Why this Feminist Loves The Bachelor, or, Pretty White People Behaving Badly
This Monday, The Bachelor is back! And I can’t wait. Since 2002, I’ve been a viewer of The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and even the miserably sleazy Bachelor Pad.
And why do I watch this stuff? Because I’m addicted to romance? Because I have great faith that two strangers will fall in love on an eight-week long reality show and live happily ever after?
No and hell no. I watch these shows for one reason — because they are just about the funniest shows I’ve ever seen on television.
If you haven’t seen The Bachelor, it goes like this. An “ideal” (re: attractive) man meets 25 ideal (re: attractive and extremely thin) women at a cocktail party. At the end of the evening, he lines up the women at a “rose ceremony,” and gives roses to the women he wants to “keep.” The rejects get sent home. For the next couple of months, The Bachelor goes on dates with various women, and at the end of each episode, there’s a rose ceremony and more rejects. Towards the end of the season, the three remaining women (who are all in love by this time) all go on romantic overnight dates. The women have the option of spending time away from the cameras in the “fantasy suite” with the Bachelor, and they usually take it. (I’m by no means a prude, but eww?) At the end of the show, both women approach The Bachelor at an “alter.” He sends the first one home in tears, and proposes to the other. And then they live happily after ever.
Or not. Two out of eight seasons of The Bachelorette (which works the same as The Bachelor with a woman lead), have resulted in marriages. None of the 15 Bachelors have married their final choice, although one dumped his first choice and eventually married his “runner up.”
Sound pretty horrible? It is. It’s fabulously horrible. It’s everything that’s wrong with American culture — but to such an overwhelming degree that to me, it comes across as pure satire. I know there are people that take this show seriously, but that’s hard for me to believe because it’s so over-the-top ridiculous.
So what does this show satirize? Where do I even start?
The Bachelor as Satire of Gender Roles
This is what makes The Bachelor the most funny, at least to me. The women on this show are portrayed as so helpless and so male-dependent that it’s hard to conceptualize the show as anything other than a satire of screwed-up gender roles.
First, there’s the appearance issue. It’s no secret that there’s way too much emphasis on physical appearance in this culture. And when it comes to dating, there’s way too much emphasis on looks.
But The Bachelor is looks-obsessed America to the satirical extreme. The thing is, your average looks-obsessed individual in search of a dating partner has at least some variation of what he or she finds attractive. On The Bachelor, the “contestants” look so much alike that it’s hard for me to tell the difference. There are basically two women on this show: the skinny blonde with long straight hair and the skinny brunette with long straight hair. It’s kind of like that Robert Plant “Addicted to Love” video. Curly or red hair is rare, glasses are very rare, and bodies that exceed a size six are non-existent. The only real variation has to do with cup size, which comes in (a) au naturale small, (b) au naturale large, and (c) not-so-au naturale large.
Oh, and of course they’re all very young. Few are over 30, even if The Bachelor is older. A Bachelor contestant reappeared on Bachelor Pad at the age of 39, and while the other contestants were identified on screen by name and age, she was identified as “Gwen, ??.”
To further define this satirically narrow definition of beauty, the majority of the women on this show are caked in makeup. I mean, caked. Many of them look like 40-year-old women who are desperately trying to look 21 (or, should I say, they look like ??-year-old women who are trying to look 21.)
The most notable of the makeup-abusers was probably Bachelorette Emily. Along with her love of makeup, Emily loved clothes, and her wardrobe budget for the show reportedly topped $350,000, Because apparently, even women who meet America’s most stringent standards of beauty aren’t acceptable for TV without tubs of makeup and clothes that cost more than most of us spend on our homes.
The men are even harder to tell apart. Tall. Broad shoulders. Lots of muscles. Usually dark hair. There’s an occasional “hipster” guy thrown in, like shaggy Bachelor Ben a few seasons ago. And there’s an occasional bald guy. But mostly they all look like That Guy at the Gym.
But it’s much more than just appearance that makes this show such a satire of gender roles. It’s the absolute neediness and male-dependency these women display for the puppet-master man who has complete control of who he keeps and who he rejects. In this satirical version of a culture where women are taught subtly that self-worth comes through a man, the Bachelor women find themselves crying hysterically when they are rejected by a virtual stranger.
