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Why Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari became a bestseller

2016 April 6
by Zoe Strimpel

Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (Penguin, 2015)

 

This was the guy that was needed to create a research-led book about dating that people actually want to read....

This was the guy that was needed to create a research-led book about dating that people actually want to read….

 

 

 

 

 

 

When did ‘modern’ heterosexual love in the Anglosphere begin? If it was when people began to place emotional self-fulfilment at the heart romantic relationships, then – in Britain anyway – it was probably in the middle of the 20th century. While American teens were dating more furiously and competitively than ever before, young British men and women were, according to historian of love Claire Langhamer, undergoing ‘a revolution’ in their intimate bonds. This meant that women in particular were beginning to expect more out of love, and on both sides of the Atlantic, desired ingredients in husbands might now include the ability to make one deeply happy, to facilitate personal growth, and to deliver sex that was symptomatic of these things. The seeds for biting marital dissatisfaction were thus sown, especially among women, and when fused with divorce reform in 1969 in both Britain and parts of the US, Anglo-American divorce soared, more than doubling in the 1970s. Meanwhile, post-Pill, sex attained a level of visibility that threatened to push love – of the committed variety anyway – out of the limelight. Long-term and fixed was out, and fluidity and emancipation was in. Thus sociologists like refer to the ‘democratisation’ and ‘liquification’ of post-Pill love bonds in the nebulous ‘west’.

And when the dust had settled on the powerful confluence of the Pill and the Women’s Liberation Movement, the 1980s happened, with their further emphasis on individual needs, pleasures and profit. All of which laid the perfect groundwork for the arrival of US-led Internet dating in the mid-1990s, a platform for mate-searching that invited control, efficiency and an emphasis on tailored tastes, from waist size to income. By 2013, though, the personality tests, wordy profiles and literal box-ticking of internet dating had been eclipsed by the most individualist tool yet for finding love: the internet-enabled, private mobile phone. Now, as in the infamous scene described in a September Vanity Fair piece about Tinder and the ‘dating apocalypse’, singles swig mojitos and champagne cocktails in metropolitan bars after work, together but engrossed in their private screens, consuming the next bit of excitement before it’s even happened. This is the world of Azis Ansari’s Modern Romance, a world full of ‘middle-class people…who have quite intense and intimate relationships with their expensive smartphones.’

Ansari is not a social scientist, he is a comedian, and personal experience is his main fodder. Thus his book – in fact like most dating books, from bestsellers Data, A Love Story: How I Cracked the Online Dating Code to Meet My Match (2013) to He’s Just Not That Into You (2004) – is rooted in personal experience. Ansari’s was the sense of wonder following the intensity of the ‘madness’ he experienced after a woman he’d ‘hooked up with’ went quiet mid text interchange (‘I know she held my words in her hand!!! Did Tanya fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano?’).  However, to validate the ‘an investigation’ sub-clause of the book’s title, he roped in a sociologist, co-author Eric Klinenberg. Also because ‘I, bozo comedian Aziz Ansari, probably couldn’t tackle this topic on my own, and I decided to reach out to some very smart people to guide me’. Klinenberg no doubt made the data bit of the book happen, and perhaps provided its relatively tight structure, but Ansari – who narrates – is clearly the selling point. Known for his roles on the NBC series Parks and Recreation and Netflix’s Master of None, Ansari also does patchily amusing but cultishly followed standup, replete with jokes about nightmare dating scenarios. His audience frequently share their own dating horror stories and ill-omened texts, sometimes handing over their phones to Ansari while he’s on stage. So he knew more than most about the current temperature of contemporary dating in urban America (and thus more or less in urban Britain, which roughly follows its big sister across the pond in courtship mores) before he even set up his evidence base for this book. This centres on a subreddit feed called Modern Romantics, which prompted thousands of comments from around the world, and focus groups of young daters in several American and global cities, including New York, Doha and Tokyo.

