The romance of individualism
Ah, Americans love a good romance. It’s our most popular genre of literature. If you consider romantic comedies, it’s one of our most popular genres of film. And there are a plethora of reality TV shows, from “Buy the Dress” to the seemingly unstoppable “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette.” But a huge part of the ideology of romance is the US is not so much about the smoochy smoochy mushy stuff, but about the romance of individualism.
Think about it. How many weddings have you been to where the couple said: We wanted to do something different. So they had their wedding in a falling down farmhouse in Tuscany or a warehouse in Brooklyn. They wore red, or jeans and tee shirts. They hiked a mountain or got married underwater. I have a friend whose daughter is trying to get married- as in perform the ceremony- while skydiving.
And the wedding isn’t the only place to display the romance of individualism. Proposals are getting increasingly elaborate and “unique.” In fact, potential grooms are told that if they don’t propose in a unique way, they will regret it for the rest of their lives. According to RomanceTips,
After all, you want the proposal to be very original and memorable. You want her to marvel at your creativity and planning. After all, you only ask someone to marry you once. You want her to have a great story to tell to her mother, girlfriends, and, someday, your children.
The increasingly elaborate proposal now must involve a trip somewhere, or a thousand candles in the backyard, or skywriting, or a nationally televised sporting event, or anything that marks the groom as “unique” and “creative.” One of the interesting things about the “traditional” marriage proposal as we know it, the down on bended knee in a restaurant, is it was invented by the diamond industry as a way to mark the diamond as a not everyday item, as sacred if you will. Prior to the 1940s, proposals were between grooms and prospective father-in-laws and did not involve an elaborate ritual. But with the increasing popularity of the diamond engagement ring, in part because of the brilliance of DeBeers’ “Diamonds are forever” advertising campaign, the diamond sellers thought they should sell a special way of presenting their goods. In order to really sell us the ritual, DeBeers didn’t just sell it in ads, but convinced Hollywood to put the bended knee proposal into their movies.
And now the “uniqueness” of our romances must be displayed not just in the weddings themselves and the proposals, but in the ritual “first date.” According to a story in today’s New York Times, a new dating site allows single New Yorkers to propose their first date rather than the usual dating profiles of “likes” and “dislikes.” The first dates proposed are not only highly idiosyncratic, but they tend to happen in waves. In other words, the hip, young New Yorkers looking for the perfectly individualistic romance are doing the exact same things as other hip young New Yorkers looking for the same thing.
New data from a Web site suggests that not only do many people plan similar dates, but like lemmings, they also collectively migrate from one theme to the next. In March, scores of New Yorkers opted to have their first dates over tacos: fish tacos, dried cricket tacos, taco tours of Brooklyn, even post-surfing tacos at Rockaway Beach in Queens. But by month’s end, tacos went out of vogue, and fondue became the fare of choice for first dates. In mid-April, singles relinquished their cheese forks and embraced bring-your-own-beer dates instead. A few weeks later, outings for lobster rolls were all the rage. By mid-May daters cooled on lobster rolls and were eating oysters.
The interesting thing is not that primarily educated, primarily white, primarily young New Yorkers would all engage in the same sort of activities. Sociologists have shown over and over again that our position in the social world determines our “taste.” What’s interesting is that they are so committed to seeing romance, the most formulaic of undertakings, as a chance to express individualism.
Avoiding romance in the US at this point in time is a bit like avoiding taxes. The government grants us rights and privileges based on marital status (over a 1,000 of them). Gay and lesbian Americans, at least the ones who are primarily white and educated themselves, fight bitterly for the “right” to marry. Most of our culture is obsessed with “true love” and “happily ever after.” And so, even though most Americans are in fact unmarried, those of us who are part of the ruling romantic elite- or at least would like to be- do what everyone is supposed to do:
We go on a date, fall in love, get married.
At some level of the cultural unconscious, we know we are in fact doing exactly what is expected of us, what everyone ought to be doing. And so, we attempt to both march lockstep with the ruling ideology of romance and simultaneously mark it as “our own.” Imagine lemmings each in a different brightly colored wig as they fall off the cliff that is true love.