When a book about romantic love is called “Love, Inc.,” the reader is forewarned: This is not your typical love story. Author and Middlebury College professor Laurie Essig calls herself a romantic. On the first page of “Love, Inc.,” she says, “I fervently believe in happily ever after and true love always.” But she has a big problem with romance.
At a time when the world is besieged with catastrophic problems, from climate change and dangerous political ideologies to the concentration of wealth in the wallets of the few and dire economic prospects for the many, people are looking to love as the answer. Love, we are told, is magical. Find it, and we will live happily ever after.
Essig argues that the prevailing story of love – the story we are told in fairy tales, movies, and books, starting in childhood and never stopping – has it all wrong. “It is our unshakable belief in the magic of romance that is making us miserable. The privatized future offered by Love, Inc., disconnects us from a larger sense of community even as it takes a lot of our time, energy, and money, which could be better spent creating a social safety net for all. The real danger to our happiness is to believe that love is all we need. Such a belief blinds us to the larger world around us even as it lulls us into a false sense of security.”
Although people from all stations of life are seduced by the promises of romantic love, romance is packaged and sold in ways that are not at all democratic. “As an ideology, romance teaches us that certain people (mostly white, mostly straight, mostly well-off, and mostly normatively gendered) deserve happily ever after, as well as full citizenship and extra rights and privileges from the state.”
The title, “Love, Inc.,” hints at another important theme – the close connection between romance and consumer capitalism. Romance sells stuff. Weddings, Essig notes, are a $55 billion per year industry in the US and $300 billion globally. The typical wedding now costs about $37,000, including about $4,000 just for the honeymoon. The hyping of marriage (which I call “matrimania”) and the selling of romance has not bought us much. As Essig notes, “Given how much money, time, and political energy we devote to romance, the US should be the happiest place on earth, a real-world Magic Kingdom, but that’s not how things turned out.”
The chapters in “Love, Inc.” follow the trajectory of romantic love as it is meant to unfold over the course of our lives. In chapter 1, “Learning to Love,” Essig shows how we are taught the lessons of Love, Inc., from the Disney movies of our childhood to the Twilight series in our tween years and on to Fifty Shades of Grey in adulthood. The second chapter, “Finding Love,” is, as the subtitle explains, “a modern tale of dating, Tindering, OKCupiding, ghosting, and generally putting yourself out there.” In chapter 3, “Marry Me?”, readers are treated to a lively account of how we got to the spectacle that marriage proposals, and even prom proposals, have become. After that, it is on to “White Weddings” in chapter 4, “The Honeymoon” in chapter 5, then a conclusion called “Happily Never After.”
Many social scientists do their research in laboratories. Not Laurie Essig. The research she did for “Love, Inc.” included going to the royal wedding of William and Kate and interviewing nearly 100 people and doing Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey tourism in Volterra, Italy, and in Folks and Seattle in Washington. She also went to Disney World to interview newlyweds, and Celebration, Florida, where she talked to 20 residents of the town Disney designed to be idyllic, but eventually abandoned. In addition, Essig analyzed a sampling of Disney’s Ever After Blog. She studied the most popular proposals posted online, as well as the most-viewed examples from the perverse category of “proposal fails.”
In the last few pages of “Love, Inc.,” Essig tries to end on an uplifting note about the positive power of romance. She had traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2017 to attend the second annual “Bride Pride,” a mass lesbian wedding. The brides all believed in the ideology of romance, but they also cared about building community and creating a better future for everyone through political action. That gave Essig faith that “romance is not just the problem, it’s also the solution.” The brides can ride their wave of love to a happy ending with everyone (not just married people) working together toward a better future.
“Love, Inc.” is an important and engaging book that deserves widespread attention and discussion. In some ways, though, I found it disappointing. For example, when Essig says that “we turn to romance because romance can make our lives better, more bearable, and more sustainable,” she does not add that romance is hardly the only road to a better, more bearable, and more sustainable life. Her narrow focus on romantic love is part of the problem. I wish she had acknowledged the power of love in all its permutations. I wish she conceded that just about any passion can offer us hope and make life better – including the passion for social justice. We don’t need the roundabout route of getting to political action via romance, as she suggested in her discussion of Bride Pride. And at a time when aromantics are speaking up, Essig may be overestimating the number of people who are in love with romance.
Essig is a professor writing for a university press, so I wanted to see scholarship that was more accurate and inclusive. I put three giant red X’s next to a passage where Essig claims that “marriage can increase happiness.” Ironically, the actual results of the most sophisticated studies are consistent with the thesis of her book, whereas this misleading claim is not. Studies that follow people over time, as they transition from being single to getting married, find that they do not end up lastingly happier than they were when they were single. At best, they experience a small increase in happiness around the time of the wedding.
Central to Essig’s thesis is that in romantic love, people turn toward private life and focus on their spouse and nuclear families. Important programs of research have shown that single people do more than married people to maintain their ties with neighbors, friends, colleagues, siblings, and parents, and that when people marry, they become more insular. Essig mentions none of that work.
Essig’s articulation of the ideology of romance is significant. It would have benefitted from a nod to scholarship on related ideologies, such as the ideology of marriage and family and the committed relationship ideology. Similarly, Essig alludes to the ways in which single people are stereotyped, without referencing the substantial research documenting those stereotypes.
I’m a lifelong single person who has never been a swooning romantic. Laurie Essig said, “In this book, I uncover both how capitalism makes romance possible and how romance makes existence possible.” According to that formulation, I should be dead.
Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter
University of California Press, February 2019
Paperback, 254 pages