For 20 seasons, The Bachelor has been nailing the holy trinity of reality TV: competition, consumerism and voyeurism. The reality powerhouse lets us peer in at a private social ritual, that of dating. The final pairings that the show produces don’t last (with a few exceptions); the ‘fairy-tale romance’ clearly doesn’t endure. And yet the franchise goes from strength to strength. It’s the process that fascinates.
This show is bipolar. It manages to both worship and condemn sex, somehow using a polygamous scenario to reinforce monogamy. It asks us to both condemn and enjoy negative stereotypes of women, punishing bitchiness while also casting it as one of The Bachelor’s chief viewing pleasures. One of the most insistent tropes is the demand for contestants to ‘be honest’, to make ‘confessions’ and ‘be themselves’; however, too much honesty or disclosure is punished. You absolutely must be yourself, but ‘yourself’ must be white, domestic, upper-middle class, demure, maternal, not too quirky or funny, and reeeeally into the bachelor, even if he is boring, unoriginal and banging 3 other women. It’s bizarre how the show balances the premise of a stud getting with 20 chicks and the pure, glorious institution of marriage and lifelong partnership. Every level of the show reinforces the importance of marriage; think about the title of the rose ‘ceremony’ (meanwhile, the entire franchise has produced pitifully few actual marriages).
And it clearly isn’t real. The producers deliberately select contestants who are likely/willing to produce drama. And when things run too smoothly, they manufacture conflict. It’s the WWE of romance. But the obvious artifice is part of the pleasure: “the predictability of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette is part of the shows’ appeal”. They’re not subtle about it; among the most common professions for Bachelor contestants are cheerleader and actress. The audience is in on the joke, and it doesn’t detract from enjoyment, as we accept the show as “both “real” and “not-real” and therefore worth viewing and worthless at the same time” (1). Many viewers seem to be vacillating between true emotional engagement with the show’s soapy clichés and a mocking voyeurism. The two attitudes are voiced in this Reddit exchange about the upcoming show;
‘very excite! Will cry!’
“Nooo, you’ll laugh, just like the rest of us cynical bitches”
Or this one;
“I’m not looking forward to seeing one of them get totally blindsided and crushed”
“oh man, that’s half my reason for watching!”
Even ‘real’ dating is pretty surreal these days. With hook-up culture, smartphone apps, and all the game-playing and pretense that goes into courtship, the rules are extremely unclear. Convenience, choice, sexual liberation and social media have ‘changed the game’. In a way, The Bachelor is less confusing and more honest than modern love, because the premise is clear from the beginning, and the outcome is pre-determined. The format imposes an order on the chaos of relationships. Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (a funny and smart book about dating in the 21st century) points out the new frontier of romantic love; “historically, we’re at a unique moment. No one has ever been presented with more options in romance and expected to make a decision where the expectations are so astronomically high.” The Bachelor is the exaggeration of this, a sampler box of babes, a cross between a beauty pageant and speed dating, Tinder made flesh.
I’m pretty confident that even some of the most ardent fans would admit that the show is sexist. Roles are kept very traditional. Proposals are made by men. Sex is sought by men. There’s the massive emphasis on female appearance, the slut-shaming, the staged bitchiness of the harem as opposed to the ‘buddy’ dynamic developed on The Bachelorette. Contestants are informed in the casting application to include a close-up and a full body shot, with the addendum ‘this is very important’.
Viewers are aware that the show is a nasty cocktail of prudishness and objectification. The Bachelor is constantly labelled a ‘guilty pleasure’; I’m gonna put myself on the line and say that it is genuinely entertaining, even while I agree with those who say it plays to “the shittiest parts of me: my tendency to get really judgmental…my deepest fears about my real worth as a woman”. At the same time, women flock to the Bachelor because it’s for us; with so much media focused on or directed towards men, we do sometimes just want to feel like we’re invited. It makes us feel good and it makes us feel bad. “I am an intelligent woman…Why do I watch this shit?… Why do I feel so guilty about it but also empowered by my guilty pleasure?” (2)
In a way, the roles and messages of the show are so ridiculously overwrought, so explicitly unrealistic and archaic, that it’s easy to identify and laugh at them. It’s almost refreshing to have sexism so comically and brazenly announced, instead of the insidious implications and misogyny-by-omission that we see in so much popular culture. We know that it’s laughable to use the L-word to a guy you’ve met twice; we know that the cattiness, craziness and clinginess are a performance; we know that these women represent a carefully selected and edited social extreme. The Bachelor does double duty, undermining everything it perpetuates. I’ll take a wink-nudge ‘bitch’ archetype from The Bachelor anyday over Marie from Breaking Bad, who writers were passing off as ‘quality television’.
