Settling for Less?

Or, What is The Dating Project's Agenda?

“Why am I single?” asks Cecilia, a little self-deprecatingly, a little plaintively. At her age, Cecilia’s mother was married and expecting a second child. Is this what Cecilia wanted for herself? And, if so, why is she transplanted to a society where, according to the documentary in which she appears, 50 percent of the population is not married? Meanwhile, what are the rewards for Rasheeda of a New York life consisting entirely of work and church with, as she puts it, no room for a social life?

Only one of these questions is asked in The Dating Project (2018). Not least because this documentary is more than one film—which is a kind way of saying it appears mixed-up about the story it wants to tell.

A less-interesting and under-developed thread suggests that teenage- and young adult-focus on education and career-building leaves thirty-somethings vulnerable to singleness (equaling loneliness now and dreaded spinsterhood soon—“I don’t want to be the cat lady!!!!!!”). Women, of course, have more to fear, but this film’s messaging is equal opportunity, for which we may thank the token bachelor’s strategic contribution.

“It’s like a store front,” this 40-ish Chris is shocked to discover about online dating. “You have to be a brand.” Can he be so naïve? (His elderly mother is more forthright, referring openly to when she was on the “marriage market.”)

What does Chris think is the purpose of debutante balls? Coming out parties? As recently as early 2018, Vanity Fair magazine ran a multiple-page spread featuring children of the rich advertising their own attractive wares and the seductive economic status of their famous parents.

Or has Chris never seen Jezebel (1938), with Oscar-winning Bette Davis as the virgin who wore red, forever decimating her chances of respectable wedlock? Much later, as a (yes!) spinster, she gets to accompany her now-married man—the very beau who failed to support her cultural rebellion—in his exile to a yellow-fever colony; a patriarchal redemption. The film is rightly a classic and a regular on Turner Classic Movies. It’s also an enduring cautionary tale for uppity women.

The Dating Project is not a documentary where we’ll be deconstructing Jezebel.

Of far greater interest is Kerry Cronin, Ph.D.’s solution to the relationship problem she identifies among her student population at Boston College (BC). Cronin is likeable and charismatic, a teacher on a mission. She doesn’t talk down to these young adults who, in turn, are making her a rock star on, and beyond, their historical campus. “The more we talked about it, the more I detected both wistfulness and anxiety among the students over the thought of graduating without having developed the basic social courage to go on a date,” Cronin told the Christian Century in 2012.

For Cronin, campus hook-ups cannot deliver the connection, or grow a relationship, leading to love and marriage. Her concern isn’t so much about sex—there doesn’t seem to be all that much of it—but about how shallow and unfulfilling the whole hook-up “culture” is. “The questions [students ask me] have very little to do with sexual decision making,” she explains. They “are about courage, about making yourself vulnerable, about risky acts of relationship.”

Accordingly, Cronin has developed a mandatory class assignment to help young adults build dating skills: to graduate her class, you must ask someone on a date, and ask in person (no texting). She offers students a specific three-step dating process with suggestions for talking points. “Students could use some scripts that can help them get through a fundamental life challenge: how do you tell someone you are interested in them without first getting sloppy drunk?” she rationalizes.

Who wouldn’t want to be taught how to date? It’s an excruciating rite-of-passage, and high school life-skills classes don’t prepare us. “Having students ask someone for a date by telling them that it was an assignment somehow took the edge off it,” Cronin reports. By their accounts captured in this documentary, Cronin’s telegenic participants are delighted with the experience, and their stories unfailingly end on the upbeat.

Cronin’s academic background is in philosophy, and it’s possible that she’s adapted some of her ideas from Erich Fromm’s influential The Art of Loving (1956). In any event, it’s hard to doubt either her sincerity or the value of her initiative. Just don’t ask about the LGBTQ population. If the dating assignment is for them, we’re not told. A striking omission given that Boston College rather embraces this community.

