Comic Artist Samantha Rothenberg Holds COVID Daters to Account
Her Instagram, Violet Clair, uses dating app screenshots to encourage people to date at a distance.by Jessica Lipsky
This article is part of Rewire's Coronavirus: Information You Can Use series.
Artist Samantha Rothenberg has gotten really good at cooking since the novel coronavirus has put much of the world on quarantine and indoors.
“We’re that next generation of grandmas who are really good cooks, like how the grandmas from WWII had to conserve ingredients and be scrappy, and make the most. I think it’s going to be a life skill,” Rothenberg said from her Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment, adding that she’s also playing a lot of Nintendo.
By staying home and honing future grandmother-y skills, Rothenberg is being the change she wants to see.
Rothenberg is an illustrator and the creator of Violet Clair, a popular Instagram page that discusses the pitfalls and idiosyncrasies of dating in colorful, often irreverent comics. She has been isolating since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio locked down the city about a month ago, and her comics reflect on the necessity of distance while dating.
“I think COVID has infiltrated every facet of every single person's life and my art is not an exception,” Rothenberg said.
“I can't help but put it in the context of what's going on in the world, and so much doesn't feel right anymore.”
In a pre-COVID world, Violet Clair comics often employed a sarcastic “he’s just not that into you” tone or taken a humorous, distinctly feminine look at the insecurities dating can provoke.
But as the number of global coronavirus cases nears 2 million, Rothenberg has taken a stance on the extreme importance of curtailing dating as we know it and shifting to an exclusively virtual model. Flattening the curve of COVID cases should be more important than hooking up, her comics say.
“I think a lot of people are feeling vulnerable and maybe reaching out to, or having people from their past who are toxic, reach out to them. Or maybe entertaining doing things that, if this weren't happening, they probably wouldn't do,” Rothenberg said.
“I like to remind people that these conditions are very strange and we're all struggling. But don't let your standards slip.”
Breaking the rules instead of dating at a distance
Today, a majority of straight American couples meet online. But a day after the World Health Organization deemed coronavirus to be a global pandemic, many of the most popular dating apps weren’t actively encouraging isolation or providing alternatives to IRL meets.
In mid-March, Tinder was interrupting swiping to remind its users to maintain social distance and carry hand sanitizer, and OkCupid questioned its users whether the virus had affected their dating lives. Wired reported that 88 percent of people globally continued to date during the outbreak.
Yet the United States was overall slow to follow the social distancing measures of countries like Italy and China, which implemented severe lockdowns well in advance of the shelter-in-place orders of California, New York and elsewhere.
All of this astounded Rothenberg who, after being single for several years, was well aware of the number of first dates, hookups and relationships that happen through dating apps.
For over a year, the artist had been soliciting anonymous screenshots from fans to highlight some of the more eyeroll-worthy moments in modern dating; she started collecting COVID dating screenshots about a month ago.
Rothenberg’s audience is primarily female and heterosexual, and use Hinge, Bumble, Tinder and OkCupid. She’s received hundreds of anonymous screenshots depicting the various ways men attempt to manipulate, bully or shame potential dates into breaking the social code for an in-person meet, as well as how submitters clap back.
Women, non-binary, trans and queer daters certainly engage in the same behaviors, Rothenberg notes, though those people aren’t her typical screenshot submitters.
“When you hear anecdotally that people are meeting up, you're kind of just like, ‘Oh, that's terrible; people should know better,’” she said.
“When you actually see a physical screenshot, and you see someone acting super manipulative or maybe even playing dumb just to get someone to meet up with them during these times, it really hits differently.”
Fan screenshots encourage change
Armed with screenshots and a desire to use her social platform for good, Rothenberg started a Change.org petition on March 19 demanding that dating apps take more accountability and ban users who repeatedly attempted to meet in person — the petition had over 1,000 signatures by the next day.
Rothenberg spoke with Hinge on March 20, and the app sent out a stay at home message to its users on March 24; Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe sent a message to all of the app’s users encouraging social distancing; Tinder encouraged users to keep dating digital on March 26. Several apps – including Bumble, Tinder, Scruff and Grindr – have incorporated photo sharing and video chatting, or offered previously premium services for free.
“I don't know if this was because of (the petition), but if it put a little bit of fire to them just to get started, I'm happy,” Rothenberg said.
People are still using dating apps, which have not implemented any banning procedures per Rothenberg’s petition. Match Group, which owns a handful of dating sites, reported a 30 percent increase in Tinder messages in March as well as a 10 – 30 percent increase in the length of conversations. The same report found a 30 percent increase in messages among Hinge users.
A Bumble spokesperson said the company has seen a 26 percent increase in global messaging during the week ending March 27 compared to March 13, and that “more than one in four chats are turning into meaningful conversations.” The company noted an 84 percent increase in video calls during that same period.
“As we are now just entering the initial phase of quarantine/lockdown, we’re expecting these and other user behavior trends to evolve as more and more people are looking for ways to combat isolation and loneliness and engage in 1:1 virtual connection,” the spokesperson said.
Rothenberg still receives screenshot submissions, though the tone has changed.
“People are still trying to meet up, but the gravity of the situation is definitely more apparent,” she said.
“It’s less of the blatant ‘Let's meet up, be a badass, break social distancing.’ Now it's a little bit more like, ‘Want to go for a walk and be six feet apart from each other?’ All these little workarounds that, ultimately, aren't really good ideas.”
After COVID, dating may be very different
Without an end to social distancing and isolation in sight, the coronavirus could fundamentally change the way people date.
Rothenberg believes virtual dating through video chatting (as offered by platforms such as Bumble) is both efficient and a good way to find dating leads for the future.
“There's so little effort required (to go on a date now) that you can really meet a lot of people and maybe learn about yourself and your preferences in a way that that would have been difficult before.”
Rothenberg is also collecting screenshots about COVID coupling for a look into the lives of couples who are quarantined together.
By highlighting the various ways dating has changed and calling out people who refuse to adapt to serve public health needs, Rothenberg has merged art and activism.
“I don’t think there's a one size fits all solution to handling your (artistic) output during this time. There's different approaches to being helpful and a good positive voice, and that doesn't always have to look the same.”
Rothenberg isn't the only artist using their platform to discuss new and strange feelings during the pandemic. She points to Jordan Sondler, another illustrator who encourages people to embrace their feelings in a confusing time, as well as the optimistic work of Haley Weaver, the spot-on comedic comics of Grace Miceli and the relatable work of cartoonist Kayden Hines.