Of the 18 couples who announced their weddings in this week’s New York Times, six met on OkCupid. Though you don’t need the Times wedding announcements column to prove that internet dating can lead to love. Just look around. Speak to some couples. Ask them which app they used to meet. More and more, the way we meet is facilitated through our portable glowing screens, not through spontaneous romantic encounters — and that’s not going to change any time soon.
“For your generation, it won’t be, ‘How did you meet?’ It’ll be, ‘What app did you use?” said Kate L. Stewart, a psychotherapist and dating coach based in Seattle. “There are a lot fewer interactions that people can have organically. Social interaction is routed through phones. People aren’t going to open an umbrella for you if everyone’s looking at their phone.”
But if you only had TV and movies as a guide for deciphering the dating world of humans – if you were, say, an alien with purely anthropological intentions — you’d walk away with the perfectly understandable impression that dating apps led to, at best, a witty conversation or a one-night stand, and at worst, a horror story. And rarely ever the start of something long-term. There’s a chasm between the success of online dating in real life, and the way it’s depicted on screen.
Perhaps pop culture’s reluctance to take internet dating seriously is because its very existence — the agency of swiping through possible matches, the premeditation, the inherent callousness in coldly surveying people — poses an existential threat to the meet-cute. As a result, even if cringeworthy Tinder-date montages are depicted, characters in TV and film never actually form relationships through dating apps, like many actual people do. This is strange, considering it’s been done before — in 1998. In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox’s (Tom Hanks) entire relationship was forged over AOL.
The near complete absence of examples of characters forming lasting connections through online dating in media might have ramifications for people who are actually in the Tinder trenches. “There’s still an element of guilt behind it, because it’s not in pop culture,” says Serena Cooper*, a 22-year-old woman living and dating in New York. “We see things in pop culture and say, ‘Oh, this is the way it should be.’ But online dating isn’t there. So you wonder, Huh — am I doing it wrong?”
By Cooper’s logic, what is “doing it right?” Likely, “doing it right” has something to do with meeting a potential partner organically, which is still the prevailing narrative in pop culture. An essential component of Western love stories is the instant our two trusty protagonists meet in an unexpected, spontaneous way — also known as the “meet-cute.” Romeo and Juliet locking eyes at the party. Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) getting in a car to drive across America in When Harry Met Sally. Will Thacker (Hugh Grant) spilling orange juice on the actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) in Notting Hill. Or more recently, Emily (Zoe Kazan) heckling Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) in The Big Sick. In these scenes, we sense see the crackle and the chemistry of two people realizing that the universe has tilted at just the right angle to bring them together.
Does online dating signal the death of the meet-cute? Amanda Stauffer, author of A Match Made in Manhattan, a novel about a New York woman traversing the online dating circuit, thinks not. “The meet-cute that happens without digital dating, in bars or on subway platforms, now gets postponed to the first date,” Stauffer said. There’s potential for a rich romantic story — obstacles to surmount, revelations to have — to occur after the initial OKCupid-facilitated set-up.
But bringing online dating to TV and film is more complicated than just rejiggering our notion of the conventional romantic narrative. We live in a bifurcated reality: Our phone life often feels just as real and immediate as our physical life. Pop culture’s challenge, then, is turning dating apps into something as visually compelling as tangible reality.
In his YouTube video “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film,” film editor Tony Zhou examines the evolution of texting on-screen. “Texting is kind of visual, so in theory this shouldn’t be hard. And yet every time a filmmaker cuts to an insert of a phone, you can hear the audience yawning,” he says in the video, as a clip of Shay Mitchell in Pretty Little Liars pulls out of her phone, and stops the show’s action. By the end of the video, texting has evolved to the floating messages of Sherlock; messages delivered without a phone in sight. Each frame is a seamless integration of our phone lives and our worldly lives. An elegant solution — but one that online dating hasn’t necessarily found yet onscreen.