So why are the women so hysterical? Well, many of them aren’t. They’re looking for a chance to be on TV, and when the producer tells them to act upset, they act upset. But according to Reality Steve (a blog that serves as the closest thing this franchise has to a tell-all), many of the contestants are manipulated to the point that they do get hysterical. They are stuck together for days as they await the possibility of a date, with no reading material or computers or phones or any access to the outside world. They are given a constant flow of alcohol and have nothing to do but talk about The Bachelor. After weeks of this, some of them are genuinely convinced they are in love with this man. And even if they’re not, the producers use some seriously questionable techniques to make sure the (drunk) rejected women leave the rose ceremonies crying hysterically for their lost love.
So, is The Bachelorette any less patriarchal, since the woman gets to choose? It’s a little better, but still, the woman is still portrayed as extremely emotional when it comes to her men and any perceived rejection by them. One recent Bachelorette, Ashley, was seen crying for weeks after the guy she liked best left the show because he wasn’t that into her. And ultimately, the women get proposed to by the remaining men, not the other way around.
The other gender role stereotype that pervades this show is female cattiness, especially when it comes to competition with men. The (often drunk) women are portrayed fighting with each other as often as they are portrayed gushing over The Bachelor. Of course, much of this nastiness comes out in the women’s private confessionals, where the (often drunk) women are encouraged to talk smack about each other. Because that’s how women are, right? Women are catty beyotches. Or so they tell us on The Bachelor.
The Bachelor as Satire of Whiteness
There’s never been a person of color as Bachelor or Bachelorette, and very few “contestants” on the show itself have been anything but white. In fact, there was a lawsuit last year because of this — which seemed odd to me. I am very much in favor of having more people of color on television. But on this show? Why anyone would think that putting more minorities on such a trashy reality show would count as progress is beyond me. It’s like complaining that there should be more minorities on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
So what The Bachelor winds up being is a show about Pretty White People Behaving Badly. When it comes right down to it, this show is one obnoxious stereotype about white people after another.
Now, since white people (like me) are the dominant group in our society, it can be hard for white people to think about demeaning “white stereotypes” the way we think about “Asian stereotypes” or “African-American stereotypes.” But when you start thinking about what those stereotypes might be, they look a lot like the people on The Bachelor. Self-absorbed, shallow, and narcissistic? Check. Obsessed with superficial appearances? Check. Catty and really, really whiny? Check. Gullible enough to believe you can fall in love with someone in eight weeks who’s dating a dozen other people at the same time?
Think of it this way: imagine that white people were a historically oppressed group in the United States. Then imagine that a show like The Bachelor came on the air that was filled with no one other than white people behaving like shallow, fame-starved dimwits. White advocacy groups all across America would be fighting to have this racist drivel removed from the airwaves.
Of course, as ubiquitously attractive white people, many contestants come with ubiquitous white names. Often last initials need to be used at rose ceremonies because there’s almost always an Ashley H. and an AshLee B., or a Kacey B. and a Casey S., or a Lindsay J. and a Lindsey C. (One season there was even a Lindzi, which is probably equal parts original and pathetic.)
The Bachelor as Satire of Romance and Dating
Does dating in real life seem silly sometimes? Does it seem like a lot of game playing, and romanticized expectations that no one can really live up to?
The ridiculousness of dating is another cultural norm that’s satirized to the extreme on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I mean, the very premise of these shows is illogical at best and sadistic at worst. Realistically, if someone is given 25 people to choose from — and a good portion of those are chosen solely because they are melodramatic and will come across well on TV — how likely is it that this person will find true love, in eight weeks, while dating lots of other people?
Despite this, no one on this show is ever allowed to say that the “process,” as it’s called, is crazy. Occasionally someone is allowed to say something like, “I was skeptical at first, but after my date with Ben, I can really see a future with him!” Nobody says what everyone knows the vast majority of them are thinking, which is, “I really want to be on TV, so I’ll say whatever the producers tell me to say so I’ll get lots of screen time!” You think real dating is about playing games? Try dating on reality TV.
