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Shows are dealing more with digital anxieties.
Don’t sweat that text reply from the person you’re crushing on. If we’ve learned anything from these four streaming TV shows, it’s that if the cutie is interested, they’ll text back.
Sometimes it feels like the days of being unavailable or unreachable are over, but in the dating world, that’s simply not true. People are constantly checking their phones, and reply when they feel like it. Texts offer information about a person—mainly if they are a good communicator—and how much they are willing to share via text. There’s something sensational about getting a text just as you’re thinking of a crush—there’s a sense that human connection does transcend technology’s cold interface.
Texting as it relates to dating and romance has been explored via streaming shows like Netflix’s Love, Master of None, and House of Cards, and HBO’s Hello Ladies. These shows look at the emotional vulnerability of texting in the early phases of dating; as two people get to know each other, there’s less focus on the screen and more on the tension between them as people.
That’s what these series get right about texting: how scary it is to date, be vulnerable with someone, and not place much emphasis on the sending and receiving of texts.
In the new Netflix show Love, texting is used to show viewers what’s really happening behind the scenes in characters’ lives and build tension while they get to know each other. Show creators Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, and Paul Rust tease out this tension, especially when it comes to showing how people edit themselves via text.
In the first episode, two 30-somethings named Gus (Rust) and Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) find each other after experiencing bad breakups. The first texting moment happens as Mickey is trying to get wasted and pass out, but she gets a text from an ex-boyfriend asking her to meet him at a place called Bliss House. A more rational person would not have immediately responded and maybe called a friend first, but that’s not Mickey’s character.
In episode 2, Mickey and Gus serendipitously meet at the gas station, and by the end of the episode they’ve spent the whole day together. He texts her the next morning in episode 3, but it takes him a few tries. He edits himself hard, deciding that the first text is overly sentimental, and the second is too cheesy. He eventually sends a very low-stakes text that simply reads: “Hey it’s Gus. Sup?”
He sent the cool guy edited text way too soon. At that point in the show, Mickey is still a total stranger even though they previously spent the whole day together. Mickey is playing the “chill girl” in this scenario, which actually means she is anything but “chill.”
More is revealed about their characters when Mickey doesn’t text Gus back until much later. She has a shit day at work, though on the surface she just appears “chill” for not texting back. It’s easy to create a narrative for someone else when we don’t hear from them, but are thinking about them. The lack of reply gives Gus so much anxiety that he ends up confessing to a co-worker about his nervous texting habits of the past: “I end up texting so much that I end up sending a fucking book.” His friend replies: “That’s not good. Nothing dries up a vagina more than a paragraph.” Gus finally does get a text back later that evening: “Nothing. Sup with you?” He’s elated. He doesn’t write back, though. Gus just experiences the feeling of receiving that text as the episode ends.
Texting is used as a way to potentially share secret information in episode 5, when Mickey’s roommate Bertie and Gus go out on a date, per Mickey’s setup. The date goes terribly, and mid-way through Bertie hits the bathroom and decides to send a text to Mickey about the date, but accidentally sends it to Gus: “He’s nice, but def no second date. Thank ya Micks :)” Gus screengrabs it and sends it to Mickey, who loves being there with them in a voyeuristic way because she loves drama. She tells Bertie what’s going on—that Gus got that message meant for her—and then screengrabs that and texts it to Bertie. So it goes until the date ends and they both admit that they’ve been texting Mickey. Gus drops Bertie off, finally admits to Mickey that he’s into her, and leaves. Being the impulsive character that she is, Mickey rushes out onto the street, runs in front of Gus’s car, leans into his window, and kisses him.
In episode 6, we learn more about their personalities through text conversations, but texting ceases to be such an important part of dialogue a few episodes in, after they start hanging out in person and get to know each other face-to-face. In the build-up to their relationship, texting is used as a way to edit, revealing more about these characters, their motivations, and how even if neither of them receive the texts they want when they want them, it’s still clear that they have a connection.
2) Master of None
Master of None focuses on the anxiety of blowing people off or being unresponsive during early dating phases. Aziz Ansari’s character Dev expresses sadness over ghosting, the heightened emotions one experiences when receiving texts from someone, and the embarrassing realities of not editing oneself enough via text. This show gets texting and dating right, mostly in regards to what happens when one person is hopeful, and the other is delaying a response or trying to craft the perfect breakup text.
The best example goes down in the third episode, when Dev starts fearing romantic rejection. When it’s been two days and he hasn’t gotten a text back from a hot bartender named Alice, whom he’s hoping to take to a concert, he starts to freak out. His friend Denise (Lena Waithe) says the answer is clear: She’s not into him. Dev is feeling idealistic, instead thinking that maybe she’s scared to write back. He says he’ll follow up with a question mark, which Denise explains looks “needy and sad.” We’ve all received or sent these texts—they’re nudges to someone who hasn’t responded as quickly as we want them to, and we can’t stop ourselves from wondering. Usually, this extra nudge comes off as annoying, entitled, or even disrespectful.
Things get more tense one day later, when she still hasn’t written back. Dev’s co-worker Benjamin (H. Jon Benjamin) tells him: “Fuck that person, she seems so rude.” Dev agrees: “It’s totally rude. But that’s just how people act these days.” After he expresses his feelings to Benjamin, the hot bartender writes back: “Sorry, days have been really crazy! Don’t think I can make it tomorrow. Thanks anyway! Xoxox.” Benjamin is hopeful, but Dev explains that in this context, it means “Go fuck yourself.”
