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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Labor of Love: 100 Years of Movie Dates

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, courtesy Photofest

By Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel

There are plenty of movies about dating. And a trip to the movies is a classic first date. Yet when a romantic prospect asks us if we want to “Netflix and chill,” he or she rarely suggests that we watch something about romance. It would be far too awkward or intimate to see, right there on the screen in front of us, all the hopes and anxieties our culture has about love and sex as we try to negotiate what we want IRL. It is easier to binge-watch gritty dramas about Men Who Cannot Love while we silently calculate whether our date is going to make a move. Or should we? How, and when?

Romantic comedies are better for starting a conversation than for setting a mood. Many are structured like philosophical dialogues. They introduce a proposition—“Men and Women Can't Be Friends”—then show how a couple tests it. We decide which characters, pick-up lines, or grand romantic gestures to damn or praise—and in the process we figure out what we value in a romance.

Modern dating is so complex that Moira wrote an entire book to try to understand it. The result is Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, set to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this May. To write it, Moira took a deep dive into the history of modern romance, immersing herself in sources ranging from police reports, to YA novels and romantic advice manuals, to sociological monographs. But her favorite part of research was watching and discussing movies with her friend and co-conspirator, Mal. (That’s us.) We would snuggle with bowls of popcorn and goblets of wine, and gasp, laugh, cry, and occasionally criticize. We'd shout or sigh: “No one would ever say that!” “She should just date her nerdy friend!”

Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan in Gigi, courtesy Photofest
For this series, we wanted to stage a collective version of our girls' nights. But we also wanted to incorporate what Moira, in the process of writing Labor of Love, had discovered about the long love affair between dating and cinema.

Dating movies that we watch together typically leave us with more questions than answers. Do heterosexual women really love men who are assholes, or do the men who make big-budget Hollywood films just wish we did? Would Richard Gere have fallen in love with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman had she not proven she deserved a better life by flossing her teeth and tearing up at the opera? Do the classical Hollywood heroines of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes chase men out of passion or simply for sport?

Even films not obviously about dating started to raise these questions for us: when Patrick Bateman seduces potential victims in American Psycho, is he not doing something that looks a lot like dating? Is his character really so far from Gere’s rakish suit in Pretty Woman? Both men say they can't feel anything without consuming the bodies of sex workers, after all.

The first nickelodeons opened across America at a time when hordes of young people were moving to the cities from the countryside and overseas. Young women in particular were leaving home to work. In the past their parents had controlled how they courted. In booming cities, they met and flirted freely. Movie theaters quickly became a prime place to do this, and movies themselves showed how.

Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno in It, courtesy Photofest
Thus, this series includes some films from the early days of dating, like the 1902 howler How A French Nobleman Found His Wife Through the New York Herald—possibly the first film made about a personal ad. (Paired with the Nora Ephron classic You’ve Got Mail, it might provide clues to dating in a world dominated by OkCupid.) As a precursor to Pretty Woman, there's the 1916 cautionary drama, Shoes, which warned young women that a dinner date could lead to a lifetime of prostitution. (If the message seems retrograde, consider that the film’s director, Lois Weber, was America’s first female film mogul and its screenplay based on a sociological study of shop girls.) In It, a 1927 smash hit based on a Cosmopolitan article by Elinor Glyn, Clara Bow taught working-class female audiences how to make themselves over for rich beaux.

The workplace intrigues and self-improvement wagers of films like Clueless and Gigi don’t seem so far off from these silent classics. Films about feminist and gay liberation, as well as films showing cross-cultural and interracial relationships, show how 20th century social movements transformed the way many of us date, inspiring previously unimaginable romantic possibilities.

We hope you enjoy this retrospective of modern love and its labors, and that some might turn you on—or at least on to how love can reinvent itself.

Labor of Love: 100 Years of Movie Dates opens May 4 and runs through May 17. For a full schedule of films, visit

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