Granted, pop culture isn’t outright ignoring the presence of online dating. Characters do go on dates facilitated by apps, even if they don’t actually end up with anyone they meet from those dates long-term. So far, some TV shows have produced masterful, creative montages that capture dating app fatigue. In the second season of Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s character, Dev, takes a string of women he met on a dating app on a series of nearly identical dates: dinner at a restaurant, and, if the date goes well, drinks at a rooftop bar. Each date is like a doorway: Is this a life that Dev wants to walk into, a future road he can walk down? The answer is no. Dev is pining for a woman he met IRL. Not only IRL, actually — something better, more whimsical. He met her in Italy during a pasta-making course. While Dev gave online dating a good try, he really was always holding out for his “more real,” IRL connection.
The montage format has caught on because it works — if what you’re wanting to show is online dating as a futile, demeaning process, in which the protagonist is only half-heartedly interested. On Insecure, while mourning the loss of her relationship with her long-term boyfriend, Issa (Issa Rae) goes on multiple dates at the same bar (the format quite mimics Dev’s dating sequence in Master of None). Issa sits across from a string of equally unappealing men, who ask the same boring questions: “How long have you been on the dating app? How are you still single?” Instead of responding genuinely, we hear what Issa wishes she could say. Similarly, in the opening scene of the movie The Incredible Jessica James, Jessica (Jessica Williams) – who, like Issa, is also torn up over a breakup and not ready to date – tells her Tinder match exactly what she wants to say: That she’s not going to hook up with him, and that she wasn’t ever going to.
For anyone who’s endured a slog of a Tinder-arranged date, these scenes rip open the stiffness and awkwardness of internet dating in a cathartic way. But what about the people who have actually met their partners online? Or people who are earnestly trying to swipe their way to love? There are far fewer pop culture options they can relate to. “Either online dating is laughable, or it’s not part of the story,” said Stewart.
A recent movie by Drake Doremus, Newness, which was released in November 2017, is one of the few works of pop culture to explore the formation of a relationship that grows from a late-night, dating app-facilitated hookup. And it’s also an example of why these movies are so hard to pull off. The two protagonists, played by Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa, initially had their status set to “hooking up” on the fictional app Winx when they met. The two beautiful humans spend the rest of the movie grappling with monogamy, wondering whether they’re ready to give up all that (the freedom and endless options of the app) for this (the finality of one person). For those navigating the dating app landscape, theirs is a very relatable struggle — but watching people decide to settle is not a particularly gripping narrative.
Newness centers on one common use of dating apps: hooking up. But dating, the process of actively and earnestly seeking a romantic connection through an internet dating service, is represented less frequently. Aside from a brilliant episode of Black Mirror called “Hang the DJ” (which, notably, was set in an alternate reality), internet dating with positive results is absent from pop culture.
“I don’t think current film, TV, and literature have accurately conveyed what online dating is like,” said Stauffer. “The portrayal always tends to be this series of monotonous, repetitive, bad date after bad date. There’s an overemphasis on the crummy dates, and I don’t think that’s so true to life.”
In the future – aside from seeing her own book adapted into a TV show — Stauffer would like to see a pop culture landscape in which storylines of internet dating coexisted with people meeting in the real world. As in: More accurately reflect real life, in which internet dating can be hard, but not always universally disastrous. We partially see that, already, on a show like Insecure. Molly (Yvonne Orji), Issa’s friend, online dates. But Insecure, like most other shows, does tend to prioritize the connections Molly makes in person over the guys she meets online, who are uniformly disappointing.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before a character meets their lasting SO online. Can we expect the baby boomers behind Love and She’s Gotta Have It — shows about the modern dating experience — to actually get the modern dating experience? Realistically, 21st century Nola Darling would’ve been swiping away. Maybe when the gatekeepers change, the art will change, too. “Gen Z is expecting to do online dating. They just grew up with it. As we see that generation start to make more media and movies, we’ll see things that look more like internet dating really looks like,” Stewart posited.
And with a more seamless visual integration could come, perhaps, a more varied and realistic dating landscape in TV and movies, where the funny coexists with the fantastic; where, once in a while, something more than a cringe-worthy story actually comes of Tinder.
*names have been changed