Unhooking: On the Gigification of Intimacy

Kelly Coyne examines gig-work philosophy in Emma Cline’s novel “The Guest” and Gene Stupnitsky’s movie “No Hard Feelings.”

By Kelly CoyneJuly 3, 2024

Unhooking: On the Gigification of Intimacy

THE 2023 FILM No Hard Feelings opens with a shot of a hook swinging, its rusted yellow cut against a black background. Soon, the hook begins to move—floating, as though of its own accord—across an impossibly blue sky above a boatyard in Montauk, New York. A few seconds later, it reveals itself to be attached to a tow truck, on its way past gargantuan vacation homes and through serene Long Island intersections to confiscate a black Toyota Corolla parked outside the comparatively modest house of our protagonist, Maddie Barker.

Who’s on the hook, and who isn’t? The question drives Gene Stupnitsky’s American sex comedy—starring, among others, Jennifer Lawrence and Matthew Broderick—which was released last summer and is now available on Netflix. The same question propels one of last year’s most popular novels—Emma Cline’s The Guest, which is likewise set in the Hamptons and follows the adventures of Alex, an escort for the elite, after she steals pills from and bends the fender of her 50-year-old sugar daddy, Simon, and is promptly kicked out of his extravagant home. In addition to sharing a setting, both stories center around white women in their twenties and thirties who use their age and race to take up residence in other people’s lives, with the intention to depart once they have what they need, regardless of the consequences. More profoundly, each engages with the ways in which intimacy has become gigified in recent years—our colleagues mistaken for family, our work mistaken for leisure, our needs and capacities for care transformed into potential sources of profit.

The proliferation of such stories is likely due to a few things: dating apps, which have reframed relationships as disposable, as options we swipe left or right on with unconcerned ease; a president who legitimized scam culture; and a post-COVID-19 world in which work and home have become effectively interchangeable. The resultant gigification of intimacy—of empathy, interest in others, even love—is seemingly ubiquitous in popular books, movies, TV, and music from recent years, from Olivia Rodrigo’s song “vampire” (2023) to the HBO serial The White Lotus (2021– ). Such media not only focuses on fleeting, occasionally literally paid-for relationships, but also places new emphasis on “boundaries” discourse, which encourages us to show our neediness only to people we pay for care, such as therapists. (A link might be further drawn to the rising popularity of polyamory, which can—sometimes, not always—make it easier to dispose of “loved ones” when they become too needy, and move on to the next.)


The transient, rented relationships at the hearts of No Hard Feelings and The Guest ask what happens when commodified intimacy takes the place of genuine companionship and community. No Hard Feelings, the more optimistic of the two narratives, suggests that—despite what can be our best efforts—it’s ultimately impossible to unhook from each other. The premise of Stupnitsky’s movie is this: Barker (Lawrence), a 32-year-old bartender and Uber driver who, in the aforementioned scene, loses her car because she can no longer afford to pay her taxes, answers a Craigslist ad to surreptitiously date Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman), the 19-year-old son of a local wealthy couple (Broderick and Laura Benanti). Percy is headed to Princeton in the fall, but for all his school smarts, his parents maintain that he has no experience with girls—and they want Maddie to take his virginity in exchange for a shiny Buick Regal. We catch our first, photographed glimpse of Percy during Maddie’s interview for the gig in the Beckers’ luxurious summer residence. The glossy image portrays a dorky-looking teen alongside his mom and dad, posing in front of a helicopter. (This choice of scenery isn’t exactly subtle: as one of Maddie’s friends asks before the interview, “Have you seen these helicopter parents? […] I’m surprised they’re not gonna fuck him themselves.”)

Over the course of the movie, we learn that one of the reasons Percy is bullied at school is that he slept in his parents’ bed at a late age—inciting a rumor that they were, indeed, having sex with him. We also learn that his childhood nanny Jody (Kyle Mooney) was the closest thing to a friend Percy had growing up (though Jody, too, was paid for by Percy’s parents). The parents, the movie makes clear, are in large part the source of Percy’s problems, which mostly revolve around his social anxiety and fear of any world beyond the one he can access on-screen, from the safety of his cushy bedroom. But hiring Maddie lets the Beckers off the hook. If she can’t take his virginity, it’s her failure, not theirs. Notably, Percy himself doesn’t treat his virginity as an issue (some have read the film as a take on asexuality). Yet the Beckers’ son operates as a kind of status mirror, reflecting their supposed worthiness both back to themselves and out to others. And so into Percy’s bedroom Maddie goes, a girlfriend-for-hire on a mission to placate archetypal East Coast elites and helicopter parents hovering, anxiously, just above his headboard.

