In the pilot episode of Sex and the City, which first aired in 1998, Carrie meets Mr. Big in a simple stroke of fate. She drops her bag on a busy New York City sidewalk, and Big stops to help her pick up her spilled belongings. He hands her a strip of condoms and she bashfully thanks him. In a split second, all thanks to a dropped purse, Carrie’s life is changed forever.
This is what Hollywood likes to call the “meet cute.” Eli Wallach’s character Arthur describes this to Kate Winslet’s character Iris in the 2006 film The Holiday, by using an example of a man and a woman shopping for pajamas in the same store. “The man says to the salesman, ‘I just need bottoms,’ and the woman says, ‘I just need a top,’” Arthur tells Iris. “They look at each other and that's the meet cute.”
The “meet cute” solely relies on fate, and we love it because it’s so rich with hope for single people. For years, film and TV have been constantly feeding us the same, linear narrative of what love looks like. Maybe if you’re just at the right bus stop, at the right time, your undiscovered soulmate will also coincidentally be waiting for the same bus. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this trope is complete bullshit. It creates a romanticized picture of love entwined with fate. Finding love is hard; you actually have to work at it. It’ll take a lot more than just a spilled purse on a sidewalk to meet “the one.”
Sometime around 2012, dating in the real world changed significantly, causing some TV writers to rethink how their characters would find love. Single people everywhere were downloading Tinder, first in secret, as a way to find casual hookups, but then as a way of finding real, long-lasting romantic relationships. By 2014, Tinder was registering about one billion swipes per day, as it quickly became one of the most common ways to meet new singles in your area.
Audiences aren’t relating to on-screen “meet cutes” anymore. Sure, our hearts will still swoon when Marissa asks Ryan, “hey, can I bum a cigarette?” in the first episode of The OC, but more and more shows are taking a realistic view of modern love and are introducing dating apps into storylines. As a result, we’re actually seeing more diverse and relatable heterosexual narratives, offering criticisms of the relationship between love and fate. (It's worth noting that few shows outside of Looking have really explored what dating apps look like in the LGBTQ+ community, as TV still gives us lacklustre representations of dating outside of heteronormativity.)
In season four of Broad City, Abbi matches with one of her old high school teachers on Bumble. This particular episode, while delightfully bizarre, introduces the idea of how dating apps can open new doors within preexisting relationships. When Abbi first met Richard, their relationship had clearly defined roles: student and teacher. But now, several years later, their relationship is deemed “appropriate” (if you’ve seen the episode, you’ll know why that’s questionable). Bumble allows Abbi and Richard to explore a sexual relationship that can exist outside of the prefixed roles.
We also see this same trope in season one of Easy. In the episode entitled “Utopia,” married couple Lucy and Tom use Tinder to find another woman in efforts to fulfill a threesome fantasy. They end up matching with their child’s music teacher, Annie, which is also a relationship that has clearly defined roles. Annie respects Tom and Lucy’s marriage and has a professional friendship with them. Because of these defined roles, the fact that Annie also has a threesome fantasy would have never been discovered. The couple matches with her on Tinder and they have, in a very honest and accurate depiction, some good old fashioned group sex. Both Broad City and Easy are exploring a relatable experience within the realm of dating apps. There’s an unspoken social contract that suggests it’s rude to swipe left on people you know when you see them on a dating app. But is this really just a weird pleasantry? Much like when you see your hot coworker on Tinder and you swipe right, you’re telling yourself that you’re abiding by this social contract, but in reality, you want to bang them.
While these two examples are of altering existing relationships, we’re also seeing characters in our favourite shows create new relationships using dating apps. In season three of Black Mirror, the episode “Playtest” explores using a dating app while travelling. Cooper is travelling England alone and matches with Sonja on an app. Cooper and Sonja meet for drinks and then go back to Sonja’s house, where Cooper spends the night. The two know that the relationship has an expiry date, as Cooper will eventually leave the country, which allows them to share personal stories with each other because there’s zero risk involved. The unnamed dating app that the two use to meet each other brought together two people who otherwise would have never met, and even gave Cooper someone to rely on when his credit card number is stolen and he runs out of funds. This type of Tinder relationship is common; it’s the short lived “I’m only in town for one night” type of hookup, but “Playtest” proves that oftentimes, these types of relationships have more depth than just sex.
