In the most recent season of Charlie Brooker’s excellent The Twilight Zone meets tech anthology series, Black Mirror, an entire episode is dedicated to dating: specifically the app-driven online variety favored by millennials. In “Hang The DJ,” we meet protagonists that slog through endless hours, months, and years of misery guided by an automated system that “learns” from each doomed relationship and ultimately pairs them with their “perfect match.” But an unspoken question looms throughout the episode: why?
Frank and Amy, the main characters that meet and connect instantly at the start of the episode, are later separated for years by the same system. When they question why they are forced to go through the separation, the disc-shaped pocket machines guiding them chirp cryptically that “Everything happens for a reason.” It turns out — spoiler alert! — that the reason is Frank and Amy are digital copies of real people who were uploaded into the system (a dating app) in order to manually run relationship simulations that determine their compatibility.
But in real life, especially within our capitalist society, the reason we submit ourselves to what I like to call “intentional dating” is generally to convey value. Intentional dating, as in creating internet profiles for dating or deliberately going out with the intention of meeting a significant other versus happenstance dating, wherein you just sort of happen across people you like, is a strange beast: by it’s very concept, it revolves around elevating the idea of a relationship as a coveted thing, one that raises the literal value of the persons inhabiting it. Historically, relationships and marriage have come with a plethora of opportunities, including women arriving with a dowry to establish a household and, more recently, things like cheaper health insurance plans, the rolling over of educational or other federal benefits and subsidies to spouses, tax breaks for married couples and additional tax breaks for those that buy property or have children together. It was the American Dream: boy meets girl, they get married, buy a house, have 1.5 kids and a dog, and barbecue on the weekends. But in an economy where both the housing and job markets have either vanished or moved far from reach, this indeed has become the impossible dream. A particular rail against millennials has been that they refuse to move out of their parents homes, willfully ignoring that crippling student loan debt, skyrocketing rents, especially in cities, and lack of jobs makes it nigh impossible for huge swaths of that population to move out, let alone own property.
In addition to the more financial gains, our collective consciousness also screams about the emotional benefits of marriage and relationships, claiming “marrieds” live longer and are happier and healthier. And although the idea of marriage and relationships in our society has largely changed over time from a business arrangement to a love match, it still maintains the vestiges of both: what is each party bringing to the table? How do they combine to form a more prosperous – i.e. valuable – whole? Oh, and by the way: is this person your one true love? Because, in addition to the material value of being in a romantic relationship or marriage, you also only become a fully realized emotional being in our society by meeting and hopefully reproducing with that “better half,” that “soul mate.”
Over time these ideas in their various manifestations have shaped our collective consciousness to the point where being in romantic relationships, especially ones that end in marriage, children, and homeownership, are directly tied to our social standing and value within society. Sexism and patriarchy also slant this in direct favor of heteronormative relationships and behaviors, such as men being able to “provide” for a wife and family, and wives taking care of home and hearth. Conversely, sexism and patriarchy also contribute to the idea that single men can be perennial bachelors while single women are often stereotyped as lonely spinsters and “cat ladies.” But even men are not fully exempt from the social pressure, as, again, our collective consciousness preaches the benefits of marriage (some studies even claim it reduces the risk of heart disease, the number-one killer of American men).
When you are born into a matrix that determines value based on capital, on whether we reproduce, and get into these government contracts of marriage and mortgages and a white picket fence, it can become difficult to see the actual value of just a plain human life minus the subterfuge.
Psychologist Bella DePaulo coined the term “singlism,” meaning the stigmatization of singles in a society that prizes marriage and relationships, as a direct result of her academic studies on this phenomenon. When it is drilled into us that romantic relationships and marriage, preferably of the heteronormative variety, will make us happy and imbue us with value, it’s only natural for us to believe that we must actively search for relationships. And putting the emphasis on a relationship as a thing to search for, instead of on a person, revolves around the idea that the relationship has more value than the person; and pushed even further, that people in relationships have more value than those not in relationships.
But we don’t need anything external to feel fulfilled or to have value. We should be happy because we live by our principles and our lives are full of our beliefs; that’s self-sustaining/self fulfilling value and self-worth. Relationships do not convey our value as human beings. Nor does biological reproduction, often preached as “necessary” for a family or personal legacy, or for continuing the human race, as if that is our personal obligation. Our present society is set up to deem citizens as worthless if they do not enter into a social contract with the government via marriage, and worthless still if they cannot create little human workers that will grow up to produce capital and plug it back into the system (as I’ve said previously — see The Diminished Value Of Human Life In A Capitalist Society — via our circular and intravenous “free market.”) Society virtually tells us that by doing these things, we now have value. And if you opt out of some of these social constructs, like if you never get married, buy a home, or have children that will generate more capital for the system, then you are punished with lower wages and higher taxes.
When you are born into a matrix that determines value based on capital, on whether we reproduce, and get into these government contracts of marriage and mortgages and a white picket fence, it can become difficult to see the actual value of just a plain human life minus the subterfuge. Reject the notion that outside of relationships your value is nothing. Reject the notion that generating capital of any kind and entering into a social contract of any kind is what gives you value, and that not entering into these social contracts, or even not succeeding at them, makes you a failure.
By the end of the “Hang The DJ” episode, Amy has trudged through several short-lived relationships and one-night stands with guys that would certainly check all the attributes on a list: they’re attractive, well-spoken and leave her generally sexually satisfied. (Jobs are never mentioned in the episode, but there is clear subtext that everyone here appears educated and well dressed, and upon the reveal that all has been simulated, we are surely meant to assume that these are upper class young adults who can easily pay for this advanced application.)
But Amy can’t stop thinking about Frank. When they have one more meeting before their “ultimate pairing,” they agree to run away together, and to hell with the circumstances. Surprise! Rebelling is the final test, proving to the app that they are indeed ultimately compatible. Similarly, in real life, we must run away from the pre-existing system that tells us to date, marry, reproduce and buy property because it is what is expected of us, and because only, we are told, when we complete these practices will we have value in the society.
On the contrary, we have value as singular individuals, and we have value as single people. We have individual value in a marriage, and value as a parent. We have value being childless; value as homeowners, as renters, as couch surfers in our parents basements, and value even when we are homeless. We have value in any and every type of relationship, but especially in the relationship we have with ourselves. Love and community, the rootings of value, the very soil in which it flourishes in, aren’t found exclusively in romance or matrimony or by buying a home on a tree-lined street. Love and community, and thereby value, are wholly present in individuals that practice honesty and authenticity in their interactions with themselves and others, and these are the very qualities that create thriving, healthy societies. They are qualities that produce complex and meaningful connections which may or may not lead to marriage, homes, children, etc; they stand strong in their own power outside of how society deems them valuable. They rebel.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.