The problem with treating contemporary dating as a topic of study is that it can all feel heavy-handed and rather dull fairly quickly. This is because the supporting ‘data’ is either unreliable – often sponsored by dating companies such as Match and EHarmony (including some used by Ansari) – or simply uninteresting. Do we need a study to tell us that people sometimes misrepresent themselves in their profiles, or that men prefer the photos of smaller, larger-breasted women who look upwards at the camera? Dan Slater got around this flatness in his well-researched Love in the Time of Algorithms by delving into the industry as well as the behavioural codes of online dating. And Ansari gets around it by being a short Indian-American funny guy who is obsessed with food – themes which temper the proposed seriousness of the book and imbue its data with essential colour. Numerous droll footnotes, iPhone text bubbles and absurd photos of imagined participants in various dating scenarios are good conveyors of wit, keeping in view the comic potential in all human attempts at intimacy. Ansari is good at making his data and even his methodology (the subreddit and the focus groups) fun. He manages to make a potentially tiresome series of oral histories with elderly folk at a ‘senior center’ in Brooklyn both extremely amusing and, as it turns out, rather revealing too. Armed with doughnuts to seduce the pensioners into sharing their romantic stories with him (‘sure enough, when the seniors caught a whiff of doughnuts, they were quick to pull up chairs and start answering our questions’), he unearths a striking historical change. Most of them married the first person who came along and was a decent sort, which meant someone nearby, in the same street or even same building. To furnish what the ‘seniors’ told him, Ansari digs up a 1932 Philadelphia study of 5,000 marriage licenses, showing that one-third of married couples had lived within five blocks before meeting; one in eight had lived in the same building. ‘Think about where you grew up as a kid, your apartment building or your neighbourhood. Could you imagine being married to one of those clowns?’

Ansari quickly leaves behind ancient history, moves to a potted history of love since the doughnut-munching pensioners were young (‘a growing number of women refused to marry the guy in their neighbourhood or building’) and then opens up the fruits of his subreddit questions. First up is an illustration of the most saccharine, narcissistic aspects of the discourse of romantic aspiration centred on ‘the meaningful relationship’.[1] Respondents volunteer telling details signifying soul mate suitability that are painfully far from the doughnut brigade’s matter-of-fact ‘he’ll do’ attitude. In response to a question from Ansari/Klinenberg about how people knew a partner was ‘the right one for you’, one woman said: ‘The first moment I truly remember falling in love with my boyfriend was when I was singing Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love of All’ under my breath to myself while we were studying near each other and then he started singing it at the top of his lungs’; another said, ‘He is stunning, and I am amazed by him every single day. He’s made me a better person for having known and loved him. Five years going strong and I’m still obsessed with him…’

 

Ohh, modern love....

Ohh, modern love….

The book excels when Ansari drills down into the particularity of the technological media through which people date and dump; this is also the easiest terrain for him as a comedian. Chapter Two is devoted to ‘the initial ask’, which broaches the controversy over whether calling or texting is better. The attachment to text as a messenger of romantic intent is revealing. ‘Phone-calls suck and they give me anxiety’ said one 24-year old, while another pointed out that, ‘since texting started, an actual phone call feels like an emergency.’ These comments resonate with a major 2015 Pew survey suggesting a quarter of American youth are ‘constantly’ on their phones; since more British youngsters own phones than Americans, the figure is assumed to be higher here. Two-thirds of all adults in Britain and the US owning a smart phone too: commuter trains at rush hour are silent, everyone hunched over their device. Even a mundane telephone call breaks the peace and attracts dirty looks. What kind of position would a romantic conversation put the receiver in?

Ansari is right to highlight ‘the insanely fast transformation in the way we communicate’ through the stark difference in age group attitudes towards phone calls (over half of over-30s prefer the phone call for asking someone out while only 23 per cent of the under 30s do – though even that seems surprisingly many). This in turn is interesting because it stresses the evolution of different skills – making a witty phone-call required a courage and nimble thinking that can be completely circumvented through text. And the messages the younger generation might, when they’re older, think suitable for text boggle the mind. ‘Hey its Dr Sampson,’ imagines Ansari, ‘bad news – you got cancer in your testicles L’. But Ansari – who avoids simplistic judgements of any particular technology or style – notes that texting is good for letting daters play a very important, psychologically-verified card, that of making the other person wait. Cutting the text conversation off mid-flow can create such anxiety in the other party that it can turn disinterest into sharp interest.

