The idea of dating is gaining popularity in a country that considers marriage to be the only legitimate relationship between two partners. Therefore, it becomes important to analyse whether this new mode of connecting and selecting partners can transcend the boundaries of the monogamous, heterosexual, patriarchal institution of marriage or reinforce similar norms in the pre-marriage stage. “Dating applications permit the capability to become aware of and interact with individuals in their vicinity.” These apps open up avenues for individuals to forge intimate connections with each other cutting across community boundaries. This aspect of such apps inhibits a radicalising potential that can break the barriers of a stratified society.
Menka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju in their address to the Oxford Union have marked that India is a marriage country. Young people in India, gay or straight, of different religions, castes, and different classes aspire for one thing in common: long-term partnerships premised on marriage.
One of the motivations behind the attempt to actively look for a partner through dating apps is the use of choice and agency in a society where arranged marriages are preferred across castes, classes, and religions. Usually, such arranged marriages are characterised by endogamy and a patriarchal set-up. It is interesting to question whether these dating apps could bring any change in the societal norms in the pre-marriage stage.
Ambedkar’s imagination of social integration through inter-caste marriages pertains to bringing about institutional changes which shall lead to a freer society. The conditions of social integration taking place in Indian society are attuned to the novel innovations of modernity. However, the institution of marriage or partnership remains one of the most gated spheres, which prohibits radical social intermingling.
Caste remains one of the biggest matchmakers through matrimonial apps. Matrimonial websites do not shy away from including caste as a factor to match with a potential partner. On the other hand, dating apps are built upon the premise of having a “great time” with like-minded people. Though it is assumed that caste backgrounds are not factored in the formation of these relationships, like-mindedness in itself reflects social location. “Dating intermediaries, such as computer-dating services, matchmakers, and singles clubs, create a ‘shopping effect,’ or the perception that there is an endless supply of potential mates”. These potential mates are not endless but filtered and delimited through search specifications. These search specifications are used to generate like-mindedness. Like-mindedness is essentially erasing differences in opinions, characteristics, and traits.
Caste and religious beliefs have been established as an “indicator of commonality in terms of things such as food, tradition or culture”. Hence, caste has been able to slither into the filtering process. The logic of filtering covertly manifests casteist traits in finding belongingness. Dating apps in such ways are going against their radical capabilities of transcending community boundaries.
Dating apps are finding their consumers largely in cosmopolitan urban cities. Coincidently, these cities happen to be growing corporate and IT hubs. Several studies have revealed an upper-caste bias in recruiting corporate employees. Surinder S. Jodhka has argued, “a candidate is rarely judged on formal qualification alone…the chances of a Dalit or a Muslim candidate for being called for interview for a job in the corporate sector were significantly lower than others with exactly the same CV”. It could be deduced that the dating pool in most of these cities would belong to a certain socio-economic background. While caste-class interlinkages are always at play in forming behaviours and practices, corporates overlook their impact.
The popularisation of dating apps is significant through the use of advertisements and social media platforms. In his seminal work, Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord refers to the importance of image in contemporary society. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The role of mass-media marketing in the spread of commodity images results in passive identification with the spectacle which is the inverted image of society. The images in the consumer society present what people need and must have. The social media marketing of dating apps precisely controls the idea and image of a “great time”. A certain class aesthetic is sold to consumers, reinforcing modernised dating norms.
One of the unique features introduced in one popular dating app was to let women “make the first move” which is supposedly a step towards breaking traditional male-dominated dating norms. But the question arises whether it is enough of a cultural reset. This feature aimed to create empowering relationships and helps to lead “kinder and more respectful connections”. But reports have revealed many forms of violence taking place despite safeguards. For women violence on dating apps comes in the form of receiving unsolicited pictures, comments, uncomfortable conversations, and threats to their privacy such as stalking.
Women in such situations are expected to take it lightly, play cool, and laugh it off. The expectations to be desirable often come at the cost of self-esteem. Such spaces can be an unpleasant experience for men as well. They are often subjected to the inculcation of aspects of toxic masculinity under the guise of fun. In most dating apps both men and women show stereotypical partner preferences that adhere to heterosexist gender norms.
Dating apps have created a new socially desirable female role that coexists with the traditional female role. “These cool women are characterised by heterosexuality, physical attractiveness, a modern spirit, independence, sexual freedom, and being “laidback” enough to get along with the guys. Importantly, these cool women do not threaten performances of masculinity and male hegemony but can reinforce it by “going along” and not challenging misogynistic behaviour.”
The question remains whether the institutions of caste and patriarchy are so pervasive that they manage to invade the design of dating apps or whether these platforms need to acknowledge these hindrances to truly radicalise the way people socialise to expand their proclaimed cause.