On Saturday, June 11, Culver City’s romance-novel hub the Ripped Bodice hosts a conversation with Moira Weigel, author of the brand-new, fun fact–filled Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26).
Weigel’s wide-ranging survey begins in the 1890s, when the word “dating” (as in “filling the slots in a date book”) emerged, and then tracks how people shop for a mate and make themselves more “marketable,” from the era of “going steady” to “hooking up” to the current swipe-right-and-left status quo. In the past few weeks, Labor of Love has been debated by writers in The New York Times and The New Yorker, and Weigel herself has continued her exploration of the subjects with new essays such as “Why isn’t there a Grindr for straight people?”
While researching Labor of Love, Weigel read an enormous number of books and articles on the subject of dating advice, one of the best-selling genres in all of publishing throughout the 20th century. Some of these works are forgotten, but some are definitely still shaping many people’s ideas of how to find and keep a mate (yes, there are still women referring to themselves as “Rules Girls”— and don’t even get us started on guys who swear by the Pickup Artistry taught by The Game).
Here are 15 particularly terrible pieces of advice Weigel unearthed while researching her book.
1. ”In case of an occasional lapse on the part of the husband, forgive and forget. Or still better, make believe.” —Dr. William Josephus Robinson (early 1900s)
Love “experts” have been explicitly advocating delusion and fantasy since the dawn of time — or at least the dawn of the 20th century.
2. “Beauty is no longer vanity; it is use. Place a beautiful figure on your wall and compare that with the lines of your own body. Express your ideals with your body as in the pictures you express your ideals on your walls.” —Anna Cocroft, Beauty a Duty (1915)
An early example of what now we would call something like a “thinspiration mood board” (or Instagram account). Visualize a better self, they tell the reader, because the current one ain’t much.
3. “Celia cannot be altogether irresponsibly natural, because she is possessed with a concrete desire, i.e. to attract Henry, so resourcefulness must come to her aid and direct her naturalness. Men dislike incessant talkers, or restlessness; they are wearied with noise (think of the downtown restaurants!). They are not fools now, either; work has sharpened their wits; and the jolly, noisy, smoking, slangy, Jazz-band creature is one who only engages their most trivial attention, to while away leisure moments unless of course she is perfectly beautiful so they are not very likely to desire such a one if she is plain, as a companion for life. They want something tender and charming, who unconsciously fills their imagination with rest from all the strife.” —Elinor Glyn, The Philosophy of Love (1923)
Elinor Glyn was an extremely popular “love expert” of the Prohibition era. She also invented the idea of the “It” Girl, an ideal so meaningless that it could only be named with the neutral article. Glyn appeared as herself in It (1927), the blockbuster silent rom-com that made Clara Bow a star and flapper icon (not the Stephen King miniseries).
Glyn’s “philosophy of love” encourages women to cut it out with the fun-loving, jazzy antics if they want a man to “take them seriously,” anticipating the entire trend of encouraging unnatural behavior control to secure a mate “that will respect you.” This unhealthy obsession with neurotic self-policing and joylessness, of course, is still very much espoused by many popular love advice writers.
4. “The man always does the ordering. Never ask the waiter for anything yourself.”—Women's Own (1950)
Of course you don’t. Why would you want to emasculate him like that, you heartless she-vampire?
5. “You cannot possess a boy, even though he is your boyfriend. Just remember that you are not married to him, and he has a life to live and other responsibilities and obligations besides trying to console and keep you happy. Nothing drives a man away more quickly than an over-possessive female. No man wants to spend his every waking moment with a girl no matter how much he loves her. You'd better have a good talk with yourself and realize that, although you occupy a part of his life, you are not all of it.”—”Date Data by The Chaperone,” Baltimore Afro-American, Dec. 14, 1957
African-American women also have been instructed to lower their expectations of companionship for decades. By a lot.
6. “Of course you are a little mother to all the growing boys around [the office where you work]. You dispense Band-Aids and smiles to anyone who is wounded on the job and Bromo to those who got their wounds the night before. You should feel empathy in your bosom — it doesn't tickle or anything. … Give it to them! Whatever anybody wants, dig it, make it, find it, mint it, scrounge it, grow it, or crochet it — but never say no!” —Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Office (1964)
In case you thought Joan on Mad Men was an outlier, working women were actively encouraged to coddle their male co-workers. Are things so different now? Weigel argues that “the new feminine mystique” that Brown hyped has persisted. “Cultural icons from Britney Spears to Sheryl Sandberg still tell young women that, for them, the prerequisite to the good life is an insatiable appetite for effort.” “You'd better work work work work bitch” is the pop song for the “Lean In” era.
7. “Stop dating him if he doesn't buy you a romantic gift for your birthday or Valentine's Day. … This is not a rule for gold diggers; it's just that when a man wants to marry you, he usually gives you jewelry, not sporty or practical gifts like a toaster oven or coffee maker. It is not how expensive the item but the type of gift it is. A typewriter can cost more than an inexpensive pair or earrings, and a computer, one would think, connotes love, being such a costly item; but such presents come from the head, not the heart, and are not good signs of love at all. Therefore, The Rule is that if you don't get jewelry or some other romantic gift on your birthday or other significant occasion, you might as well call it quits because he's not in love with you and chances are you won't get the most important gift of all: an engagement ring.” —Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, The Rules (1995)
Here we have the notorious “Rules.” Not much more to add. Also, if you feel this is terrible dating advice at its worst, that’s entirely irrelevant. “Feelings are heavy and nobody wants those so shut up and suck it up,” the authors proclaim.
