Nearly a week later, and I’m still recovering from Valentine’s Day, which apparently is also known as “the day when complete strangers can insinuate that you and whichever male friend you happen to be spending time with are a couple and then insult that male friend for not buying you a rose. ” I was unaware of this second name–this strange custom didn’t appear in college, where I’d usually either spend my Valentine’s Days buying student group fundraiser chocolates for boys that I had crushes on, so that I could make life awkward for the both of us or sneaking paper cranes into friends’ mailboxes. But one thing that’s a constant about Valentine’s Day whether in or out of the ivory tower is the way it tends to make single people feel guilty,bitter or inadequate. And then we run to dating sites (link to Sara Haskin’s “Target Women” video on the subject, which is hilarious).
Okay, I’ll stop with the snark (maybe). For one thing, the real reason why I waited nearly a week for this post is that I just figured out how to do screen captures yesterday (and wasted copious amounts of time saving all the internet ads I hate for future subtext juicing). For another, the point of this post is not the cultural phenomenon of dating sites, but the uncomfortable subtext lurking in one rather popular dating site: OK Cupid. Most people I know within my age group use OK Cupid to some capacity, myself included. As far as dating sites go, it’s generally thought to be the most “with it.” I’ve even seen it praised by commenters on Feministing for not marginalizing poly relationships and allowing for homosexuality and bisexuality (because apparently other sites have not gotten the message).
But behind its trendy facade, OK Cupid makes plenty of really uncomfortable statements and insinuations. You know, the sort of assertion that people like to pretend is edgy, but in closer examination is revealed to be the same sort of cultural messages we’ve been receiving for years. In many ways, OK Cupid is not nearly so friendly and savvy a site as it makes itself out to be.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Deciding to join a dating site is full of implications that make people feel uncomfortable and question themselves that have nothing to do with the site itself. Also, there are plenty of things about the site that make me feel uncomfortable, from features that “punish” you (aka- mark you with a red light, meaning that you rarely reply to other messages) for not replying to each and every message you get (ignoring the fact that most people receive some pretty invasive messages that they may not feel comfortable replying to) to the fact that it calls you a “dirty dog” if you turn off the automatic censor. Their “about us” page only includes one woman, which would bother me less if her photo was not of a pair of disembodied legs in fishnets and her label wasn’t “office chick,” whose primary duties were “making sure Sam doesn’t go insane, writing surveys, busting spammers and never, ever letting the programmers run out of Diet Pepsi.” But then, I have a sense that many dating sites probably think they can create a dating site for both men and women with only the input of one gender (Apparently, they’ve all read/seen He’s Just Not That Into You and therefore know that women have relationship IQs of 5.). The fact is, if I just systematically pointed out everything I’ve seen on the site with disturbing subtext, I’d get a headache; and this post would become a mere rant. So, as always, I’m going to focus on a few bits and pieces that I think illustrate larger issues.
(I <3 alliteration)
OK Cupid, like pretty much anything on the net or in print, has to choose images to represent a news bite. To avoid bombarding people with giant walls of text, they try and reduce people to images as much as possible. For example, every user, as they use the site, is awarded a series of personality trait images. For example, if someone is “more compassionate” than most users, their profile has a cartoon image of a cheerful female nurse (more ambitious, by the by, is a man in a business suit with a laptop). But what’s really irked me this week is their image for their weekly quiz contest, drama. The programmers at OK Cupid decided that they could best represent this contest with an image crying, screaming woman, playing into the stereotype that women just love making big deals out of nothing and causing excess drama. You’ve never heard of a drama king, right? They must not exist. The fact that the image isn’t even commented upon and is simply plastered up there beside the word drama without explanation only makes it worse: it turns the image into a symbol.
This is a particularly insidious use of semiotics, the science of signs. Basically, semiotics looks at how we make a connection between image and meaning. For example, the little image (or the little emoticon that I used above) that we tend to think of as a “heart,” does not look anything like a human heart. Yet, in our cultural imagination, the image is inextricably intertwined with this meaning. In this example, the OK Cupid design time created an arbitrary symbolic correlation between the crying woman and drama. This plays into the at least old as Greeks (if not time) idea that women are hysteric (a word which actually comes from the Greek word for womb.), irrational creatures and tend to make ludicrous complaints. It plays into the idea that we’re always looking for drama where there isn’t any, making mountains out of molehills. Do I think it’s going to brainwash anyone who didn’t already believe this to some degree? No. But it’s obnoxious, and propagates an image of women that we constantly have to fight against and discourages women from speaking up even when it matters.
