Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter

Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter

by Laurie Essig

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The notion of “happily ever after” has been ingrained in many of us since childhood—meet someone, date, have the big white wedding, and enjoy your well-deserved future. But why do we buy into this idea? Is love really all we need?  
Author Laurie Essig invites us to flip this concept of romance on its head and see it for what it really is—an ideology that we desperately cling to as a way to cope with the fact that we believe we cannot control or affect the societal, economic, and political structures around us. From climate change to nuclear war, white nationalism to the worship of wealth and conspicuous consumption—as the future becomes seemingly less secure, Americans turn away from the public sphere and find shelter in the private. Essig argues that when we do this, we allow romance to blind us to the real work that needs to be done—building global movements that inspire a change in government policies to address economic and social inequality. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300491
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,164,784
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Laurie Essig is Professor and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College. She is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection. Essig has written for a variety of publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and she blogs regularly for Ms. Magazine.

Read an Excerpt


Learning to Love

Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.

Albert Einstein


If Einstein was right and gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love, then what is? In order to answer that question, it is best to start at the very beginning: the body. Neuroscience tells us that the place in the brain where we experience romantic love, the caudate, is part of our primitive and "reptilian" brain, more an instinct than a conscious decision. In addition to animalistic instinct, romantic love is associated with dopamine production. In other words, romantic love is an addiction as well as a reptilian response. If neuroscience is correct and we have a deep-seated biological drive to fall in love, both the historical and anthropological record show that how those instincts and addictions get shaped into action has everything to do with culture. Otherwise love would not be such a many-splendored thing and would look depressingly the same in ancient Greece and contemporary Beijing. Instinct and addiction are always determined, even overdetermined, by culture and history. When it comes to the neuroscience of love, we are more like a toy poodle offering to do tricks like "shake" or "roll over" for a treat than we are a wolf howling at the moon.

In the US for the past 150 years or so, all infants have been subject to having their innate drives toward love twisted and shaped by the ideology of romance and the reality of consumer capitalism. To paraphrase the more philosophical language of Michel Foucault, romance was a temporary aberration, but with modernity, the romantic was born as a species. Or as Karl Marx and Simone de Beauvoir's offspring might have said, one is not born a romantic, but becomes one in conditions not of one's own making.

This may sound abstract, but let me begin with something far more concrete: two temper tantrums. When one of my daughters was ten months old, she wanted to wear her new summer sandals, white and sparkly. I wanted her to put on sneakers because it was raining and cold outside. She lay down on the ground and screamed until I did what all bad parents do and gave in. We could interpret her tantrum as evidence that females have deep-seated preferences for sparkly white things, like sandals or wedding dresses, but I had already polluted the blank slate of my daughter's brain by oohing and aahing over the sandals and telling her that they were "pretty," a word she had already begun to associate with good things. We are not born willing to lie on the floor and scream for certain fetish items. We learn that. I myself taught it to my daughter. American culture teaches most daughters that the fetish items they should be willing to pitch a fit for are not just pretty and white, but bridal.

On WETV's reality show Bridezilla, romance-induced temper tantrums are not just a regular occurrence, but actually drive the entire narrative of the show. Many of these tantrums involve young brides not having the perfect things for a perfect wedding. "Bridezillas" throw tantrums over things like wedding dresses and diamond rings and even shoes. The brides scream and yell and throw things and threaten their families, friends, and, especially, their fiancés. In one episode, a young bride by the name of Joraine says, "If my expectations aren't met I'm going to flip out at my own wedding and body slam somebody." In the same episode, bride Amanda threatens to set people on fire, pouring gas on them and lighting a match, if everything is not perfect on her wedding day.

What separates a ten-month old from a twenty-year-old is not the ability to throw a tantrum, but rather that the older girl's desire is obsessively focused on romance and its culmination in the perfect wedding. These tantrums are part of the emotional work of the white wedding. From the time we are very young, we are all molded into romantic beings, even if we do not become "bridezillas." We learn that people fall in love, that falling in love is the most magical thing two humans can do, full of pumpkins turning into carriages and frogs into princes. And most important of all, we learn that falling in love is how we end up adults, with a family of our own, happy and well adjusted because the kind of person (or evil witch or giant octopus) who does not fall in love is ugly and mean and will die a horrible death (usually at the hands of a prince who will run his sword or some other suitably sharp and phallic object through her middle).

Both the culture of romance and the market of romance are part of the story of how we learn to love — and not just to love, but to love in particular ways that turn infant girls into brides and nearly everyone, men included, into romantics. Although not themselves brides or bridezillas, men are also seduced by the promise of a happily ever after. According to research by the online dating service, men want to get married just as much as women, and they are much more likely to fall in love "at first sight."

