By Dr. Jonas Prida
From gawky teens standing outside holding stereos overhead (the 1989 film “Say Anything”) to cupid shooting love arrows into us (Victorian-era Valentine’s cards) to the popular app “Tinder,” the American cultural landscape is filled with artifacts displaying romantic love. Yet the belief in romantic love itself has a history that shows how the concept of love is a culturally fraught one, as likely to represent the anxieties of the period as it is to represent the heartbeat of it.
What we now think of as romantic love is essentially a product of the 1800s, when a combination of changing social and economic arrangements led to a change in how people saw relationships. The Industrial Revolution and move to cities broke long-standing community ties and forced strangers to interact in ways that only 50 years before would be inconceivable. People could no longer count on community history to inform them of what someone was like; now, people had to perform a new set of social interactions to get to know strangers.
The private space, both physically and emotionally, increased in importance; we had to be extremely careful about who we let in. Although mid-19th century people quickly adapted to this new way of thinking, they did not lose their desire for companionship. Growing out of these two impulses came our version of romantic love. Since we needed to restrict who we knew, the choice of who we knew became magnified. By the end of the 19th-century, this cultural logic allowed Cupid to only need one arrow.
Flash-forward to post-World War II America, and we see how this emphasis on finding the one true love has been habituated. Songs such as “Unchained Melody” (which will reappear in the 1980s) and “You are My Special Angel” spread the word of singular romantic attraction. Teenagers wore promise rings and chose their specific dates for proms. The move toward suburbia made privacy a central part of the American Dream, and programs like “I Love Lucy” and “The Donna Reed Show” reflected images of this love into living rooms. The popular culture of the 1950s and early 1960s was Cupid’s victory lap.
The “youthquake” of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the glittery 1980s fueled by Reagan-era optimism, brought other changes to romantic love. Divorce rates increased as people became more interested in finding their special someone than just anyone. Films such as “Annie Hall” or “Grease” (which looked back on the late 1950s) continued to showcase the importance of romantic attachment, but in a variety of contemporary ways. Viewers saw teen love in “16 Candles” and professional attachments in “Working Girl,” as more women entered into the workforce.
Now, with Match.com competing with OKCupid and Facebook relationships becoming official, the merging of the private and the public, the two needed components for romantic love, is nearly complete. What the 1830s helped create, the early 21st-century will not put asunder. Arm yourself again, Cupid. It is going to be another active century.
Dr. Jonas Prida is the arts and sciences division chair. He teaches courses in English and cultural studies, with a focus in American popular culture from 1840-1940. Dr. Prida’s work has been featured in the American Writers Series.