Here we see Dev’s interpretation of a blow-off text, citing the ways people end casual dating or send rejections via text, which he reads as people treating others as less than human. These moments show the coldness of texts, but also don’t consider the reality of how much worse it could be to get blown off in a short phone call or voicemail.
Later in the episode, Dev is ranting about the rude ways people avoid communication through text, shouting to friends: “I’m a person, not just a bubble in a phone. Let’s be nice!” But in a desperate attempt to find a woman to go to the concert with him, Dev does the exact thing that pisses him off. He decides to text three ladies at once with the same question about the concert. One of them is bartender Alice (Nina Arianda), who now says she’s free. When Denise tells him he’s just treating ladies like bubbles in his phone, he agrees—he’s become the thing that he hates.
Master of None goes further into the dehumanizing effects of texting. We’re all sitting safely in our homes, texting people emotionally vulnerable questions, and then realizing we’ll be forced to stare at our screens, waiting for a response, or we’ll have to accept that it’s best to stop thinking about it all together.
Master of None highlights the ways texting is used to show heightened emotions and drive romantic plotlines. Texting in this show demonstrates that once the initial stages of wondering are over, there’s no need to focus on texts as ways to drive relationship development.
3) Hello Ladies
In the TV show Hello Ladies, texting is used to show serious insecurity, overthinking, and neurosis that will absolutely ruin any chances of getting a date. These texts are painful to watch; they’re the kind we all hope we will never receive or send, and prove that in romance, you actually can ruin everything by texting too much.
The show centers around an awfully nerdy single guy named Stuart Pritchard (Stephen Merchant), who does everything you shouldn’t in the early stages of dating. In season 1, episode 3, he tries to show off his “strong texting game” to dude friends. He picks up Annie (Lindsay Broad), a juice bar worker at his gym. Later, he’s hanging out with his buddy Rory (Kyle Mooney) when he decides to explain “the rules of texting” to him. “Rule 1: You gotta seem like you’re too busy to call. Text only,” says Stuart. So he writes out a cheeky text: “Annie, when you’re done squeezing orange juice, could you squeeze me in for dinner at Vonwar? Toodle-loo!”
“Now, she probably won’t reply for a few hours,” he tells Rory. “You just gotta relax.” She responds immediately and agrees to the date, and they make a plan.
She later texts to say she had a good time. It’s a straightforward message, but rather than write back immediately and say something sweet, he writes something clever and saves it as a draft because he wants to “make her wait,” and also make her wonder if he’s interested. When she doesn’t text back by that evening, he freaks out and follows up three times to “make sure” that she got the first text. She never texts back. It’s been a few days. Panic ensues. He almost texts but calls it off, and in that moment she writes back: “Sorry for late reply. Some personal stuff came up. Mini-golf Friday?”
When they do eventually meet up, she’s distracted by her phone and he panics that it’s because she’s seeing another guy named Alex. We learn that that guy is her brother, Alex, and the personal stuff was about him. When she leaves her phone on the counter, he leans over and reads her texts, which is another sign of distrust and insecurity on his part—something that becomes a part of his character. Stuart creates a crazy storyline about who he thinks she is or is not based on a few simple texts. Naturally, the date does not end well.
In this show, Stuart’s paranoia around texts is used as evidence to show more about his character, specifically how he behaves in romantic relationships.
4) House of Cards
In House of Cards, texting is one of the few ways in which otherwise vile characters are somewhat humanized. Texting is experienced differently in this show. The focus isn’t on the phone screen—the text conversations become part of the drama by popping up on the TV screen.
In that way, the characters’ texts become a part of the broader psychological landscape of the show. Rather than taking away from the action on-screen and being seen as a distraction, they add to it. This serves to further convey a sense of secrecy and privacy through texting, which is much more similar to real life. Often times, texts serve as private conversations to someone else who is “off-screen” in our everyday lives.
We all remember Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Zoe Barnes’ (Kate Mara) text-heavy relationship in season 1—before he kills her at the beginning of season 2. Since Zoe is a millennial and Frank is, um, not, she obviously had an iPhone and was a killer blogger, and he was an older politician with a CrackBerry. Rather than focus on the phone screen, making texting scenes as boring as watching your own, we instead see little bubbles pop up on the sides of the screen. Frank is feeding Zoe information, which she then writes about for the Washington Herald, where she’s becoming more of a public persona through her prolific blogging.
The texting conversation works to somewhat humanize Frank, showing that he can be thoughtful in the ways he responds. Rather than his usual super-calculated responses to all people around him, his texts show a level of vulnerability with another person, a side of him that we rarely see, even though he is still being true to his character in the rest of his fictional life. It makes us wonder if he has feelings, and maybe even liked Zoe.
The initial emotional vulnerability extends to sexual vulnerability in season 1, episode 3, when Zoe is particularly focused on obtaining information, and starts flirting with Frank. It’s at this time we ask ourselves: Who wouldn’t want to receive lusty texts like this? Even though their affair ended up being brief, creepy, and manipulative, their texting is almost sweet, and Frank’s directness is somehow charming.
Alicia Eler is the author of 'The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture.' She is the visual art critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, CNN, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times.