In season two of Jane the Virgin, Jane uses “Cynder,” despite expressing she wants the classic “meet cute.” Jane goes on one date with a stranger from the internet, thinks it goes really well, only to find out that he blocked her on the app afterwards for being “clingy.” Even though this is a reality of dating in the digital age, Jane is discouraged from trying again and even ends up meeting someone the “organic” way in the end of the episode. The message of this episode is that the “meet cute” conquers all, which aligns with the show’s telenovela theme, but not with reality.
Similarly, in season four of New Girl, Jess strikes out hard on “Dice,” a fictional dating app. Schmidt acts as Jess’ Dice coach, and teaches her to be skeptical of every man she meets. This episode actually perpetuates the stereotype that apps such as Tinder are watering holes for sex-obsessed, predatory men and that the women on dating apps are naive and gullible. While dating apps should always be used with some caution, this episode moreso gives into the expectation that men on dating apps treat women like garbage. In actuality, Schmidt is warning Jess to stay away from men just like himself without being reflective of the fact that not every man is just like himself. Sure, dating apps can be exhausting when you strike out over and over again, but this dramatized depiction of “bad dates” isn’t reflective of how many people actually have good dates using dating apps.
Any discussion of Tinder on TV would not be complete without Master of None’s much-praised “First Date” episode. Now that Aziz Ansari is facing allegations of sexual misconduct, it’s worth taking a closer look at the show’s approach. The episode follows Dev as he goes on date after date with several different women, perpetuating the idea that men hold the power on app-reliant dates because he controls whether the date is cut short or not. The real kicker though, is when he sleeps with Christine, even though he was initially put off by the racist condom jar on her bedside table. He tells her it’s offensive before leaving her apartment, after having sex with her. Dev most likely had no intentions of seeing her again, but was “caught up in the moment.”
Although the sex itself was consensual, there’s still a line of trickery present. Having consensual sex with a man on the first date, only to find out after that he hated you all along, sadly, is not a new trope. Yes, the jar on her bedside table is fucked up and racist. But he knew there were few, if any, consequences for sleeping with someone he was unlikely to want to see again because of the vague anonymity that exists in dating apps. Though Dev is let off the hook for this slight in Master of None, I’d like to see storylines in TV hold men accountable for this kind of behaviour.
This brings me to another episode of Black Mirror. In the newly released season four, the episode “Hang the DJ,” by far has the most relatable depiction of online dating, even though the episode’s concept seems far off. “Hang the DJ” critiques how fast paced we are when it comes to dating apps and encourages us to be patient and trust our gut. Amy and Frank are living in a society that forces them to serial date, similar to New Girl and Master of None, only far more dramatized. But, isn’t that exactly the world we live in, now? Good dates are oftentimes forgotten about because someone better could be just a swipe away. In “Hang the DJ,” we see Amy trapped in a montage of 36-hour dates. She gets dinner with them, she sleeps with them, she goes home. The endless cycle of emotionless sex, all the while thinking of that one person who got away, was uncomfortably relatable. Most TV shows are offering comedic or romantic examples of dating apps, whereas “Hang the DJ” offered a warning: if you’re always actively looking for true love, you probably won’t recognize it when you do stumble upon it. Although this episode had a hopeful ending, the message was still an excellent foreshadow of where this obsession with having “the best” could lead us.
Ultimately, how we find love is changing, and at least some of the narratives we see in TV and movies need to reflect the dominance of internet dating if they want us believing in their storylines. I want to see my favourite characters deal with the highs and lows of dating apps while looking for love instead of dropping personal belongings on New York City sidewalks.
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