The lifeblood of OK Cupid’s matching system is a series of multiple choice questions that you answer both for yourself and for your ideal match. The site’s matching algorithm then uses this information to stick you with a bunch of labels and calculate how well you will get along with other people.
Now, of course, everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, and relationship status has to answer the same questions, which, initially seems like a good idea. But, in my experience, this tends to lead to what can, if we use only diplomatic terms, be described as awkward situations.
My queer friends (especially those who live in neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut, and were not in California before the 2008 election) have a lot of fun answering questions about whether they wish to get married some day, and whether they believe homosexuality is a sin or not. My trans friends have dealt with similar questions. I suppose you could argue it’s not the duty of a dating site to condemn anyone’s moral judgment, no matter how bigoted, but I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the site normalizing homophobia and transphobia like that. Pretty much, instead of alienating a socially conservative audience, the site has decided that they’d rather pretend that homosexuality and transgenderism are things that we can debate normally and dispassionately, like marijuana usage or gun control, as if it didn’t involve debating the legitimacy of actual people. The site acts as if it is simply taking itself out of the debate by allowing “both sides” on their site. Is this really okay? Is this behavior really conducive to a safe, fun website?
Another “fun” example is the question that I posted in the image above, an image which I have entitled “questionnotaboutbisexuality.gif” because I still don’t know what bisexuality has to do with anything. The question reads, “A bisexual person wants to date a man and a woman at the same time. In your opinion, is this person out of line? A) Yes, being bisexual does not excuse infidelity. B) No, dating both sexes best fulfills their needs. C) It depends on the situation.” The question may have an “out,” a none of the above, but I’m still bamboozled as to why a question which is essentially about open relationships has to become tied up in sexual orientation. I declined to answer this question because, to me, “it depends on the situation” does not translate to, “As long as everyone is open, honest, and consenting.” Gender has nothing to do with it. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. Bringing bisexuals into the mix just plays into the bisexuals are more likely to cheat stereotype.
And I’m not even going to start on the “slavery vs. holocaust” oppression Olympics question.
In a sense, by staying out of moral debates, OK Cupid has made itself a less safe place to be.
Oh, Baby, That’s Just the Way It Is
And last, and least, the text blurb that inspired this post in the first place:
You’re choosy, not wanting to get mixed up with just anyone. Girls can get away with this kind of selectiveness for some reason. Most guys have to take whatever’s lying around, passed out.
After taking their (heteronormative) “dating persona” personality test, I decided to check out some of the other possible personas a person can have. This one comes from the female persona “The Intern,” a woman who wants casual sex, but is inordinately picky. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rape culture. (Oh yes, and stereotypes about how straight men just want sex and will take anything with boobs. Can’t forget those. The stereotypes, I mean, not the boobs. Though one should remember boobs too.)
This, combined with such questions in their matching algorithm which ask if no really means no are not innocent comments nor funny depictions of college party life. By including them so flippantly on their site, OK Cupid is normalizing this kind of behavior. How is this okay?
And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Dating sites may not be designed to be moral regulators or political forces, but they are both a product of and a regulator of our culture. OK Cupid may be pretending to stay out of debates, but it’s really saying that it’s okay in our culture to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation; it’s okay to have sex with someone without consent; it’s okay to be a person who ignores the word “no.” It’s saying that in our culture, it’s okay to chalk these things up to personal preference.
Sometimes I think I’m a bad feminist blogger because my gut reaction to any sort of rhetorical question like that is, “I don’t know.” I don’t claim to have all the answers. So I’m going to cheat and say, “I’m here to make you think,” because I feel like a hypocrite every time I declare moral superiority because I criticize conservatives for the same thing. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this is okay or even desirable in our culture.
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to conclude that OK Cupid is not a safe dating site, not that I think there’s one out there that currently does any better. It’s pretty clear to me that no dating site, and certainly not OK Cupid is going to make me feel like a desirable straight woman for my feminist beliefs or make me feel particularly welcomed on their corner of the internet except as a sex object. But that’s all part and parcel of internet culture, which is, of course, tied up in our own culture. I think sometimes we separate the two too readily.