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First Dates: Funny Kind of “Reality”

2015 March 7
by Zoe Strimpel
Electric? No, this is staged lust, with the makeup to prove it.

Electric? No, this is staged lust, with the makeup to prove it.

I always wonder how “reality” tv can possibly be “reality” when the presence of cameras and audience is known, producers have made you up within an inch of your life and you’ve got a mic hanging from your neck. Big Brother is simply bizarre. Aren’t they all doing it because they’re on camera? So it’s not really “reality” TV, but “reality with a camera and massive audience” TV. Which isn’t the same.

In the “reality” setting, I can imagine being filmed perusing wildlife or property. But performing first-date emotion, partaking in the curious power ping pong and evaluative poker-facery that goes hand in hand with sizing up a mate over unwanted food? That’s the mystery behind Channel 4’s First Dates, whose third season premiered last night. It’s billed as though we’re really watching what first dates are like – something that TV critics seem to find “beautiful” and “excruciating”. But they’ve not been out on the dating block for a while. Because then they’d know that first dates without cameras and national audience are quite a lot different from first dates with them. Snippets of overdetermined camera-awareness, like the slow eating of olives by the much-hyped Frankie, are rife. For instance, she does that thing where women bite the olive from the toothpick in a way that it sits right in the centre of her tongue, about halfway up, so her whole mouth is open before she closes her lips around it. It’s like a pre-blow job mouth enclosing that olive. Nobody does that in REAL reality.

Which is why I find it odd to read articles in Radio Times, the Guardian, The Mirror and Metro today following last night’s show that eulogize the authenticity and therefore the fascination of the dates. Frankie and Mouhala, in particular, are widely agreed to have cataclysmic sexual energy. Frankie giggled and sucked olives; made comments about taking off her clothes. She said she liked to eat chocolate and therefore she liked to date chocolate (eg black men).  Mouhala did this terrible grin-fake-bashful thing and went into the bathroom to talk to a female friend on the phone, describing Frankie’s big boobs. Erm – it looked to me like two porn stars limbering up for a paid gig scheduled long ago, not two people with genuine sexual energy…

After the show I googled it and found that an editor I’ve worked with in the past, Rosie Mullender at Cosmo, actually appeared on the show. There was quite a touching account from both her and her date on the Cosmo website that implied it was enjoyable. The cameras was noticed but seemed not to have been the main event. Maybe there is a kind of reality that can take place, then, in the full glare of self-conscious performativity. Some people don’t seem phased by it. For me, though, reality kicks in when the cameras go and nobody’s watching, at all.


40kpd dating app: how an obsession with “money” overtook “class”

2015 February 20
by Zoe Strimpel
"Validated": this man £60k.

“Validated”: this man earns £60k.

Academia does not generally have a laxative effect on writing. Conscious that I have not written anything glibly flowing and (naturally) concise for ages, I am worried that I am becoming constipated by a dawning awareness/fear of the millions of things already written about every thought I have. A chorus of scholars in my head now suggests thousands of different ways to evaluate/contextualise/frame any given topic, sentiment, observation, urge to write. Sentences are now perilous. Thoughts are heretic if they bear close resemblance to unsupported claims.

Still, can’t let that sort of thing slow one down. The GOOD thing about my PhD about history of modern courtship is that it’s putting all sorts of absolute treasures my way. As I slowly work my way through the likes of City Limits, Singles and newspapers of the 1970s, I pay close attention to class and gender. Naturally, when you go back to its newspapers, the past seems hilariously other. On a basic level there’s ratio of print to pictures, the shite quality of the pictures when they did appear, and the utter minuteness of the print. More substantially, terrible gender stereotypes are unabashedly present in all discussions of success, career, sex, marriage, dating, money. For example, a very typical piece in Singles Magazine, the mag put out by Dateline, the computer dating business, runs thus: “This is the sad story of a middle aged divorcee who is desperately lonely: Unwanted women understanding men”. A profile of pop singer Lynsey De Paul is headlined: “Even gorgeous and talented girls can be lonely”. Numerous stories talk of gold digging women; women themselves talk about using male money to get ahead/live well. Classified ads routinely begin with “male company director, owner of Jaguar, educated, seeks similar”. Money, education and class – these things are not considered embarrassing criteria for a mate in 1977. They are spelled out with hilarious clarity.

