There may be no lexicon more complicated and defined by its nuance than the one used to describe teenagers’ dating patterns. The struggle to define a relationship in commonly understood language once led a friend of mine to label someone “not my girlfriend,” which of course also meant “not not my girlfriend.” Each term comes with its own set of socially loaded connotations, adult speculation, and moral panic, none more than the one most used to describe my own generation: “hookup”.

This is a graph of the appearance of these phrases in English-language books from 1940 to 2008.*

There’s an easy way to read this chart, and it goes something like: “Wonk wonk wonk wonk decline in monogamous relationships wonk wonk kids these days wonk decline in values wonk wonk sluts.” One (of many) problem with this theory is that the best stats we have on teen sexual behavior don’t back it up. According to the National Survey of Family Growth (which actually has a pretty strong methodology as these things go), between 1995 and 2002, the only teen sub-group whose sexual activity didn’t decline was African American women. There was a staggering (almost disturbing, to be frank) nine percent drop in sexual activity among teenage men. Yet on the graph, this is where the discursive shift is, where “hooking up” overtakes “going steady.” I don’t think this a case of mere substitution – use of the term “dating” has stayed more or less constant since the early 80’s. If teen sexual activity has actually decreased, then the change in descriptive terms describes something other than society’s moral degeneration. What the graph does give us is somewhere to look, namely 1994-95, when the two lines cross. Luckily, I have a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of one cultural product of the time in question: Boy Meets World.

The sitcom about the Matthews family began in 1993 and ran until May 2000, capturing the segment on the graph of convergence and divergence. I’m going to look at a particular episode, “Pairing Up” in season two (1994), in which the brothers Cory and Eric learn “important lessons” about dating.

The problematic of the episode is this world of dating Cory discovers, girls are suddenly there in a new way. When Cory’s best friend Shawn suggests he ask out “the new girl,” I understand the character, who isn’t given a name until much later, as a synecdoche for all girls. The “new girl” is a recurring character in the show, but with the constant play of identities (Shawn telling the substitute he’s a 21 Jump Street style cop, later in the series Topanga shows up at a dance pretending to be a French exchange student), she may not be geographically novel so much as new as an identity. There’s something carnivalesque to the way the young characters experience their budding sexualities and developing personas at the same time.  It’s a story that is at least as old as Proust, but as a sitcom devoted to a particular episode structure, Boy Meets World gives us a nice view of the ideological elements at play.

When Cory asks out Topanga, she rejects him ostensibly because of their friendship, but she leans in explanation toward novelty – “Is there someone else?” “There’s everyone else.” Dating, she explains, is best practiced with people you don’t already know, because of the contradictory emotions involved. It’s her way of saying she’s not looking for anything long-term, but what then is she looking for?

These relationships are described as extremely fragile and short-term. Rebecca, older brother Eric’s date, goes from trying to get him alone to not wanting to see him at all because Cory walks in on them making out. Even though she turns from aggressive to icy, such a flighty response is portrayed as simple bad luck for Eric, not in the misogynistic rape-culture way we’ve all become accustomed to hearing (“What a crazy bitch, tease” etc.) in the decade and a half since. Her decision is not quite to put an end to something constituted, but rather ending her participation in a game. Rebecca chooses, basically, not to call him back. Nowadays we see this as a gendered pseudo-contractual violation, a mean thing that men do to women, rather than an understandable curiosity about “everyone else.”

The dating advice Eric gives Cory sounds absurd and vaguely douchey (not having to be actually interested in her, the corny adoration, etc.), but grounded in his reactions to Rebecca’s abrupt departure, it’s clear he recognizes girls as active players in the same game, not objectified prey. There’s a distinction between charm and trickery; when Cory asks out the new girl, she’s aware he doesn’t know her a bit (she is, after all, defined by her novelty) but doesn’t mind being told her hair looks nice anyway**. His hyperbole (“The most exquisite hair”) is more akin to flailing than deceit, but it works. She wants to go out with him too, because why not? (“Sure.”)

When Cory explains Eric’s dating strategies to their parents, they are disappointed that he would ask out a girl he doesn’t even know, which is quite the contradictory message. Eric is chastened and made to feel bad for making out with a girl he doesn’t know well, even though we remember that he was just planning on studying in the first place. It is the parents who identify the date with sex. Cory seems to learn the episode’s lesson here, that affection is something you can only honestly feel for people you already know. When he shows up for his date with the new girl, Cory confesses that he (now) feels weird about it being a date, and she agrees and asks if he wants to call it off. But he doesn’t. That is, he still wants to go somewhere and spend time getting to know her, exactly what they were planning to do in the first place, only without the label. The end result is a validation of Eric’s adventurism, despite the moralistic protestations of their parents. Cory learns Wendy’s name on the date, there’s nothing tawdry about it.

The consequence of the anxious parental intervention is Cory’s removal of the label “date.” Their outing becomes, in the dialectical parlance of my friend from the first paragraph, a non-date, impossible to describe in positive terms. If dating becomes something constituted, then teens may engage in basically the same behaviors but describe them differently. If the Eric-Rebecca date were to happen today (she comes over to “study,” they make out instead, she leaves), we’d call it a hookup. I don’t quite have the time to borrow my sister’s collection of teen movies from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but I have a hunch there’s a move toward seeing relationships in the parents’ terms – people who break up, don’t call back, or talk to attractive strangers are villains, while the good character is the one who “really” knows his or her beloved. Better the obsessive stranger than the charming one***.

Back to the chart: The decline of “going steady” doesn’t necessarily reflect a decline in steady relationships, it could be an indication of the opposite. If casual dating – a constituent process rather than the marriage-modeled “steady” relationship – declined as such, then there’d be little use for the term that describes its alternative. That is, there would be no need to differentiate, going steady becomes the whole of dating. Gradually, any non-steady relationship becomes so illegitimate that it ceases to exist discursively. (Who wants to be the jerk/slut who goes out with a different person every week? Who will admit to it?) Think of how Facebook alone eliminates the discursive space of casual dating. In its place we have “hooking up” the shamed version for teens with a lot less time and lot fewer public spaces than the ones who came before them.

This all strikes me as a rotten shame. Casual dating is, in a lot of ways, much healthier for young people than the intense contractual model. Not being tied to the relationship as object makes it easier for teens to get only as involved as they feel comfortable doing without being made to think of themselves as unloving or insensitive failures. There’s also good evidence that the “boyfriend story” about the one person who knows and loves you puts young women at elevated risk of dating violence. But perhaps most importantly, casual dating as showcased in this episode is more about exploring the world than defining it, about trying on different selves rather than settling into one. It seems unfair, almost cruel, to privilege the latter over the former.

*Of course this is a ridiculous quantitative basis for the speculations that ensue, but if people like graphs, then they can have some graphs.
**There’s something terrible in the way we have constructed unsolicited compliments as socially inappropriate, as if kids didn’t hear enough unsolicited insults to balance it out anyway.
***”You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, She’s upset
She’s going off about something that you said
She doesnt get your humor like I do
I’m in the room, its a typical Tuesday night
I’m listening to the kind of music she doesn’t like
And she’ll never know your story like I do

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