On TikTok, scores of women apply contouring makeup while giving dating advice: How to set boundaries, how to attract love, how to turn a “man” into a “fan.” Amid reels of relentless tutorials, the presiding sentiment is that it’s all hopeless, says Talia Fiester of Princeton, New Jersey, who graduated in May with a degree in gender studies.
In an honors thesis for the program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Fiester examined 51 of these TikTok videos, looking at contemporary Gen Z dating against the backdrop of neoliberalism and what she calls “the rejection of the couple form.”
“We can position her work in a broader conjuncture of a variety of cultural events that have been happening,” says Sarah Banet-Weiser, including hookup culture, the history of online dating, and the pandemic. Fiester is looking at these elements alongside broader trends like neoliberal culture, “which, among other things, is about being a self-entrepreneur and putting yourself out there,” says Banet-Weiser, who served as Fiester’s advisor and is the Distinguished Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, with an appointment in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Yet all this self-optimization doesn’t seem to result in increased happiness, Banet-Weiser says. “There are more dating apps that people can take advantage of, and there’s sort of less satisfaction in finding a relationship.”
Fiester’s thesis, “Neoliberal Love and the Pathology of Gen Z’s Singledom,” found four themes common to the TikTok videos: pain, loneliness, and self-blame; hopelessness and compulsory heterosexuality; self-help and self-entrepreneurship; and community and collectivism.
The four themes emerge in a progressive pattern, Fiester says. “The first identifies and situates the problem at stake; the second locates key culpable actors and forces; the third attempts to potentially resolve the problems of the first; and, finally, the most beneficial consequence of this sample, the fourth reveals the beginnings of an establishment of virtual community,” she writes.
Feister connects all of the themes to hyperindividualism, a term she coined to refer to a neoliberal dating tactic advertised overwhelmingly to young women when they find themselves unhappy with their dating lives.
On social media, this manifests in reels of advice on how to “do my makeup better, what I should be buying to look prettier, how I should be dating,” she says. It can pertain to hobbies or career—how to make yourself into a more interesting package in order to attract a higher quality partner.
“Men do not have the pressure to make themselves into a package,” Fiester says. But for women, there is a narrative about rejecting the couple form in the name of self-optimization, she says. “It’s about working on yourself.”
“There’s this rampant how-to, self-improvement, self-help culture that thrives on social media, especially on platforms like TikTok, because people can turn to them really quickly for advice,” Fiester says.
This trend was acute during the pandemic, she says, when young people felt pressure to use their downtime to learn a new language, start to bake sourdough, or write a book. That period—when people were staying in their houses, looking at reflections of themselves on Zoom screens—led some women to invest in a glow-up—reevaluating makeup and fashion choices—and, eventually, to frenzied, rebound dating.
Partnering with other people is not just about a feeling or a romantic connection; it’s also an exchange of capital, Fiester says. Gen Z analyzes their partners, often unwilling to commit because of a kind of “sexual FOMO,” a fear of missing out on something better, Fiester says.
Romantic relationships have been commodified, Fiester says. More than ever, “college students are relying on hookup apps or dating apps, which is a commodification of dating in and of itself, because you’re paying for these services, or at least you’re watching advertisements. This is generating money for the companies.”
Gen Z daters want to find someone who matches them in socioeconomic status, education level, and career goals—someone like them but better. As Fiester explains, “If she’s pretty, that helps him. If she’s wealthy, that helps him. If she’s educated, that helps him. It’s all about to trying to marry up, or partner up, looking for your equal but maybe someone who can elevate you just a little bit.”
“I think that we treat, partnership relationships or marriage as a potential for growth and so, by maximizing your own potential, you are investing in yourself through partnership,” Fiester says. “There’s a very particular dedication that Americans have to these principles of neoliberalism and post-modernism, where it’s all about the individual, self-improvement, and self-optimization. This idea of maximizing your potential; that’s the American dream.”
Through this evaluation process, women are often “shelved,” kept hanging because they are a good choice but not their partner’s top option, Fiester says. They’re left in “situationships,” a black hole where there are no boyfriend/girlfriend labels and no future, mimicking a neoliberal employment culture of gig workers and at-will firing, where retirement benefits and long-term security are no longer the norm.
In this relationship reality, “sex is first base, holding hands is second, and meeting the parents is third,” Fiester says.
While hookup culture may be nothing new, Fiester says the pervasive feeling that there is “no one out there” for heterosexual young women is compounded by hyperindividualist messages that tell a woman that only by maximizing her own potential will she attract the man of her dreams and conversely that there’s no point to dating because men are trash.