But here’s the thing. Nothing has changed. If anything it’s got worse. The mediated dating scene still relies on masculinist, classist (although it’s not really class anymore, but rather some ersatz amalgam of branded education and salary – sorry scholars, bit of a wild unsupported claim that I nonetheless stand by) branding. It’s so blatant it’s embarrassing but what is extraordinary is that even though the product is a mobile app responding to Tinder, it feels more 1970s than the 2015.

Behold 40kpd: an app where men have to earn 40k per year minimum but women don’t have any salary required. It may be that women want men to support them or pay their way. I think it’s that men still want to be richer than women. Just like they have to be older, taller, stronger and in front. For instance, in a new Lovestruck ad on the Tube showing a couple laughingly cycling, man firmly in front. I asked Simon if he could imagine the woman being in front in the picture and he said no. Nor could I. The nature of the past, and of past-ness, begs fascinating questions. Change and continuinty and even regression are so co-embedded that despite such seemingly enormous changes in form as provided by the rise of digital and mobile, function appears to have been fossilised. We are different and we are the same. In fact we’re older than we used to be – the wording and tone of a 40kpd type of service ventriloquises the matrimonial ads of the 1870s more than it does the 1970s.

London’s throat is non-stop rammed full

2014 November 7
by Zoe Strimpel
This is the light and ceiling decoration above drinkers at the Gilbert Scott near St Pancras.

This is the light and ceiling decoration above drinkers at the Gilbert Scott near St Pancras.


London is like a throat – an elegant, devious, old throat – that’s having more and more and MORE shoved down it. London is big and old and clever, so as a throat it expands and contracts basically in accordance to demand with just a few hiccups (persons under trains, commuter rage, soaring prices, alienation of those who would like to live here but can’t afford it, the odd flash mob action). Like a throat, too (or like a vagina, at that), it pushes all sorts of things out. Coughs, undigested food, breath, life-force (NB: I am not saying vaginas expel food). What it pushes out makes more things want to rush down it because enough of it is awesome.

There is a lot of money sloshing down London’s throat, as we all know. In a world constantly throwing up the horrors that are outlined in bolded and gigantic font in the local and national papers (murder, financial ruin, international terrorism) the worlds (which is to say, the lifeworlds, the people) rushing through London’s commercial sub-gullets, its food and drink stations, its retail meccas, seem remarkably HAPPY. They’re all pairs of young women and groups of Gucci shoe-clad men (or expensively-hooded hipsters) bloody downing champagne or expensive local pale ales….they’re all ordering meat plates and tucking into hazelnut mousse and foie gras and coiffing £12 cocktails/nibbling Levantine olives while they wait for a seat in Palomar! The money is flowing into the purses of these people and these people are numerous enough to completely block up, a bit like killer constipation, hundreds of restaurants in London each night. Not all are in their 20s. Some are in their 30s and 40s and even the olds are out in numbers – my parents, by contrast, were pretty far from hitting up scenester restaurants when I was growing up.

Next to me right now are two women, about my age or younger. Maybe four years younger – 28. They aren’t models or anything but they are really pretty – insanely glowing skin and extremely restrained eyeliner bringing out their large blue-green eyes, their long and luscious locks gilding their English (sadly, retreating) jawlines. They’re young and smartly dressed. They’re also on the champagne, which is from £13 a glass here (the Gilbert Scott, with its glorious gilded frescoed ceiling). I am here because I’m in a bit of a fuck-it mood, but am on the free, jar-contained and extremely greasy popcorn and the house white at £6 a glass. It’s a lot, I know.

Ok so they’re young, they’re drinking champagne at 5pm ensuring they aren’t lawyers or bankers, and they have all the money in the world to chin-chin when they want. I can tell they are doing this as a basic nice way to pass the time. This is not a special treat.

I see students – those famed rich students, I guess, who flock to London and whose parents buy them luxury flats in Mayfair- eating sushi in the sunshine at lunch. I don’t think today’s students have heard of bringing your own crap but cheap lunch in the form of brown rice and baked beans. Even my cousin, whose degree at UCL is courtesy of a loan, is living in a flat in King’s Cross I could not afford with my boyfriend.