Says Weigel: “The Rules also constantly tells you not to tell your therapist you are following The Rules. It's honestly like a cult … The supermodel Kate Moss once quipped that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. The Rules offer a kind of emotional equivalent for single girls. Nothing could feel worse than being alone.”
8. “A major motivation for developing an alter ego is that we all have sides to our personalities that we rarely, if ever, get to express because of fear or lack of opportunity. The internet eliminates both obstacles. … You have control over your anonymity and power over who finds out what. That's nearly impossible to duplicate in real life. In Cyberia, you don't have to wear any social masks. On the other hand, if you wish, you can try on different masks.”—Michael Adamse, Ph.D., and Sheree Motta, Psy. D., Online Friendship, Chat-Room Romance, and Cybersex: Your Guide to Affairs of the Net (1996)
The good thing about Cyberia is that you don’t have to be yourself. Because — you know the drill now — according to a lot of these self-help books, you suck!
9. “If a man is divorced and you have any suspicions about what he's telling her, meet the woman he was married to. In most cases, the ex has nothing to lose and will spill her guts to you about their relationship. … ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE EX-WIFE OR EX-GIRLFRIEND. They have nothing to lose by telling the truth. … If a man sends you a picture of himself and it's not a close-up, ask for another before meeting him. If a man doesn't have a picture to send over the internet, don't meet him until he does — in most cases, he's hiding something.”—Madelene Sabol, You've Got Male: The Internet Dating Game (1998)
You may have gotten “male” — but what is HE HIDING? Why are there NO PICTURES? Is your life about to become a bad Julia Roberts thriller? Wasn’t the whole point of Cyberia that you could “try on different masks”? The World Wide Web — of deception! And yet it had its upsides. “Even the lithest and gamest wife will not be able to help you realize all the pornographic scenarios that alt.sex.bondage.golden.show-ers.sheep offers at a glance,” Weigel notes. Ah, the 1990s …
10. “On your first date — in fact, on your first three dates — do not make more than one reference to your mother, boss or your crazy sister — it's like bringing a third person on the date. A first date is not completely intimate — you can maintain some bounds of privacy. Remember: You can be open with another man without giving away the store!”—Jim Sullivan, Boyfriend 101: A Gay Guy's Guide to Dating (2003)
Gay folk are not immune to terrible dating advice. “That’s so interesting, you’re really close to your mother? I love that.” “Let’s change the subject — I’ve said enough. How about that Beyoncé? Fierce, right?”
11. “Busy is another word for asshole. Asshole is another word for the guy you’re dating, … THE WORD ‘BUSY’ IS A LOAD OF CRAP AND IS MOST OFTEN USED BY ASSHOLES, … Men are never too busy to get what they want.”—Greg Behrendt, He’s Just Not That Into You (2004)
This started off as a throwaway joke on Sex and the City and then became one of those books they offer near the counter at Barnes & Noble for weak-willed impulse buyers. Except people started taking it seriously. I mean, why would anyone be “busy,” am I right, Samanthas?
12. “If Ford and the government won’t give a man benefits until he’s been on the job and proven himself, why are you, ladies, passing out benefits to men before they’ve proven themselves worthy?”—Steve Harvey, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (2009)
Everyone and their grandmas now talks about “friends with benefits,” but think about it — how is sex, something two people meet up to enjoy (hopefully), at all like medical insurance you get for working an unfulfilling corporate job? And is oral sex like dental? And why is Steve Harvey selling airport hotel lounge “men are like this, women are like that” comedy bits as serious love advice?
13. “All your emotions are there to try to fuck you up. Know that they cannot be trusted at all.” —Neil Strauss, The Game (2005)
Oh, look, surprise, surprise: When it comes to feelings and emotions, the P.U.A. (Pick Up Artists) are in total agreement with the Rules ladies. Repress them! Deep and hard — repress those feelings and emotions. What could go wrong?
14. “Next time you're about to rule out some guy because he's not your ideal, try to focus on the good things about him, because some guy is going to have to focus on the good things about you, even though he may have wanted someone more easygoing or taller. Every time you start to dissect some guy, note that he's willfully ignoring all of this in order to go out with you.” —Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him!: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (2010)
Remember when ads were telling women to do stuff “because you’re worth it”? This is pretty much the opposite. Asks Weigel: “Are straight women really still doomed to choose between a foolish, futile quest for Mr. Right and a mad dash after the equally elusive Mr. Anyone at All?”
15. “Prepare yourself to be as socially successful in college as possible. If you require major bodywork, get it done in high school. … If you’ve struggled with obesity through most of your teen years, then maybe surgical intervention is a good idea for you. … If you’re going to go the route of cosmetic surgery, do it early enough to feel comfortable in your new body before going away to school.” — Susan Patton, Marry Smart (2014)
This was not published in the 1950s but two years ago. Let that sink in. Bad dating advice — still crazy after all these years.
Moira Weigel with special guests, artists Kate Durbin and Ann Hirsch, the Ripped Bodice, 3806 Main St., Culver City; Sat., June 11, 5 p.m., free. therippedbodicela.com.