Make no mistake: though Maddie is tasked with taking Percy’s virginity, the terms of the arrangement also let her off the hook—at least initially. Because she doesn’t actually harbor feelings for Percy—they’re a fabrication, a clause in a potentially profitable contract—Maddie is free to operate without any of the guilt that might ordinarily accompany her ludicrous behavior. She’s also free to walk away. In one scene, she manipulates Percy into skinny-dipping with her off a Montauk beach in the hopes that it will seduce him into sex. But when he repeatedly rejects her advances, she declares, “This is bullshit. I’m done.” In an instant, their ostensible connection is severed; Maddie makes for the beach, leaving a naked and vulnerable Percy quite literally adrift at sea.

Of course, that isn’t the end of the story. It’s a vital reminder, though, that the power balance of gigified care is more complex than it seems. So long as they’re committed to securing their respective goals, both Percy’s parents and Maddie need each other. But they need each other the way business partners need each other—and the moment the partnership stops serving one party, that party is free, at least emotionally speaking, to turn its back and abandon the other.


The philosophy of gig work—in which people move from situation to situation, in which short-term gains are more important than long-term investments, and in which individuals are disposable the moment they’re no longer useful—has seeped deep into the pores of human relationships both inside and outside of “work.” The pervasiveness of that philosophy is one reason why No Hard Feelings resembles Cline’s novel The Guest. (To give credit where credit is due, it was one of my students, Ivy Becker, who recommended No Hard Feelings to me and first posed the question: “What’s going on with all these stories about women in the Hamptons relying on strangers?”)

Like No Hard Feelings, The Guest follows a young white woman who—egged on by the ubiquitous examples set in a growing and increasingly gnarled gig economy—uses her age and race to worm her way into others’ lives and monopolize her clients’ neediness for profit. Unlike Maddie, Alex doesn’t even have a safe place to take shelter; following her various transgressions, she pleads with Simon to let her stay. But a “switch had been flipped. That was the worst part—to watch how swiftly Simon absented himself, a professional affect taking over.” Though the two had been living together, Simon now looks at her as though she’s a stranger, his face stony and cold.

The terms of Alex’s work are never explicit, and she learns them as a dog navigates a newly installed electric fence—i.e., only when she’s zapped. Suddenly, Simon enforces distance. In revealing her neediness to Simon, Alex makes an increasingly common 21st-century mistake, confusing clients or colleagues for an authentic support system. Can you blame her? Our neoliberal, capitalist present—in which workforces are artfully framed as “families,” in which professional events take place after hours and on weekends, in which there are seldom temporal or spatial distinctions drawn between labor and leisure—makes it all too easy to get mixed up.

Keeping the parameters of their agreements vague allows Alex’s clients to dispose of her at a moment’s notice. It also enables their own avoidance—that is, facing what exactly they need someone like Alex for. To Alex, of course, “what [her clients] all wanted” is abundantly clear: “To see, in the face of another, pure acceptance. Simple, really, but still rare enough that people didn’t get it from their families, didn’t get it from their partners, had to seek it out from someone like Alex.” Like Maddie, Alex muddies the distinctions between sex worker, mother, hookup, wife, escort, and girlfriend. Sometimes Alex is present as a social prop, intended to reflect well on her client in front of a group he needs to impress; sometimes, she’s there for sex. Like any good domestic worker, Alex’s currency is sniffing out what her clients need from her at a given moment—and, ideally, giving it to them before they’re compelled to recognize that need in themselves.

Unhoused, Alex feigns friend-of-a-friend connections to float through the Hamptons. At one point, she takes up with a group of early twentysomethings renting an Airbnb for the weekend; at another, with a lonely teenage boy whose father is a famous movie producer. Once she violates their norms—an easy thing to do—she’s exiled. And, on the occasions when Alex isn’t kicked out, her hosts inevitably become too needy—at which point she arranges for a new place to stay and takes off. “[P]eople’s unhappiness could so quickly infect you,” she observes.