There’s a pervasive shame that straight Gen Z women feel about being attracted to men, says Fiester. “The principal issue that we’re seeing among young, straight people right now, and especially straight women, is that they hate being straight because of the apparent hopelessness of finding romantic, exclusive, and committed relationships amid 2023 hook up culture,” she says. “An example of this would be like, ‘Oh, I wish I was gay,’ or, ‘I hate that I’m attracted to men,’ or ‘It would be so much easier to be lesbians.’”
This concept is heteropessimism, a term coined in a 2019 essay for”The New Inquiry” by Asa Seresin, a doctoral candidate in the English department at Penn. Seresin defines heteropessimism as “performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience.”
Even though these statements are expressed as cynical jokes, there’s a performative element, Seresin says. “It’s almost taboo, from what I’ve seen both online and in my real life, to express straightforward desire for men that doesn’t have the caveat of being like, ‘Men are trash,’ or, ‘I kind of hate men.’”
When Fiester first heard this concept, it was a moment of instant recognition, she says. In her thesis, she focuses on the “viral spread” of heteropessimism among young women on social media, where creators post video content about their lives, almost as diary entries, Fiester says.
Ultimately, heteropessimism is a false narrative that glosses over the abuse and toxicity that exists in every dating reality, as well as the discrimination queer couples face, Fiester says. But in frustrating moments it can be tempting for straight women to think that everything would be easier if only they were attracted to someone willing to respond to texts within the hour, someone willing to put in emotional labor, someone who wasn’t allergic to commitment—someone more like themselves.
Heteropessimism is related to widespread despair and lack of optimism, says Seresin. “Young people feel, understandably, extremely limited in choice and that the future is very foreclosed.”
This leads to a certain amount of pressure in dating. “There’s a lot less room for experimentation and playfulness,” Seresin says. “People feel like they really have to have their life sorted. I do think there’s a fear around taking risks, just because the economic realities of the world are really bleak.”
In writing her thesis, Fiester says she wanted to analyze a phenomenon that her peers were experiencing in real time. She “filled her presentation with real examples of TikToks I have seen a million times before and never thought twice about,” says Joseph Anderson of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who graduated in May with a degree in history and political science.
“I realized that women experience heteropessimism in a multitude of ways that go right under the radar,” he says. “I found her thesis so interesting because it put a magnifying glass over heterosexual relationships breaking down before our eyes, in real time, online and in real life.”
Fiester’s thesis offers a critical analysis of a pervasive, quotidian experience for Gen Z. “We consume thousands and thousands of pieces of media by way of TikTok and other social media platforms,” says Rose Khan, who graduated from the School of Social Policy & Practice in May with a master’s of science in social policy and a master’s of social work.
Fiester’s ability to extricate deeply woven, subliminal issues from ostensibly “simple” or “harmless” topics is an important addition to gender studies scholarship, Khan says. “Talia is disrupting the way we think about the things we say, the things others have said, and the effect of messages disseminated online.”
Heteropessimism is not limited to social media, “but it definitely thrives there,” Seresin says. Young women tell stories about men and dating as a “route toward bonding and a way of constantly reaffirming that they were participating in the same experience and also mediating and mitigating all of the negative feelings and uncertainty,” he says.
Much of Gen Z may have learned norms about dating and sex from social media before actually participating, Seresin says. It inculcates a desire to “know the tricks” beforehand, he says.
“It’s kind of similar to when you watch a TikTok of a restaurant before you go,” Seresin says. “You want to know the information in advance. But then I think the result of that is not that you end up making all the right choices and not being disappointed; it’s that you actually end up having this very heavily mediated experience of the world, where everything that you experience is kind of always being played back into this meta-narrative that you’re getting from social media.”
But no matter how many TikToks you watch, “there’s no cheat code or way of hacking it, no gender, you could choose,” Seresin says. Ultimately, intimacy is hard, he says; heartbreak comes to us all.
This is all happening at a “really precarious and violent and scary moment,” with mass shootings, heighted misogyny, and a retraction of rights and bodily autonomy, Banet-Weiser says. “Combined with a pandemic that hasn't quite ended, it makes people feel very vulnerable, and very precarious. One of the things about social media that I think we've seen in the last decades is that it profits off of vulnerabilities, and I think Talia has identified a super interesting articulation here of feminine vulnerability.”
The neoliberal response to this might be to turn oneself into the best possible package to win the game. But in the TikTok comments section, women are finding solace, Fiester’s thesis found.
There’s a camaraderie in venting and empathizing with one another, Fiester says. “They’re creating these communities where they can complain, where they can share their feelings, where they can see their feelings being mirrored by one another.” Collectively, that’s power, she says.
In one TikTok conversation sketch that Fiester analyzed, one character says of her dating life, “It’s hell out here. I’m living in hell.”
“Famously,” her alter-ego replies. “We all are.”