctor would use too many leeches. We have to find our own ways of making choices, instead of quietly contracting dysentery to escape unfavorable matches the way we used to.

But David Brooks and the like fail to acknowledge that we live in an era where potential partners expect to exchange vast amounts of personal information before any dating can take place. In the days of gentlemen callers, all that you knew about your expected significant others was whether they enjoyed glass unicorns and whatever else you could glean from a 30-minute conversation. Now, you have to fill out 25-page online questionnaires specifying your every preference, sometimes with disastrous results. Once I filled out an online dating form saying that I had completed “some college” and that “level of education” was “very important” to me. For weeks, I received invitations to meet “creatively unemployed” 54-year-olds who also had completed “some college.”

However cynical and even “ironically detached” our generation has become, we still cling to the notion that somewhere out there, maybe lurking in the dark behind some building, is the right person for everyone. But how do you find this person? As David Brooks and the FMLers might argue, the system we have going doesn’t seem to be doing an optimal job, and it’s certainly running up our texting bills. Out of this frustration emerges the hook up culture, where that old saying about cows and milk has been altered past recognition. “Why marry the cow if you can get the milk for free?” our parents asked. “We know we’re not marrying the cow,” our generation replies. “But in the meantime, hey! Free milk!” In these economic times, you have to take all the handouts you can get.

But until we figure out a better solution, perhaps we should cool it a little. The problem with no-strings-attached hook ups is that sometimes people forget to take all the strings off. Shouldn’t we get to know each other before we start getting to know each other? Maybe, before leaping into bed, everyone should sit down and fill out comprehensive forms that cover our opinions on politics, philosophy, free-range chicken, and that one episode of Sex and the City where Samantha confronts those transvestites. By the time we finish the form, we will have a) found true love, b) passed out from boredom, or c) sobered up enough to realize how odd-looking that guy’s ears are.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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