The way we learn to love demands not just conformity, but consumption. We learn what to be and what to want in a variety of ways: family relationships, friendship networks, expert advice, and culture, from pop music to animated films to romance novels and romantic comedies and reality TV shows like Bridezillas. This chapter teases out these cultural scripts of romance by tracing the history that led us to where we are now: a romantic landscape populated with rich vampires and BDSM tops who save ordinary girls from lives of economic hardship. In order to fully understand romance we have to trace the road from Victorian Valentine's Day cards and early Disney films to the Twilight saga and its illegitimate progeny, Fifty Shades of Grey.


At some point during evolution between plankton and Bon Jovi, apes evolved the ability to become emotionally attached to one another.

Mark Manson, A Brief History of Romantic Love and Why It Kind of Sucks

It would be easy to say that we have always shaped our infants into romantic subjects. After all, it seems so natural to fill our children's heads with ideas of true love. But childhood has not always been awash in the gauzy dreams of two hearts beating as one. A few hundred years ago, American children were not dreaming of riding off into the sunset. Instead, their cultural texts were the ever-grim Grimm's fairy-tales. In these premodern versions, the central story was never about a sweet and innocent girl being rewarded with a happily ever after. In the brothers Grimm version, a vengeful Cinderella puts her evil stepmother into red-hot iron shoes and makes her dance about till she falls down dead from the pain. In the earlier version of "Snow White," it is a jolt from a horse, not a kiss from the prince, that awakens her. Then there are the previous versions of "Sleeping Beauty," where the prince has sex with her while she is unconscious and she bears children in that compromised state. These tales are not exactly romantic in the modern sense of the word. Even more recent tales for children, like Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 "The Little Mermaid," are not about romantic love as much as about the Christian quest for a human soul and thus eternal life.

But all that changed about 150 years ago, when romance and capitalism got involved with each other in ways that demanded a happy ending in order to get us to buy the story. Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that romance and capitalism were fated to be joined, but rather that they fell into together, the way most modern couples do. Modernity saw large structural changes like the development of capitalism, the rise of the middle classes, and a new form of women's labor calledshopping. At the same time, new beliefs and business practices were forming to get children involved in Love, Inc. For one, the Victorians were busy inventing the child. Obviously, people were both young and small before the Victorian era, but these young people were not imagined as cherubic little angels who must be kept out of the paid economy as well as the sexual one. Of course, not all children were angels. The angels were blond, blue-eyed, and middle class. Other children had to work in factories, as slaves, as servants, and more. As Robin Bernstein points out in Racial Innocence, the child was invented by the Victorians, but that child was invented as white, sexually pure, and in need of protection. According to Bernstein,

The cult of domesticity demanded performances of sexual innocence within the home ... Sexual innocence then divided white and black children in much the same way it did white and black women. Unique to the polarization of black and white children, however, was the libel ... that black juveniles did not — could not, even experience pain.

This angelic white child, as Bernstein suggests, was disturbingly similar to another invention of the Victorians: the lady.

Prior to capitalism, one was born into one's status: a lord or a serf, a lady or a chambermaid. But with the onset of capitalism and the huge class revolutions that took place throughout the 1700s and 1800s, the lady was not just a status, something you were because your parents were nobility, but also a performance. It was not enough to be wealthy and white. The modern lady had to enact purity and innocence, not engage in physical labor, and exist solely for the purpose of serving her family. As Anne McClintock points out in Imperial Leather, "For most women from the still-disorganized middling classes ... idleness was less the absence of work than a conspicuous labor of leisure." It was precisely this labor of performing ladyhood that allowed the dictionary definition of lady to shift from primarily meaning "a woman of high social position" to a "woman who behaves in a polite way." The shift from position to behavior did not completely unmoor "lady" from race and class hierarchies, but it did require a different set of behaviors and rituals of ladyness in order to maintain those hierarchies.

Like the child, the lady also needed quite a bit of protection from sexual predators since the lady's very absence of desires, her purity, was what made her desirable in the first place. As James Kincaid untangles this Victorian hairball in Erotic Innocence:

I'm not the first to announce that both the child and modern sexuality came into being only about 200 years ago, but it isn't often noted ... they got mixed together. One somehow got implanted in the other, and it shouldn't have happened. Despite the loud official protestations about children's innocence, our Victorian ancestors managed to make their concept of the erotic depend on the child, just as their idea of the child was based on their notions of sexual attraction.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the sort of stories the Victorians came up with for white and middle-class children were different, more "innocent," and also more invested in the idea that children, like ladies, ought to be protected by their knight in shining armor. And so things changed. As a culture, we began to produce stories for certain children and stories about children that taught young people to focus on romantic relationships and to embody true love through certain forms of consumption, like big weddings, as well as certain sorts of embodiment, like the white and pure woman-child that is so central to weddings and other romantic fantasies.