The Bachelor gives women (and men!) a shared experience. This isn’t the kind of show where you sit in intent silence, absorbing the nuances. It’s a space for ridicule, laughter, speculation, sometimes tears. Viewing parties are a keystone of the Bachelor’s popularity, and conversations abound on Twitter, Reddit and in various forums. A favourite talking point in these exchanges is what viewers will be drinking during. Viciously witty comments (or just basic meanness) are also essential to enjoying The Bachelor. A quick scan of the show’s Facebook turns up ‘she’s botoxed cardboard’ (descriptive!) ‘sucking on a lemon’ (unimaginative) ‘walks funny’ (pretty low). There’s also an obsession with being ‘classy’, which is a word that we love to use to police women’s bodies and actions. The general opinion seems to be that these women asked for it when they sent in their application videos.
But we’re not just taking aim at appearances. The Bachelor frequently reminds us of the all-important struggle to regulate female emotion, relishing in invasive shots of weeping and ‘hysterical’ bachelorettes (3). The Bachelor isn’t about selection, or he’d get to know all of them over the course of the series and then pick his favourite. It’s about elimination, and therefore the focus is on what the rejects do wrong. Watching is a party, and the women are piñatas: we all take a whack at them and we get rewarded with the candy of self-superiority.
Although this is deeply tangled up with harmful models of female sexuality and competition, it isn’t limited to The Bachelor, or to television, or to women. It’s a recognised behaviour; “to maintain a sense of self-worth, people seek out and compare themselves to the less fortunate. This process is known as downward social comparison”. So being mean has less to do with hating them, and more to do with trying to like ourselves; ‘as we watch the star-crossed clusterfuck unfold, laughing incredulously as wannabe rose winners strip themselves of every last shred of dignity, we can’t help but think: “At least I’m not desperate enough to do that.“’
The bachelorettes are vapid, tacky, shallow and dumb, leaving us feeling “unattractive but smart” (2). Part of watching in a group and likening the hopefuls to various zoo animals is a kind of ostracism or ‘othering’, which according to the science of group behaviour can increase group cohesion. When we’re collectively mean about somebody else with our ‘squad’, we feel closer to them.
I do suspect that at least some of the hand-wringing and mud-slinging directed at The Bachelor is part of the phenomenon of devaluing any media with a female audience (which I’ve touched on before). A Stuff article filled with righteous indignation about the harmful messages of the show featured a tragically regressive comment section, such as the old-fashioned gentleman who pointed out that men have larger brains than women. Sorry fella, that argument died last century.
The Bachelor is undoubtedly the product of a culture that has some pretty profound ‘woman issues’. It’s run by some seemingly pretty creepy people, and it kind of trucks in human misery. But merely labelling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is just uninteresting; there’s more going on here. This show helps us unwind for some reason; “the Bachelor means my overworked, overanalytical brain can vacate for a full 60 minutes…It’s better than meditation”. We know better than to watch and still we succumb, like the viewer who confesses that she ‘sat down for a laugh (3 seasons ago)…and here we are’. It’s a knowing, self-aware self-indulgence, both sadism and masochism. One Reddit user summarises the common refrain; “It’s like watching a train wreck. A hilarious, pretty train wreck”. It makes us laugh and makes us cry, it makes us like ourselves and hate ourselves, provokes empathy and cruelty. With our ironic roses, our snarky comments and our heartfelt favourites, there’s a lot to be learned here about what we enjoy, how we enjoy it and why.
1. Cloud, Dana. 2010. The Irony Bribe and Reality Television: Investment and Detachment in The Bachelor. Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 27, Issue 5. 413-437
2. Spencer, Callie and Karen Paisley. 2013. Two Women, a Bottle of Wine, and The Bachelor: Duoethnography as a Means to Explore Experiences of Femininity in a Leisure Setting. Journal of Leisure Research Volume 45, Issue 5. 695-716
3. Brophy-Baermann, Michelle. 2005. True Love on TV: A Gendered Analysis of Reality Romance
Television. Assorted Articles on Spectacles of Love, War, and Politics Volume 4, Issue 2. 17-51