In front of the girls are a pair who can’t be more than 21. The guy has long greasy hair and is wearing a tie and they’re drinking cocktails (£14 a pop).

Back in Lewisham, where I live (well, Brockley), there’s less glitz, just a lot of traffic.

But house prices are still raging, and people who lived there when it was crap, many of them West Indian, are enjoying the insane prices – many, many BMWs pass our flat on Upper Brockley Road.

I don’t get how you reconcile it – the deprivation, the doomsday headlines, the casual champagne among 20 somethings all over London (just on Weds I was at Brawn with a friend who is now a publishing bigwig – she earned it by a big slog – and there were two 20-something women next to us attired as hipsters but eating and spending like aristocrats). Everyone seems in on some secret big reserve of cash. They flood, they surge, in their millions through London Tube’s turnstiles spending at least £90 a week for the privilege. Rich people have a lot of money, but so – it appears – does everyone else. They’re certainly spending, queuing up to throw their dosh down that big throat, London.

The champagne drinkers have got their bill and the discussion is ensuing about splitting. The dewiest-skinned one is insisting on taking it all. She’s sweet, but something tells me this isn’t the last champagne of the evening.

Party on, London. I feel quite without breath, caught between the avalanches of cash and the surging people everywhere, spending, spending and playing, playing on their phones.

Tinder has, apparently, found the “key” to online dating. What BS

2014 October 31
by Zoe Strimpel


Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Tinder's founders, currently attributed with "cracking" the mystery of human attraction. This jury, for one, is out

Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Tinder’s founders, currently attributed with “cracking” the mystery of human attraction. This jury, for one, is out

The latest NYT article about a certain dating app that begins with the letter T has gone right ahead and added to the swelling compost heap of male-oriented buzz and money circulating around that app. It’s also gone and added to that merry discourse about what is “the key to online dating” – a set of conversations that has to be one of the world’s most pointless, and yet one of its most popular, at least where weekend newspaper fillers are concerned.

The article, by (the man) Nick Bilton, starts with his rather superfluous – but no doubt pleasurable – observation about models entering the Tinder building in Hollywood. Evidently, a modelling agency shares a building with Tinder offices (a coincidence?), and Bilton is there, waiting for a meeting with Tinder “executives” who, judging from the “boardroom” picture by Kendrick Brinson, are all male. That tallies with what I thought. (The app has employed a female in-house “dating and relationship expert”, Jessica Carbino, with whom I communicated last year when she was finishing a PhD thesis on online dating at UCLA. Her title as “expert”, though, does not suggest executive function. Please let her correct me if I’m wrong.)

Anyway, the models spark the metaphor with which Bilton, our eye on Tinder’s genius, opens and closes the piece. The models, fascinatingly enough, are wearing cut-off jean shorts and flip flops when they enter the building, then transform, like magic!, into models ready for a shoot, complete with “globs of lip gloss”.

So this models-change-clothes insight was used to contextualise new findings – namely, that Tinder has figured it all out. Tinder understands that people base all pick-up decisions on looks. But! Stop press, not looks in the purely attractiveness sense, but looks in terms of visual clues.

Stop press one more time. When singles walk into a bar, they aren’t asked to fill in compatibility forms. They just look around and then pick someone to talk to based on a mishmash of signs about their comportment and appearance. And – how’s this for nuance? – just because a guy or gal is hot doesn’t mean they’ll get picked up – after all, they might be scary and evoke the rejection ding dong.

Where experts, such as Dr Eli Finkel, a regular on the psychology of digital dating comment circuit, say Tinder beats the usual dating sites is that it “acknowledges [like the experts!] that the only thing that matters when matching lovers is someone’s picture”.

I honestly can’t tell you where the models fit into this – something about how you can have two personas; one online and one off. But it doesn’t matter. Because Tinder’s popularity is nothing to do with scientists figuring out that all clues are based on pictures. If that was the case, then normal internet dating sites would work just as well since daters can browse all they like.

Nor does it matter that Tinder’s platform provides something closer to “real life” in this mythical bar that people used to (indeed apparently still do) meet people when they aren’t dating online. Tinder, indeed the whole array of digital interfaces, including virtual reality, are NOT OFFLINE LIFE. They present a different material reality; a different texture; different philosophies, modes of being, and different affordances (ie, things that let you do things like select or click or message).