After texting comes internet dating but Ansari’s heart is not in it – he’s a phone man. The usual potted history is offered, from 1960s computer dating (erroneously called ‘early internet dating’ by Ansari – there was nothing online about those IBM mainframe, punchcard-operated services), to lonely hearts ads with their complicated, expensive voice mail services and video dating in the 1980s, followed by the emergence of Match.com in 1995 and the amazing numbers of people who use internet dating (here he reproduces the stale 2013 figure that a third of American marriages today began online; Pew recently drastically downsized the figure to say that only five per cent of married Americans have met online). Ansari seems more interested in a series of comic pictures of pretend internet daters and even a pretend Aziz Ansari stalker, depicted by a stock photo of an ‘Indian dude’ at a laptop. This section does, however, point out another peculiarly contemporary result of digital life: fatigue from endless arranging and too-little meeting. Focus group interviews revealed some world-weary views: one 27-year old said she’d cancelled her Tinder and OkCupid accounts because ‘it just takes too long to get to the first date’, prompting Ansari to note that something ‘fun and exciting’ had ‘morphed… into a new source of dread’. Meanwhile, one young man called Arpan had taken to sending out mass ‘douchebag’ messages because he was too ‘tired’ to keep writing out individual messages that would often be rejected or ignored. By contrast, Dinesh shunned internet dating and had a much better life, meeting women at his church, for instance: ‘Compared with what Arpan had just said, Dinesh’s “church and a movie” sounded like “motorcycle race and some sport fucking”’.

The book enters an odd phase after the section on internet dating by going global, with Aziz and Klinenburg visiting different cities and interviewing locals. As with every other aspect of this book, though, Aziz manages to do it better than anyone else has done so far, avoiding the triteness of books like the middling successful Around the World in 80 Dates by Jennifer Cox. Again, this is probably because the critical faculties of a successful comedian are more suited to a fresh treatment of love around the world than those of yet another single girl looking for love. Even so, there is a fair bit of painful simplification here: cities are picked based on their reputations for different kinds of love – Paris for its lax attitude to affairs; Tokyo for its crisis about lack of sexual interest; Buenos Aires for its aggressively courting males and Doha for its sexual restrictiveness. Tokyo is the best section not only because Japanese sex culture is the most markedly interesting to Westerners, with its ‘relationship replacement industry’ (including ‘cuddle cafes’) and the social revulsion towards ‘charai’ (sleazy playboy masculinity), but for an amusing riff on Ansari’s love of and pursuit of ramen. Still, whether Tokyo or Paris, interviewees seem like exotic fish observed from the American aquarium floor.

This is a thorough overview of contemporary dating that both (lightly) tackles broad historical change in communication and mating, and psychological research on human mating behaviour in an age of digitized abundance. But this alone would not have made it a best-seller. Its celebrity oarsman, focus groups ventriloquizing middle classes the world over, and bespoke subreddit, whose thousands of respondents were no doubt drawn to Ansari’s fame, makes it the sole comprehensive analysis of dating today that anyone has much cared to buy. Nonetheless, some of its omissions grate. How revealing can a study of dating be with no attention to socio-economic status, ethnicity, or age at all, when we know that all of those things affect approaches to courtship? But Aziz is a comedian for young, mostly middle class Americans and this book serves that demographic. Its perky, well-meaning conclusion is that while modern technology is generally a boon, we need to remember that those Tinder faces we’re swiping represent humans, and that perhaps there is more to life than checking options on our devices. His key insight, then – that sometimes less is more – has wider resonances for most internet-using citizens today. But any nostalgia for the days when you simply set your cap at the guy or girl in your apartment block because they seemed alright is not encouraged: after all, the chances that they would love Whitney Houston too are very low.

 

 

 

 

[1] David Shumway, Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and the Marriage Crisis, (New York: NYU Press 2003)

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