By Rachel Brooks (she/her)
Ghosting. Breadcrumbing. Haunting. Orbiting. Zombieing. Caspering. Benching.
These are Google’s most popular buzzwords relating to the culture of dating apps. But Ghosting is becoming an old hat; let me tell you about some new terminology. ‘Breadcrumbing’: this is a Hansel and Gretel-esque tale about the love crumbs – texts, dm’s, voicenotes – left behind by one person as they lead another down the garden path towards wasting their time. Or how about benching? This is a game of love where there is more chance of eternity as a substitute player than ever having the opportunity to get on the pitch, let alone score a goal. In light of the proliferation of such behaviour, many of us turn to entertainment that can recontextualise dating, content that intentionally glamorises, sentimentalises and sensationalises love and romance. Amidst the technological evolution of online dating, where apps are becoming more interactive and sensory, you would be forgiven for doubting the reliability of finding a tangible connection hidden amongst the data pilfering drudgery of swiping left, right, left, and right in perpetuity.
Modern dating can be disheartening for many, and Netflix is making a significant profit from this fact. The astounding popularity of Bridgerton amidst the pandemic is only one example. It’s not hard to comprehend why. A ‘🔥’ emoji sent through Instagram DM’s explicitly pales in comparison to Simon’s monologue in the now famous ‘burn for you’ scene.
The antidote of romantic escapism has existed long before dating mutated into what it is today. Before Netflix, there were Hollywood romantic comedies and, before them, romance novels. Significantly, romantic comedies peaked in the 1990s, when the genre was fully concretised. You’ve Got Mail is a charming time capsule of the early gestation days of the internet. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were caught on a resonant cultural cliff edge, connecting through typeface, love letters through emails, and exchanging their feelings and ideas in a way that social media has now virtually eclipsed.
As we enter another decade of the twenty-first century amidst a pandemic and a smorgasbord of global tragedy, the 1990s is having a serendipitous cultural renaissance. Britney is freed, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are back together, Friends had a reunion, fictional depictions of Princess Diana are everywhere, And Just Like That, Sex and the City is back. Underneath the covetable #aesthetic of the scrunchies, slip dresses and biker shorts, the 1990s act as a metonym for the time before the internet and all that it has developed into, including online dating. It is not surprising that contemporary romantic comedies attempt to recapture this moment and that the formulas of the 1990s romantic comedy are reproduced everywhere in culture. Examples of these are the ‘slow-build’, the ‘stuck together’, ‘enemies to lovers’, ‘forbidden love’, and ‘friends to lovers’ (I could go on). However, it is hard to imagine these tropes and motifs replicated through dating apps. ‘Enemies to Lovers’ would most probably result in a hasty block.
Amusingly, these formulas can be found most overtly in dating-centric reality TV. In Love is Blind, any one of these tropes can be constructed or sped along superficially by the production team. Married at First Sight does the same. Love Island facilitates the ‘stuck together’ trope through its real-time narrative built for viewing pleasure (or displeasure, depending on your tastes). The Bachelor is the ultimate ‘slow-build’: the fantasy suite pending. These shows remove the distractions of the internet and its side-effects of social competition and comparison, allowing for an imitation of the prelapsarian time of the 1990s and the heyday of the romantic comedy.
There are other examples of contemporary romantic escapism in the genre of horror, wherein dating is made more terrible than our internet age reality. Did a holiday with your significant other go badly? Calm yourself down with a viewing of Midsommar. Did meeting their parents not go as well as expected? I suggest a prompt screening of Get Out. The 2022 film Fresh is more than a compelling test to determine how fanciable Sebastian Stan is. It is a dystopian rendering of the pre-internet norm: meeting someone in real life by happenstance. Most of us have had bad dates; I would wager few compete with the victual twist that Alex Somer’s film cooked up. Maybe after another failed talking stage, a ‘U up?’ text from a past match can turn, surprisingly, into an imperfect balm.
Perhaps it is better to think of romantic escapism as less an avoidance of modern dating and more a spoonful of sugar to ease the medicinal act of putting oneself back out there. A moment of respite where dating is void of all standard human hardship, the tacky slowness of reality, the ‘How are you?’s’ & ‘Good, you?’s’ echoing into the dark matter of the internet endlessly… endlessly until a genuine connection can; hopefully, one day be found.