I Pretended to Be Emily Dickinson on an Online Dating Site
And I found out that every guy wants to get with a famous dead poet
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Like most brilliant ideas, it began as a joke. A friend and I were at lunch, discussing our frustrations with online dating, when I suddenly realized the ridiculousness of our conversation. Here we were, two modern, educated women, and we had spent nearly two hours talking about our romantic relationships! This wasn’t the sort of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be Gloria Steinem. I wanted to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I didn’t want to be the sort of woman who spends her entire life talking about boys.
I decided, right then, that I needed to do something to alter the course of our conversation. Putting on my big-girl feminist cap, I said, “You know, there have been a lot of talented, amazing ladies, throughout history, who never coupled off. Emily Dickinson, for example.”
Emily Dickinson has long been my go-to gal amongst my single lady heroes. She was a virgin, unmarried, and a recluse, but, man, was she talented. I wondered aloud to my friend began to wonder: How would Ms. Dickinson fare in the world of online dating? Would a lovelorn poet, obsessed with death and privacy, be able to woo a modern man? We laughed, and then went on discussing our own dating disasters.
For the next week or so, I went about my business as usual, but this Emily Dickinson idea wouldn’t go away. I kept wondering, if I created a profile for Emily, how would people respond to her? Would she get emails? Would people get the joke? It would be an interesting art project, if nothing else.
Eventually, one quiet Saturday night, led by a genuine curiosity and my own frustrations with dating, I did it. I brought Emily Dickinson into the 21st century.
Using a combination of actual Dickinson quotes and my own sarcastic sense of humor, I created what I thought was a fairly accurate OkCupid profile:
What I’m doing with my life: Being a hermit. Overusing the dash.
I’m really good at: Breaking rules, specifically capitalization and punctuation.
Favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food:
Movies: What is a movie?
Books: Wordsworth, Browning, Keats, Emerson, Shakespeare (i.e. dead people)
Music: Yes, I do enjoy playing the piano on occasion. Thank you for asking.
Food: Baked goods, especially my famous gingerbread. I love making it for the neighborhood children, but I can’t leave the house. Instead, I stand at the window and lower it down to them in a basket. It’s so much easier that way.
The six things I could never do without: white dresses, gardening, graveyards, writing letters to older men, talking smack about my parents, pain
I spend a lot of time thinking about:Death, death, and more death.
On a typical Friday night I am: in my bedroom, alone.
You should message me if:You’re not dying, but you like talking about death.
As soon as the profile went up, I was bombarded by emails. There were messages from men who thought it was funny and played along:
Hi, I’m Ezra Pound I’m a strange mix of hermit and extrovert.
When can we go zombie hunting?
Well, technically, Jane Austen was the zombie killer, not Dickinson, but close enough.
There were also emails from men who were utterly confused, who wrote things like, “Why?” and “I don’t get it.” One 22-year-old guy questioned me about my profile pictures, two 19th-century photographs of Dickinson:
Him: Those pictures from the 1950’s?
Me: More like 1850.
Him: So how is that u in the photo? That’s impossible.
I think I blew his mind. Poor guy.
There were even a few pervy emails in the mix:
I’ve never spanked a chick in black and white before.
But for me, the most intriguing emails came from men who treated me like I was just an ordinary single lady, lookin’ for love. I like to refer to them as the “Hi” guys. Every woman who has participated in online dating knows them. A man sends you an email that reads, “Hi, I’m John” or “Hi, I’d like to get to know you.” The messages aren’t offensive. They’re just boring. A “Hi” message is equivalent to saying, “Hey, I didn’t read your profile and I don’t care about your brain or your personality, but we should go out sometime.”
Emily got those emails as well, which I found really interesting. Did these men think the 19th-century photographs of Emily Dickinson I had posted were images of an actual living, breathing woman? Did they think I was an historical reenactor? Or were they just so desperate for sex or companionship that they emailed every profile they came across?