Last year, a cluster of essays probed questions of loneliness, dependency, and care such as those that arise in No Hard Feelings and The Guest. In one, Lily Scherlis explores our current fixation with boundaries—a pop-psychology discourse with dubious origins. While this language is useful insofar as it can be leveraged to protect the personhood of vulnerable populations—Scherlis cites domestic violence cases, for example—it has also played a role in rationalizing the gigification of intimacy, normalizing the idea that one should dispose of others the moment they become needy or vulnerable. “To survive and thrive” today, Scherlis points out, “we are encouraged to unhook from one another.” The lonely implications of such a statement aside, boundaries often teach us to relate to others as though they’re pieces of property, to treat our own time and space as things to lease out. Navigating this belief system, Scherlis argues, necessitates managing a dense set of contradictions. You should rely on your friends but only “in ways that are convenient for them.” You should be vulnerable, but don’t cry too much. Her tongue in her cheek, she adds that “many people are unmarked landmines of explosive need: avoid them.”

Naturally, as in No Hard Feelings and The Guest, wealth begets the luxury of drawing the most convenient boundaries. Those who are able to afford it can simply pay to be removed from the needs of others—to have their own needs met, namely through therapy, without being expected to reciprocate. Rayne Fisher-Quann summed up this dynamic in a Substack post titled “no good alone”:

Call me conspiratorial, but when I see the brightly-coloured Instagram posts encouraging me to cut off my friends and focus on myself, I can’t help but notice a convenient side effect of isolation: it forces us to rely on paid relationships in order to grow. The relationship between you and your therapist is transactional and safe, free of the messiness of attachment or stakes or love.

Put simply, the growing popularity of boundaries discourse both provides us with and legitimizes the rhetoric that lets us off the hook.

Crucially, the language of “boundaries” rarely distinguishes between cleaning up someone’s messes for them and remaining steady—giving no more or no less than before—as a friend, romantic interest, or acquaintance tries to clean up their own messes. It rarely accommodates periods of illness or transition or growing pains; today, we’re not only free but also encouraged to remove ourselves from relationships that, albeit often only temporarily, are taxing or unpleasant. Someone who exhibits need (who “takes up space,” per the language of the day) is a thief. And sitting with someone through their needy times is lost profit rather than an earned privilege … or so we’re led to believe.

Watching working-class women—in addition to or rather than, say, men or corporations—operate in this way throughout The Guest and No Hard Feelings might, at first, feel subversive. Ultimately, though, any refreshment proves depressing—akin to drinking stale water. Like narratives centered on male protagonists or corporate actors, both Stupnitsky’s movie and Cline’s novel are filled with casual ghostings, empty promises to “call you tomorrow,” and pleas for explanations. But here, in the fictionalized Hamptons, no one owes anyone even that. Probably, if someone gets upset, they’re just being needy. And in a world where human connections are commodified, neediness must be avoided at all literal and figurative costs.


Alex, Maddie, and their respective arrangements are the logical outcomes of a culture saturated with boundaries discourse and gig-work philosophy. Cline frequently uses the language of 21st-century commerce to describe Alex’s interactions: a conversation, for instance, is “a smooth transaction,” like a tap payment. “That was the point of Alex,” she writes—“to offer up no friction whatsoever.” In other words, Alex appears convenient and needless. For her clients, engaging with her is tantamount to interacting with AI assistants like Siri or Alexa: there’s no awkwardness, no vulnerability, no reciprocal ask. Alex herself proves adept at repressing need. In one scene, she reads a memoir and finds the behavior of one character uncomfortable, since she was “demanding love so overtly, showing all her cards. As if it were that easy, as if love were something you deserved and didn’t have to scramble to earn.” In her 2004 book Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, Martha Nussbaum explains that feeling disgust in the face of others’ neediness is ultimately about shame. Observing neediness reminds us of our own.

I’d go beyond this, though, and argue that neediness often feels contagious—that seeing others’ neediness feels as though it has the potential to infect us with needs of our own, whether or not they existed in the first place. This is why boundaries tend to click into place when we encounter vulnerability in another. Cline uses a sty Alex develops in her eye as a metaphor for the way people treat her once she has been disposed of: after being kicked out by her former roommates—after the wi-fi password changes, after she suddenly finds herself ignored in common areas—Alex senses the “stye […] coming back.” To put it bluntly, she has grown “infectious,” physically and symbolically.

