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The Enduring Appeal of Modern Love

Arts & Culture | February 6, 2017

The past few years have seen the development of a new social imperative in narrative media. TV shows, books, and articles all seem to be trying to capture a more modern notion of love—what love looks like in the 21st century, the age of technology, social media, sprawling cities, where gay families and transgender parents, while not ubiquitous, increasingly inhabit our TV screens and the pages of our magazines. This type of love is the kind that shows like “Insecure,” “Transparent,” and the web series “Her Story” attempt to capture. Even as these shows and their alternative narratives work to displace what are often seen as the dominant strain of White, heteronormative romance in our ‘modern’ cultural canon, we can see similar narratives in the New York Times weekly column “Modern Love,” a collection of reader-submitted essays that seeks to explore the nature of its ambitious title.

Started in 2004 by Times editor Daniel Jones, the column has quickly risen in prominence, and continues to be among the most searched terms on the New York Times website. Jones, who still personally reads and responds to the more than 7,000 submissions he receives per year, told the news media site Current that he wanted to develop a column “that had intimate, real personal, revealing essays about relationships” but admits that the scope of the column has widened considerably as the volume of submissions has grown.

What makes “Modern Love” so popular that, in one of the largest and most prestigious publications in the world, it remains one of the most-read columns? For a newspaper known for its “hard news,” people are still clamoring in large numbers to the “Modern Love” page looking for…what exactly? In the words of junior Charlotte Hoffman, who says she has read the column every Sunday since she was a freshman in high school, “Modern Love covers every scope of love imaginable—familial, sexual, parental, friendship…it’s not afraid to tackle different strains of love, and not just gay couples but divorcées or adoptive parents.”

Perhaps what contributes to the appeal of “Modern Love,” now in its 13th year of publication with a new accompanying podcast, is that it has evolved beyond a mere discussion of romantic love; it’s about sexual identity, loss, death, the loneliness of big cities, memory and nostalgia, gender politics, the crushing rejection of an online romance or the thrill of a chance encounter. One popular essay tells the story of how a father’s experience caring for his five-year-old daughter’s dying fish conjures memories of caring for his dying parents and his own brush with cancer. It is as much a meditation on mortality as it is about love, love for a $3 fish. These stories demonstrate that “Modern Love” is more than just a document of romantic lament or exploit. It is a diary of the modern human experience in all its triumphant nuance.

Many contributors articulate a feeling of wistfulness in their stories, the frustration and disappointment they feel in their modern lives, adventures and fulfillment they thought would be guaranteed by virtue of finding a long-term companion or moving to New York City. One woman recalls a drunken interaction with a coworker, during which he asked to suck her toes in a shared taxi home, claiming it was his last wish before he would be married the following week. As a kind of protest against her self-proclaimed jadedness, she obliged, and was struck when her coworker reported a similar experience months later with the man offering the same line as persuasive bait. Instead of anger or disgust, she felt admiration for the man who, in her words, was “so focused on his dream that he had managed, through simple boldness—and a dash of deception—to make it come true again and again” (New York Times). To a woman who had continually compromised her dreams to live in what she thought to be the city of dreams, this was an admirable, if bizarre, feat.

“Modern Love” is unique not only for its portrayal of the various identities and family structures so pervasive in our modern culture, but also because it chafes against many of the inherently negative connotations associated with romance in contemporary life. Much of dominant media portrays modern romance as a plight, where the individual is continually thwarted by the isolating nature of technology and the increasing emphasis on casual, non-committal relationships. There is a tendency in cultural representation of this sort of modern love and a tendency in this cultural moment more generally to comment on modern life through the lens of irony and sarcasm. Certainly some of the authors who contribute to “Modern Love” employ irony and sarcasm in their writing, but the real power of the columns lies principally in their unflinching sincerity. As senior Sophie Krakoff explains, the column is “emotionally intense without being satirical.” In one woman’s tale of her Tinder-inspired pursuit of a local Brooklyn baker, she remembers how, after weeks of frequenting his bakery, she finally worked up the courage to ask the baker on a date; when she was rebuffed, however, she didn’t reflect bitterly on the futility of dating apps or of meeting people in today’s world—the overwhelming thesis of many stories like this.

“Modern Love” is rarely about transcendent loves or soul-crushing breakups, but the small interactions—a stranger met on an airplane, the platonic relationship shared with a building doorman, the inexplicable love for a pet fish—that cause us to reflect about the nature of love itself, love in modern times, and how it shapes us as individuals. There is a nakedness to these stories, a nakedness that can only come from the communal nature of a reader-based column, that is rarely encountered in today’s media landscape. As Hoffman said, “Even though there are different authors, the voice of the column seems to carry through. You know it’s a modern love, even if you read it out of context.”