But it wasn’t only the “Hi” guys who were interested in dating Emily. Intelligent men, who got the joke, eventually starting hitting on her/me as well.
So, other than being an Dickinson impersonator what else are you interested in?
They had no idea who I was. They didn’t know my age, my weight, my gender, nothing. For all they knew, I could be an 80-year-old man or a group of thirteen-year-old girls or a really smart gorilla. Yet still they wanted to meet me; they wanted to know me. Several men gave me their phone numbers, even though they had never seen a photo of the real me.
They did see photos of Emily Dickinson, though. My profile contained two photographs of Dickinson, the only two in existence, although only one has been authenticated. In both, she is unassuming and well-covered. Her OkCupid pictures did not include images of her cavorting on beaches. There were no boob-squeezing selfies or come-hither stares. It was obvious that she didn’t fit in with the cool kids.
So why was she getting so much attention? At first, I found it curious, but after a while, I realized that Emily’s experience was merely an extension of the OkCupid experience in general.
Online dating is a make-believe world. When we create a profile, we’re projecting a certain type of image. People are drawn in by that image, and then they create their own fantasy on top of that. An online dating site is really nothing more than layers upon layers of ego and insecurity. Essentially, nothing is real.
In the guise of Emily Dickinson, I was hip. I was smart. I was funny. I could quote poetry on demand. But my real OkCupid profile projected that image as well. So why was Emily Dickinson succeeding at online dating to a much higher degree than I ever had?
Well, she was famous, for one thing, and dead for another. Maybe that was it. Men do tend to fetishize famous dead women, especially if the woman in question has a head full of neuroses. Marilyn Monroe, Francesca Woodman, Sylvia Plath. If most modern men met these women in real life, they would call them crazy, but somehow, in the safety of death, they become worthy. Maybe this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill OkCupid projection about a real-world woman. Maybe this was a step beyond that: a fantasy about an interesting, talented, dead woman with a penchant for morbidity. The “Belle of Amherst” had suddenly become the “Depressive Dream Girl” of online dating.
Unfortunately, not everyone was in love with Emily. People kept reporting me for falsely representing myself, as if I were actually trying to pull a fast one on the entire male population. A user would issue a complaint and then OkCupid would delete my images. Apparently, on OkCupid, you’re allowed to be a harassing perv, but under no circumstances can you pretend you’re a dead poet.
I kept reposting the images anyway, and people kept reporting me. This process happened over and over again. Eventually, I got tired of this merry-go-round and added a disclaimer to my profile: This is clearly a joke. I am not actually Emily Dickinson. That seemed to help, although several people told me that the disclaimer made the whole thing “less funny.”
But even with all the haters, Emily was not hurting for suitors. She was, in fact, an unlikely star in the online dating scene. She received a hundred “likes” in two days. Once I left the house for an hour and came home to find seventeen messages in my inbox. I could barely keep up. I wanted to respond, at least once, to every message I received, but it quickly became a full-time job.
So, after two days of playing Emily Dickinson, I decided to cancel the account. I was lost in the wormhole of online dating, and if I didn’t end the experiment, I would never leave the house again. (Which would make my Emily Dickinson impression all the more authentic.)
Of course, with all that interest, I might have actually met someone, if I had stuck with it. It would have made a great romcom. “Bespectacled writer disguises herself as Emily Dickinson and ends up falling in love with very own Thomas Wentworth Higginson!” In the movie trailer, there would be a montage of the female lead belting out Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” as she danced around her apartment.
But I didn’t want to lead people on. And I didn’t want to disappoint them by not being Emily Dickinson — by being instead a real flesh-and-blood person, a non-recluse, a non-genius, and alive.
Early on, a guy asked for my real-world profile and I sent it to him. He thanked me, but then I never heard from him again. Then, right before I deactivated my account, a guy I knew from my real OkCupid profile “liked” my Emily page. I messaged him, revealing my true identity. He wrote back, “You are so messed up.”
I rest my case.