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Image credit: Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

The incredibly sad world of niche dating apps

Sorry, Cinderella: Prince Charming isn't on the Tinder for adult Disney fans.

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Illustration by D. Thomas Magee

When I exited the market in 2006, online dating was akin to wearing sweatpants in the club. It was a sign that you'd given up on the "real" world; a symbol of existential surrender.

Nearly 10 years later, both sweatpants and online dating are experiencing a renaissance. As the recent IPO for Tinder parent Match Group shows, digital matchmaking is big business, but for every Tinder, Grindr or Match.com, there are hundreds if not thousands of niche dating sites catering to the most specific and peculiar areas of interest.

There are services for salad lovers and bacon lovers, for admirers of sea captains and farmers, for pot smokers and sober sweethearts, for Filippina Christians, Ayn Rand enthusiasts and people who have the hots for hot sauce. If you can find a way to categorize a future mate based on a mutual love of something -- anything -- there's an app for that. But can you actually find love when you've narrowed your options in the name of, say, a common love of Ursula the Sea Witch?

Since mid-December, I've been lurking in the background of two different incredibly niche online dating services in an attempt to find out. It was far sadder than I anticipated.

My initial reaction to news of Mouse Mingle betrayed my distaste for both adult cartoon fans and what I see as one of the worst parts of online dating today: excessive specificity.

"Like, I get wanting to connect with like-minded people, but if you're basing an adult relationship on your mutual love of 'The Little Mermaid,' I can't imagine things are going to work out for you," I quipped in Slack.

But as the old bedroom adage goes: Don't knock it 'til you try it. So I did.

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: This is not the Magic Kingdom of dating apps, but it is, in fact, a real mickey mouse operation. The site (a temporary white-label app is also available) is devoid of Disney branding and claims no connection to the charming rodent and his empire. In place of all your favorite cartoon friends are a series of generic web forms and web 1.0 graphics. The only real visual cues that you're on a site for Disney fans are a poorly lit snapshot from Disneyland and a white-gloved cursor.

With each box ticked I could see my Olympic-sized dating pool turning into a romance Lazy River, where I'd be lucky to see a fresh turd float by.

I didn't let that deter me. I picked a screen name (Mickey Trout), uploaded a photoshopped image of myself wearing mouse ears and filled out a list of criteria (body type, ethnicity, etc.) before answering a list of granular but truly important questions. I'm a total Pluto person with a "Star Wars Nerd Level" of "Meh," if you must know.

With each box ticked I could see my Olympic-sized dating pool turning into a romance Lazy River, where I'd be lucky to see a fresh turd float by. That's not to say that Mouse Mingle is devoid of perfectly datable people, but the chances they live nearby and meet all of your other, albeit less crucial, non-cartoon criteria, are really quite small.

The one-man show behind Mouse Mingle, Dave Tavres, told me that he knew of two couples who had actually met in person. TWO. MET. IN PERSON. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but not particularly surprising, either.

In nearly two months, I got all of two "Winks," Mouse Mingle's cutesy version of a right swipe. I'd matched with nearly 10 times as many men in two days on Tinder. The first winker was a middle-aged school-bus driver and self-published gay erotic novelist from Washington. The other was a California state employee with a love for theater who admitted to "looking for love in all the wrong places."

Had I been able to message him without handing over my credit card number, I would have told him he'd yet to break that cycle. Unfortunately, Mouse Mingle requires a subscription of $12.55 a month to move beyond a Wink. Maybe it's the bargain-basement web design, but something about the site doesn't quite inspire the level of trust I require to part with my banking details.

Besides, of all the men that the app suggested as perfect matches, only one was less than an hour away. I can think of about a million other ways to spend my money that have nothing to do with driving cross-country for a man who named his cat after a cartoon puppet who dreamed of being a real boy.

What it lacks in actual users, Mouse Mingle makes up for in sincerity. The same can not be said for Sizzl, Oscar Mayer's bacon-based marketing-stunt-cum-hookup-app. Sizzl operates in much the same way as Tinder, allowing you to connect with other swine enthusiasts only after you've both shown interest. As opposed to a simple swipe, Sizzl uses a hard press to show your interest. Once you've mutually sizzl'd, the app alerts you that you are "bacon lovers."

Profiles, are, unsurprisingly, bacon-centric. In addition to your age, location and photo, the app displays three bacon-based traits. As it turns out, I'm a "pork bacon lover" who "loves it crispy." I am also a "bacon giver," not a "bacon taker," both of which sound incredibly messy and uncomfortable.

I got a little more action on Sizzl than Mouse Mingle -- I've had four total matches since Dec. 16 -- but that was due in part to some overzealous hard-pressing. I was determined to find out who would, in their right mind, download and engage with a thinly veiled Oscar Meyer ad. Luckily, I connected with a 21-year-old local crispy bacon giver, who said he downloaded the app "Bc it looked cool on tv."

In the weeks that followed, he would message me multiple times, on one occasion inquiring about my taste in men, not bacon. It hadn't occurred to me that there were people out there who so identified with a particular pork product that they would genuinely seek out a significant other based on their mutual love of that meat. I had known the pangs of emptiness brought on by hookup apps like Tinder and Grindr, but this was just depressing.

Oscar Meyer isn't alone in capitalizing on our desire to make a genuine connection in what can seem like a soulless meat market. Salad Match, for example, is an app produced by a salad restaurant aimed at transforming salad lovers into actual lovers. In fact, nearly all of the niche dating sites I've come across -- save for maybe ChristianFilipina.com -- are based on a mutual desire to consume something. Whether it's bacon or Disney cartoons or even hot sauce, the underlying message is "you are what you eat."

I like to think of myself as more than a crispy bacon giver or a "Pluto person," and I'd hope that the man of my dreams would be able to look past the chalupa and love me for the things that truly define me, not my taste in hot sauce. Apps like these reduce us to how we spend our money and, as a result, disregard the nuances of attraction and the benefit of an outside perspective.

When you go deep, like Mouse Mingle deep, you not only reduce yourself to a line item on your bank statement, you also alienate a huge part of the eligible population. In the words of the Little Mermaid, I wanna be where the people are. They are not on Mouse Mingle.

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