There’s nothing all that intellectual about reality TV, except that the illusion of such shows often shines a light on actual reality.
Five months ago I sat on my couch, watching the finale of The Bachelor, genuinely angry. Arie proposed to one woman, Becca, and then rejected her for his “runner up,” who he then proposed to on live tv…because that was a very good idea the first time! Not long after that, his original pick is announced as the new Bachelorette, and all of my anger melts away into smug satisfaction. Now Becca holds the cards, and her on screen breakup nightmare can be avenged as she calls the shots on her own romance.
In this moment, everything that’s strange, weird, and paradoxical about The Bachelor franchise in all its iterations becomes clear. How can a series that sells fantasy, promote two different models of the idea, depending on who’s in control of the season, to the same demographic (of mostly women), and not have to own up to the contradictions? And why in the world do I watch it?
When a man is in control during The Bachelor, the show is about the chase. Thirty women chase him around the world to exotic locations, rewarded along the way with romantic dates with sweeping panoramic views, enjoyed from portable hot tubs, staged in improbable situations. The dates, to be fair, are romantic, which is the fantasy The Bachelor promotes. Some good looking guy plans some unbelievably perfect afternoon that ends with some meaningful conversation and private fireworks display…while 29 other women sit home and jealously stew for the cameras, plotting how far they’d be willing to go to make sure they get the same kind of attention.
The problem with The Bachelor is not the romantic, if laughably accelerated, courtship, or that the man is in control of the season. It’s that in setting it up as a chase, women are inherently focused on the other women instead of the man. In chasing someone or something, it’s all about whether or not one woman is ahead of the other women in the race, and how far she’s willing to go, and what she’s willing to do, to put herself in the lead. I’m convinced this is why the average age of the women who win The Bachelor is between 24-25. There any number of things I might have considered doing for attention at 24 that I wouldn’t have done at 28. (Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that the average age of the woman calling the shots on The Bachelorette is between 27-28.) The Bachelor encourages this kind of behavior, mostly through copious amounts of alcohol, and it ultimately works out for one “lucky” woman. The chase should not appeal to us as a fantasy however!
When the woman is in control during The Bachelorette, thirty men pursue her. Whereas on The Bachelor a woman may have to give it all away, and fast, to remain out in front of the chase, on The Bachelorette the woman can remain as coy as she wishes, even playing hard to get if it suits her, and allow the men to continue to pursue and woo her affections. While there are plenty of antics and drama on The Bachelorette, pursuit is inherently different than chase. And the men in pursuit tend to be more focused on the woman then they are on the other men. The independent, feminist streak in me says that as women, we should find this significantly more romantic and desirable.
Thus, what ultimately confuses me about The Bachelor franchise is how the same group of viewers tunes in to the different shows and buys in to very different versions of fantasy. As a woman who embarrassingly admits to watching both, I can say my own motives are perhaps slanted based on which season I’m watching. I’m critical of the Bachelor and his intentions. I’m critical of the women who make fools of themselves for love that is highly unlikely to last. I roll my eyes during the proposal at the end, and bet my friends how long it will last. In contrast, I root for the Bachelorette. I rarely question whether she’s in it for the right reasons. I swoon when the men make real efforts of romantic pursuit, and I have far higher hopes for the resulting relationship…and in fairness, The Bachelorette does boast a higher success rate.
While the real “meaning” of The Bachelor franchise is frivolous entertainment, and any relationship coming out of any version of the show should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, there is something to be said for what it reflects of the values and fantasies we perpetuate in the real life relationships we pursue. I must leave my poor husband perplexed. Which version of the fantasy do I want in my own life, the one where I pine for his attention and am rewarded with well planned dates and exotic sunset kisses; or the one where he pursues me and I remain aloof until ready to be won?
I probably want both and neither at the same time. I want pursuit, but if I never allow myself to be caught, my husband grows increasingly put out. And while I don’t want to compromise my sense of self worth to chase a man, it’s as important that I play to the fantasy of being the chaser, if not fully for my own benefit, for him. It is this compromise that is lacking in every relationship that comes out of the franchise, and the ability to find this compromise that probably determines in part whether the couple survives or fails when the cameras stop rolling. Does the relationship last when it’s no longer all or nothing, and can the person who was being chased switch to the role of pursuer, or the pursued become the same woman willing to win the chase? While this balance is terribly out of whack on this reality TV show, in reality, I find it to be a definite component of a real, healthy, romantic relationship.
I watch The Bachelor knowing it’s garbage, and The Bachelorette knowing the only reason I think it’s slightly better than garbage is because, as a woman, I like a strong female protagonist. And while they hard sell the fairytale, and trips around the world are romantic, at the end of the day, the best thing I can do, is turn off the tv, crawl into bed next to the person who picked me without a producer whispering directions in his ear, and realize that that is all the fantasy I need.