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In Contempt Of Courtship

Perhaps the continuing popularity of The Rules--in spite of its co-author's marital track record, they're still charging $3.99 a minute for dating consultations--is a sign that singles today are desperate for some set of principles to follow. Unlike the well-established courtship rituals of the 1950s, what we have today is a motley set of individual expectations, most of them patently mystifying to everyone but ourselves. Courtship has become an unending pick-up game of playground ball, with each player operating according to his or her own individual rulebook. A woman may make a seductive gesture fraught with symbolic meaning--only to find that, to her partner, it's a request for a time-out.

... At the risk of being stripped of my right to wear Birkenstocks, I have to admit that the courtship rituals of the 1950s make me feel a little wistful. The gender roles may have been constricting and the shoes were impossibly tight across the toes, but it's impossible to deny the now-guilty pleasures of sweetheart bouquets, dinner dates, and nightclubs where heterosexual men danced voluntarily.

This article is a nice change from the usual laments about the demise of courtship. I'll grant the author's assumption that modern courtship is less structured than it was in the past (though I'd say that 1: it looks more chaotic to someone raised under a different system -- such as the author, who admits to being married for some time -- than to those of us growing up in the current system, 2: the world tends to look more ordered in hindsight, and 3: the examples of dating consultants and screening processes are not representative of most people's dating experience, and may simply represent the commodification of things previously carried out by family and community). The author is able to point out the utility of a shared set of social conventions as an aid to communication and behavioral coordination without making the mistake (which I posted about before) of conflating "a set of social conventions" with "the particular set of social conventions that our society recently adhered to." This gives us room to formulate a new and better set of rules (for example, eliminating some of the bizarre double standards about which gender does what) rather than giving us the false choice of the old order or chaos.


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