In this way, Cline’s novel doesn’t let Alex off scot-free. However frictionless she can be for a time, Alex’s needs—as needs are wont to do—burst through, like the recurring sty. We know from her interaction with Simon at the beginning of the novel that demonstrating need is a direct route to being disposed of. (In today’s world, “any human needs are liabilities,” Hannah Baer writes, for “being vulnerable or dependent on someone else makes you less marketable.”) There is one moment, though, when Alex comes close to cracking. Near the novel’s end, she tries to convince herself that she will be able to forget her clients: to forget how she treated them, to forget how they treated her. “But maybe some things could never be erased,” she realizes. “Maybe they tinted some cellular level of your experience, and even if you scraped away whatever part was on the surface, the rot had already gotten beneath.”

Like Simon (who exclusively has friends from work), the only intimacies Alex has are with people she can benefit from in a material way. And the novel suggests that the costs to her humanity of sustained gigified intimacy are significant—likely, the costs to her clients’ humanity are as well. The end of the novel leaves us hanging, as though waiting for a text that may or may never come. Cline’s refusal to resolve the novel’s central plot issue—will Alex win Simon back?—itself reads like a final critique, even an enactment, of gigified intimacy, this time between an author and her audience. As readers, we feel strung along—confused and hungry for answers. But Cline doesn’t owe us resolution, much less satisfaction. Why should she? After all, none of it is personal. It’s just good business.

No Hard Feelings offers a more explicit critique of gigified relationships than The Guest. Jody may no longer be Percy’s nanny, but he shows up on multiple occasions with his former client’s best interests at heart (of course, these moments are played slightly for laughs—watching, we can’t help but wonder: why does he care?). Following Maddie’s failed attempt to walk away after the skinny-dipping episode, she and Percy visit an arcade where, in addition to the twosome sharing their first real fun, Percy emerges with a plastic bag of toys. One of them is a finger trap. Percy tells Maddie to close her eyes; when she opens them, their two digits are attached. Maddie tries to pull away. But the only way to become free, Percy explains, is by leaning in.

And eventually, Maddie does lean in: by the end of the movie, the pair has embarked on a peculiar friendship. Predictably, Percy discovers Maddie’s betrayal. Still, he goes on to forgive her, and the two next appear on a lifeguard chair, sharing a towel to keep warm. The visual is a shrewd gesture back to the finger trap—this time, neither Maddie nor Percy is leaning in, temporarily, in order to get further away. Instead, they break boundaries by choice, drawing close because of their recognition of a mutual need for (literal and figurative) warmth. The image prefaces the movie’s ending, when Maddie uses her new Buick to drop Percy off at Princeton before she heads to California. Maddie has failed at taking his virginity, but something weirder has developed: the two care for each other even though—perhaps because—they don’t have anything to gain from one another. No Hard Feelings closes with a shot of the Buick skirting the coast of Montauk and carrying this odd duo.


Stories like The Guest and No Hard Feelings cast a critical light on a world in which care—receiving comfort even when it’s taxing or inconvenient—isn’t something that we’re entitled to, nor is it something we ourselves owe to others. In their darkest moments, both Stupnitsky’s movie and Cline’s novel push this worldview to its creepiest, most callous extremes. Maddie plies Percy with Long Island iced tea in an attempt to convince him to have sex with her. Alex fingers a wealthy 17-year-old boy’s anus, reveling in his discomfort; unsurprisingly, he grows dependent on her in more ways than one. Like any good, ruthless fuckgirl, Maddie and Alex tell the humans in their orbit what they think they need to hear in order to get what they want.

Yet, in depicting the ultimate failure of the women to lean away, to repress, to unhook, these stories push against the now-commonplace mantra that if you can, you should; that others’ vulnerability is merely a source of unexploited profit; that sliding into a fellow human’s life and misleading them into believing you care for them—that you will be there for them in their hour of need—is justifiable as long as you walk away with material benefit. Read together, the two texts provide a powerful warning: at the end of the day, even if not in the ways you might have expected, you are responsible for the mess you leave behind.

LARB Contributor

Kelly Coyne is a writer and cultural historian. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other places. She teaches in the Department of English at Georgetown University.


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