In my opinion, one of the hilarious outcomes of this show was when Bachelor Brad rejected both of his two final women. He just wasn’t in love with either of them. Perfectly reasonable, right? Not if you ask the screaming, mortified audience member at the After the Final Rose show. But there’s more to Brad’s story. The show decided to give him “another chance at love” and let him be The Bachelor again. But first he had to tell “all of America” what a selfish, foolish thing it was to reject “the process.” Before meeting the 25 new women, he had to apologize to the two women he rejected last time, and throughout the show, he had to meet on camera with a therapist to help him work through his “commitment issues.” (Brad did wind up proposing — to makeup mannequin Emily pictured above, but alas, they broke up. Guess it must be commitment issues, huh? What else could possibly be wrong with the process?)
The Bachelor as Satire of Reality TV
By now, most savvy reality TV viewers knows that the producers manipulate the action of reality TV shows to make things more dramatic and entertaining. While some reality shows are more scripted than others, there’s always some aspect of scripting going on. And when it comes to The Bachelor, the script is so ubiquitous and predictable that it’s outright satirical.
So who’s in the cast? The following characters always make an appearance:
- The Villain. She (or he) is nasty to the other contestants, both to their face and in confessionals. The Villain is accused of playing a game and not really being in love with The Bachelor or Bachelorette. They also do things that are perceived of as cheating, like when Courtney secretly went skinny dipping with Bachelor Ben. One of my favorite things that happened on The Bachelor, ever, is that the much-hated villain Courtney actually won, to the horror of the show’s true believers!
- The Psycho. This person is too into the Bachelor or Bachelorette. The producers ply the psycho with lots of alcohol for maximum effect before the inevitable dramatic dumping.
- The Girl (or Guy) Who’s Not There for the Right Reasons. The “right reason” is that they’re committed to the “process.” The “wrong reason” is that they want to be on TV. Getting outed as being in the second category (which could happen to anyone) means disdain from fellow contestants and probable rejection.
- The Girl (or Guy) With the Boyfriend/Girlfriend Back Home. According to Reality Steve, an awful lot of the contestants are in this category. But to stir up extra drama, the show sometimes outs someone with a secret significant other. The Bachelor or Bachelorette is prompted to act horrified and throw this loser off the show.
- The Girl (or Guy) Who Can’t Open Up. “Opening up” is a big part of the game here. While in normal dating circumstances, daters are advised to get to know their partner slowly, there’s not that luxury when you’re competing with all these other daters. There’s always someone pegged as the one who won’t share enough life stories and secrets with a virtual stranger and the TV audience, and who isn’t willing to bring the relationship “to the next level.” That person gets sent home.
- The Sob Story. Reality TV is populated by lots of these, and one of the best ways to get cast is to let the producers in on your sob story. Did your father die last year? Did your boyfriend dump you in a text? (That happened to poor Lindzi — or so she claims.) Did your semi-famous race driver fiance die in a plane crash, leaving your pregnant at age 18? (Emily’s sob story.) Did you get really sick because you were renting a moldy house? (I can’t even remember whose lame sob story this was, but he didn’t last long. Not that mold isn’t serious, but hey, how can that compete with a tragically dead fiance?)
- The Host. Chris Harrison doesn’t do much, but his unapologetic “go team go” attitude about the process makes him one of the funniest cast members. Chris is there to pretend like contestants are all there for love, not for fifteen minutes of fame, and he either believes this or does a really good job acting. He’s heard in the promos promising things like “this will be our most dramatic rose ceremony ever!” He also presides over the melodramatic rose ceremonies, which are filled with intense music that lets the audience knows how very important these moments are. When there’s only one rose left, Chris has his Big Moment. He walks out and says, “Ladies. Ben. It’s the final rose tonight.”
You get the idea. It’s no wonder viewers love to play drinking games based on catch phrases in this show. “Not here for the right reasons?” Take a drink! “Not ready to take this relationship to the next level?” Drink! “The most dramatic rose ceremony ever?” Drink twice!
In this era of reality TV and endless cable stations, we all have our campy pleasures, I suppose. There are things we watch because they’re informative or thought-provoking or intentionally funny. And there are some things we watch because of the great ironic pleasure it brings us. The Bachelor is mine, and although I know there are people out there who watch this because they think it’s romantic and sweet, my guess is that an awfully large chunk of the viewers of this show watch it for the same reasons I do.