Jesuits founded Boston College at the height of the American Civil War to educate the city’s predominantly Irish, Catholic (immigrant) community. A respectable institution with notable alumni and a commitment to diversity, BC remains passionate about the ideal that “Jesuit education is rooted in a world view that respects all cultures and faith traditions.” In addition to providing resources specificially for its LGBTQ students, BC boasts an annual Diversity Summit initiated in 2016. “Our vision in hosting the summit is to provide participants the opportunity to recognize shared qualities while embracing each others’ differences,” says Patricia Lowe, Executive Director of BC’s Office for Institutional Diversity.

So far, so good. But The Dating Project has messaging beyond Boston College and Cronin’s pedagogical experimentation there. Our suspicions in this regard are stoked by special guest appearances from Lori Gottlieb and Neil Clark Warren, neither of whom has any obvious connection to BC. Both do, however, have vested interests in matrimony.

Perhaps the message here is to let us know that if you’re under 30, you need to learn how to date; if you’re over 30, you must give up sex until the real thing meets you at the altar. Or else . . .

Lori Gottlieb is author of the once-controversial bestseller Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, first published in time for Valentine’s Day 2010. This title could be a humanist tract (“we’re all imperfect,” etc.), but is actually a manifesto for patriarchal marriage (“no matter what”). Gottlieb summarizes what goes on in marriage thus: “It’s quietly romantic. He makes her tea. She goes to the doctor appointment with him. They listen to each other’s daily trivia. They put up with each other’s quirks.” (Jane Austen take note. Forget those complicated economic negotiations and old-fashioned class consciousness; this is the real deal, Lori tells me so.)

Is Gottlieb’s participation telling us that settling for “Mr. Good Enough” is the end-game for Cronin-scripted dating?

Surely not and, with all due respect to Ms. Gottlieb, this writer is reminded of the late Dixie Carter’s classic, “It takes a mighty good man to be better than no man at all.” As it happens, Carter, the multi-talented actress, singer and producer, was successfully married to actor Hal Holbrook of Mark Twain fame.

Now comes Neil Clark Warren, also a therapist. Still thankfully very much alive, he is well-known as the divorced co-founder of the eHarmony dating site (original motto: “Falling in love for all the right reasons”). Clark Warren is on the record as saying that eHarmony “promotes heterosexual marriage,” and acknowledging that, personally, “I take a real strong stand against same-sex marriage.”

What is his purpose here? To bestow a (Christian) benediction on the project? (Grandfather Knows Best.) To provide an alternative to Chris’s view, widely shared in this ecosystem, that social media is destroying the art of communication, never mind relationship?

For the record, eHarmony launched in 2000 at a time when, incredibly, Facebook had yet to appear. Three wise men, including Clark Warren, were behind the initiative, securing private investment from such sources as “powerhouse” Sequoia Capital, founded by Don Valentine (you can’t make this stuff up), a Fordham alum (i.e., more Jesuits). The dating site’s profits date from 2004; it’s a success story. Apparently, money and marriage (dollars and dating?) do still go together.

Meanwhile, our bi-coastal oldies—Chris in Los Angeles and Rasheeda in New York City—have had lightbulb moments (a.k.a “conversion experiences”). They are newly sworn off sex pending commitment (a still shy Chris) and marriage (Rasheeda). He will close the film “communicating” (as, in his grandfatherly way, Clark Warren encourages us in eHarmony ads), while she’s got the ring! Go, Rasheeda! 25-year-old Cecilia has gone home south of the border where her qualities are recognized by an available Latino—those macho men deliver marriage; good to know!
What are we to make of these “happy endings?”

Which, finally, leads the viewer to the larger question that’s been in the back of our minds all along: what, really, is this film’s agenda? That is, the real agenda of this Christian media-branded documentary executive-produced by Steve McEveety who brought us the ultra-Catholic The Passion of the Christ (2004; reviewed in these pages by this writer).
Perhaps the message here is to let us know that if you’re under 30, you need to learn how to date; if you’re over 30, you must give up sex until the real thing meets you at the altar. Or else . . .

Say it ain’t so, Kerry!

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

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