The first material artifacts of the marriage of romance and capitalism appeared in about 1850, when Esther Howland started mass-producing Valentine's Day cards in Worcester, Massachusetts. Howland's brilliance was to take the promise of romance and mass produce it for a profit. Howland's cards were a combination of lacy frothiness and images of sweet white children, in pairs and alone. Although never married herself, Howland helped spawn a national holiday that moves American consumers to spend about $18.9 billion every year on the stuff of romance, $703 million of which is spent on our pets. Hallmark estimates that about 141 million Valentine's Day cards are exchanged worldwide. The cards also introduced Americans to the idea that love is a tangible product that can be bought and exchanged.

From Howland's cards, consumers quickly moved to romance novels. Young women traded in their more complex Jane Austens for the mass-produced paperback romance, which always had a "happy ending." Romance novels ended when a young woman was tamed by marriage and a rough man was tamed by the love of a young woman and the reader could imagine their future as happy, secure, and always reproductive. These modern romance novels were made possible by modern technological inventions like synthetic glue and a network of grocery and drug stores that more and more women began to frequent. Harlequin and other modern stories of romance helped us believe in things like true love, but also about why certain groups deserved true love and others did not.


Visionary speculation, especially of an unrealistic or idealistic nature.

Definition of "ideology," Oxford Dictionary

In this sense, the modern era put romance into marriage for the first time. Premodern notions of romance, such as chivalry, placed romantic love firmly outside of marriage. A man wanted a woman and that woman was nearly always attached to another man, either a husband or a father. Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot with King Arthur in tow, Romeo and Juliet with the families' refusal to allow their marriage, or even King Henry VIII, who always had a wife in the way of his true love. Romance went from being a set of ideas about love and sex that rarely involved two people married to one another to something that was properly situated within marriage. As Anthony Giddens puts it:

Romantic love became distinct from amour passion, although at the same time had residues of it. Amour passion was never a generic social force in the way in which romantic love has been from somewhere in the late eighteenth century up to relatively recent times. Together with other social changes, the spread of notions of romantic love was deeply involved with momentous transitions affecting marriage as well as other contexts of personal life ... Unlike amour passion, which uproots erratically, romantic love detaches individuals from wider social circumstances.

This new romantic love was not just a sign of modernity, but provided a way of distracting us from conditions as they really are by promising us a happy ending. If religion was the premodern opiate of the masses, then romance was modernity's far more addictive heroin.

Since Howland started churning out Valentine's Day cards, romance has been weaving its magical spell to make gender, race, and class hierarchies appear natural. As Laura Kipnis argues in Against Love, we do not notice that romance is doing this because romantic love, like capitalism, "come[s] to subsume and dominate their creators, who don't see it happening, or what they've lost, or that the thing they themselves invented and bestowed with life has taken them over like a hostile alien force, like it had a life of its own." In this sense, as an alien force that moves us to act, romance is both an affect and an ideology.

Like other ideologies, romance tells us that it is for everyone. Just pull yourself up by your heartstrings and you too can find your happily ever after. Yet true love was never meant to be for everyone. As new power hierarchies formed with industrialization, new groups of people claimed the right to decide who could and who could not be in love. Rather than priests and rabbis, Victorian legislators and reformers as well as a burgeoning mass media began to create new rules for love. Victorians passed laws about commercial sex, homosexual acts, and marriage. As historian Nancy Cott explains in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, the US government became increasingly involved in regulating intimate relationships. Marriage and sex had been primarily community concerns before the 1800s, but by the time of the Civil War,

a rhetorical relationship had been set up between the institution of marriage and the success of the national compact so that what undermined one put the other at risk. ... The reframing of American political society after the Civil War incorporated a preferred model for American marriage, which renewed emphasis on the spouses' being of the same race, highlighted the state's role in the marriage ... The unified nation had newly expressed stakes in every union's being freely chosen, monogamous, and legal.

This newfound state interest in marriage and citizenship also led to an increased policing of relationships outside of legal marriage, including polygamous marriages as well as homosexuality and prostitution.


Excerpted from "Love, Inc."
by .
Copyright © 2019 Laurie Essig.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures

1. Learning to Love
2. Finding Love
3. Marry Me?
4. White Weddings
5. The Honeymoon


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