The history of popular culture

16 Dating

This is how it works in the movies: boy meets girl, they hate each other with a passion, but circumstances (or, in the case of The Thirty- nine Steps, handcuffs) conspire to keep them together. Finally they discover deep love and respect for each other and marry/ fall into bed together/ solve the murder/ discover penicillin and generally live happily ever after.

Hollywood sometimes describes this process as "meeting cute", using cute as an adverb, grammatical correctness not being Hollywood's strongest suit. It forms the basis of pretty well every film you have ever seen. Sure, it didn't work out too well in Psycho, what with Janet Leigh ending up in the boot of that car and all, but most dating in the movies is simply a matter of meeting someone agreeable and waiting for the gods to lend a hand.

In real life, unless you are fortunate, there is unlikely to be a network of German spies or a mad axeman to help pass the evening, so you may have nothing more substantial than your own wit and charm on which to rely. Tough call. The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld describes dating as like a job interview that goes on all night.

It is a minefield all right, with everything you do or say open to misinterpretation. Until now the only rules on the subject were that there were no rules, which is why it is so unfair that when a code of conduct is finally published it is exclusively for the distaff side of the arrangement.

The Rules is America's, No 1 best-seller, soon to be a major motion picture (was a book ever destined to be a minor motion picture?), and aims to tell the modern young woman how she can load the dice even more in her favour. It is the work of Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, two thirtysomething American women of a type normally described as feisty, who look quite capable of fighting their corner on the toughest date. It is full of advice such as; "Always end a date first," "Don't call him and rarely return his calls," and "Don't stare or talk too much." Both women claim to have snared a husband following advice in the book, which is subtitled "Time- tested Secrets For Capturing The Heart Of Mr Right".

The Rules could clearly not have been published in the Sixties or Seventies - they would have gone against both the incipient feminism of the times and the male-dominated hang-loose hippy ethos. Before that, it would probably have been irrelevant, since dating was usually no more than one element in a courtship ritual invoking groups of young males and females circling round each other before pairing off and mating for life.

What has suddenly made dating big news, and allowed an old-fashioned book like The Rules (the rules were apparently devised by the grandmother of one of the authors' friends) to appear plugged into the zeitgeist, is the increase in serial dating. The rise in the divorce rate and the later age at which people marry means that dating can continue pretty well to the grave.

Films like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, together with the great phalanxes of Lonely Hearts ads in the broadsheet papers, recognise that dating is now a second, third, or fourth-chance affair for adults and no longer just part of growing up.

Maybe The Rules will help women deal with it, but if it is any comfort, dating is no picnic for men either, and many of us would happily go along with Seinfeld's suggestion of a pre-date ritual to defuse the tension. The couple would meet in one of those rooms used by prisoners, separated by a glass screen. That way the only sexual tension would be wondering whether to put your hand on the glass or not. And, says Seinfeld, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, you just signal to the guard and they take the other person away.

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