What people forget is that the point of dating apps, or online dating, is to provide an alternative or an accessory to real life. In real life you can’t flick through someone’s face dismissively even if you want to. There’s no “nope” stamp, in just those words, in real life. You have to pretend to go to the bathroom.

And people like that online-ness. It’s other. It’s fun. It’s when you meet up that things tend to get less fun.

The other big thing it’s to do with that isn’t “cracking the key” to attraction or whatever, is EASE. Tinder is so goddamn easy. And with lives ever-fuller of registration and Pay Pal account set ups that are an arse to complete, Tinder is a piece of cake.

Never mind that once you get on it, the array of human life presenting itself pictorially is something to regard with sobriety as well as humour.

Now, the people that REALLY are understanding what offline life is off are the less-publicised, soon to launch Pozee app, which is as simple as Tinder. It’s business is to alert you to other singles in your proximity – the only info members give is that they’re single and up for meeting someone. You can then look at them and decide whether to say hi. And according to these guys, far more plausibly than all the gumph about pictoral clues, knowing someone else is single and on the market is leads to chat. And with Pozee, as an alert system, you can pursue the person through face-to-face interaction, without which – am I right? – it’s hard to actually get the love, dates and sex that all those Tinderites say they’re after.

(NB: I wanted to end with that flourish, but then I thought, hmm, Pozee could lead to some fairly painful encounters – imagine the types that might come up to you on the train and sit down in the seat next to you…and there’s still 36 minutes to go till London Bridge! No, this definitely wasn’t what you had in mind…)




“And breathe! Not long now!” A phonecall with Apple Support

2014 October 20
by Zoe Strimpel

Getting help from Apple Support often feels like what I imagine birth coaching to be. Especially the two-hour session I had this morning – I mean, some women go from contractions to birth in two hours, right?

I’ll spare you the details of the phone call, but its origins lay in the fact that my phone obstinately and immediately rejects the definitely, now-memorised-it’s-been-entered-correctly-so-many-times password for my home Sky broadband.The agent and I worked together to troubleshoot. Perhaps at this stage the metaphor with birth isn’t quite ripe – though there was the “let’s try everything rather than declare this iPhone faulty” vibe throughout, which could, if one were feeling insensitive, be analogous to the “let’s do everything to avoid an emergency C-Section” thing.

But to my phone call. For two hours this morning, from the moment I answered the phone while still in bed to the moment I showered mid-way through while iTunes was downloading an update to the moment the agent told me in mystified tones that I’d need a brand new iPhone 6, we troubleshot.

And boy did we troubleshoot. There was so much trouble, you see.

I had to download lots of new updates – apparently, a ten-day old iPhone 6 has old software. The agent was sure this would be the ticket.

I hoped along with her, though had my doubts. At two hours for the download and various tinkerings, the stakes were high. I mean, time isn’t just money, time – poorly spent – is sanity-busting.

My emotions went up and down. Sometimes, I felt excited at signs of my technology functioning properly – the “about 20 minutes remaining” bar getting slightly smaller; the iPhone duly shutting down and starting up with its new update installed.

But then something bad would happen, or nothing at all – a box would appear on my computer saying everything had stopped and could not continue because my disk was full (deleting Sense and Sensibility helped relieve this problem but took a long time – it was a major set back). My coach, I mean, agent, tried to keep me calm and my spirits up, saying things like: “Almost there” and “Sometimes it’s like this” and “I’m confident the current update will work”.

And when the two hour session climaxed, and – with the updates installed satisfactorily all round – we tried the internet connection again with baited breath on my side and confident reassurance on hers, it was all smash bang, catastrophe, nothing doing, same same same: “INCORRECT PASSWORD” spat out immediately.

It was time for the unwanted but unavoidable emergency measure: go to an Apple store and get a replacement iPhone.

The thing with a birth is that after all that time and the emergency measure, you have something to show for it. A new person.

The thing with a malfunctioning iPhone 6 is that you have much, much less to show for it. On the plus side you have enough information to merit a swapped phone. As for the rest, you’ve only lost time, you’ve installed an update in a phone you won’t have in five days, and you’re paying for every second of it all.

I think I’d actually prefer to give birth than go through another morning on the phone with an Apple coach – encouraging as mine was.