Why Online Dating Spells the End of the Meet Cute
Lauren Forsythe on Romance Fiction and Why We Tend to Transform Love into Narratives
Everyone loves a good meet cute. It’s the reason we wait with bated breath in the movies, exhale a sigh of relief when we reach a certain page in a book. Because there are so few moments in life when you can tell this is something important. This is the start of everything.
The term “meet cute” appears to have first originated in the 1938 movie Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, where the two main characters and love interests meet shopping for pajamas and end up having a “cute” conversation. (Some rom com movie fans may recognize the reference from Nancy Meyers’ 2006 film The Holiday, where the character gives the pajama store as an example.) While it refers mainly to a plot device used to introduce prospective love interests to each other in romance films, movies, and television series, it’s since infiltrated the lexicon of contemporary dating, used by couples far and wide to describe the ever-romanticized first moment they encountered one another and began their own love story.
Today, what began as a narrative tool has become a cultural obsession: Social media accounts like @meetcutesnyc, which ask ordinary people how they met and what they love about each other, have soared in popularity, with millions of followers and regular comments from fans sharing how comforted they feel by the stories told. Some of the most popular videos star couples who met clubbing or through an arranged marriage; couples who were childhood sweethearts or met on blind dates. Watching the endless stream of videos proves that there’s no shortage of variety when it comes to how these couples can meet, creating millions of love stories spinning off in different directions.
Recently, it dawned on me how few of these “meet cutes” resulted from app or internet dating. Whilst on the bad days online dating can feel like swimming in the same tepid pool with all the same fish you’ve already met, there are thousands of couples who find love on apps like Hinge and Bumble. Social media, however, tells a different story. Do we exalt the “meet cute”—arguably the endangered species of the contemporary dating world—because it’s aspirational, or are people simply clamoring for stories more diverse, more “romantic” than the ones they so often hear about?
This could be one of the reasons that romance novels—rife with unlikely ways for prospective love interests to meet – have become more popular than ever. Once a fringe (often secret) guilty pleasure, romantic fiction has soared in recent years and entered the mainstream in surprising ways.
Consider the recent trend in the worlds of Booktok and Bookstagram whereby readers share photos or videos of them with their partners alongside the romantic story tropes that apply to them. Tropes are a recognizable device used in lots of different genres, but probably most powerfully in romance, and avid readers know immediately if they will pick up an office romance, or an only one bed, or a fake dating novel.
The “real life tropes challenge” shows hundreds of posts where avid romance readers identify their own love story trope. Whereas as we’ve long referred to weddings as a “fairytale” or “storybook” ending, the language of romance novels has given people more specific terminology to describe their love stories: from the “second chance romance” and “enemies to lovers” to “he fell first” and “grumpy sunshine.”
The fact that we’ve long applied the term “love story” to describe real relationships also speaks to the ways in which narrative helps us to romanticize courtship. What I find most interesting about the videos on @meetcutenyc is watching as the subjects soften as they tell their love story. The young, unpracticed ones haven’t quite got their performance down yet rush some parts and talk over each other as they try to find their rhythm. The older couples who have told this story so many times share it like breathing, waiting in places for their partner to jump in and finish, get the laugh or the smile.
We all know lovers who gradually embellish their story with each telling. They substitute in a detail from a third date, or a detail discovered years later, changing the story with time and in tandem with the storyteller. By retelling the story, it comes alive again, transports them back to that moment of nervous anticipation and possibility. It might also offer a sense of security: romance novels almost guarantee a narrative clear arc and a happy ending.
All this is surely also true for couples who meet on apps, thought I suspect it’s the story that feels harder to piece together. Do they say they knew the moment he used a certain emoji, or she made him laugh a lot before she met? Perhaps their love stories depend on other firsts: the moment they knew happened on a first date, a third date, a weird accident three months in.
What’s certain is that in sharing these stories, we remember how precious and unique our love stories are. And whether we ended up driving together to New York from college together or were trying to buy the last pair of gloves in Bloomingdales at Christmas, what we really crave is the wry smile that comes along with the story, the blush and the nodded head, the way they arrived standing apart but walk away holding hands.
And perhaps, in our pursuit of a great story, we end up looking for the wrong things in our partners, in our relationships. We want intrigue, mystery, sweaty palms and will-they-won’t-theys in our stories, but doesn’t that sound exhausting for real life? Dating apps might be attractive because they give you a modicum of control over your own love story, but they also close us off to thousands of potential partners who don’t meet the specific, often arbitrary criteria we are looking for (or not looking for). The beauty of a great love story, the whole point, is that it so often leads us to unexpected partners, in unsuspecting ways.The beauty of a great love story, the whole point, is that it so often leads us to unexpected partners, in unsuspecting ways.
Because in the real world and in romance, it’s not the start that matters. Our romantic movies and novels would be terribly short and boring if they ended right where they began. Whether you meet on an app or in the wild, it’s the moment that matters. Tell us about the moment you knew, tell us about the best friend who almost messed it up, tell us your adorable, embarrassing, awkward, damn–I-was-a-fool stories.
Because that is where the meaning is. And after all, all every reader or watcher of romance will tell you that there’s just one thing they want to know: Is it going to have a happy ending?
Dealbreakers by Lauren Forsythe is available via Putnam.