Love to Love the Bachelor

Zoe Siegel

Once, while talking to a guy at a party, I mentioned feminism. I wasn’t trying to impress him--believe me, I know that’s not the way to go about it--but he had asked about my interests, and “dismantling the patriarchy” is an arguably worse reply. My companion immediately glanced at his watch, the telltale sign that he was about to bolt. I’m not like those feminists! I wanted to yell.

Instead, I said something like, “Oh, yeah, you know, stuff like the heteronormative gender roles in television, The Bachelor, for example, and how they perpetuate unrealistic expectations of love and relationships.” It’s my go-to line whenever I need to sound smart in a pinch. That guy didn’t look at his watch again. 

That kind of talk wouldn’t fly on The Bachelor. I can only assume that the conversations on one-on-one dates aren’t limited to women sharing some kind of traumatic or life-changing event in an attempt to be “vulnerable,” but also include realistic, unsexy talk about the semantics vital to making any relationship work. But viewers don’t see much of that, save Nick and Vanessa from season 21. Since Vanessa was the last woman standing, those unsexy conversations might actually work! But this show is about a kind of courtship that went out of style in the 60’s and romantic fantasy that has never existed. Realism ruins romance.

But hey, the show has never claimed to be anything more than traditional--which in this case means sexist (and so, so white). The arguably “eligible” bachelor is presented with 25 women to date simultaneously and eliminate at his leisure. One woman wins by being offered the final rose and typically, a giant Neil Lane diamond engagement ring.  

Robert Thompson, founding director of Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, has pointed out that, even after 15 years, The Bachelor’s formula hasn’t changed. For most viewers, that means shiny gowns, jealousy, drama, a hunk to drool over, and fabricated romance (fauxmance, if you will) in faraway lands and exotic beaches. Viewers watch with zeal rivaling that of diehard football fans.

One by one, women step out of shiny black limos, onto the shiny shiny driveway, in their shiny dresses, and try to make an even shinier first impression than the women before her. Some are obvious non-starters, some are high quality wife material, and everyone else is there for the spin-off show or Instagram likes.

On the other side of the screen, viewers start making bets. After several episodes, the bachelor has eliminated enough women for the show’s budget to fly the remaining bunch to exotic beaches and faraway lands to really play up the romance factor.

If that’s not fun, I don’t know what is.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been watching The Bachelor since its conception, 15 years ago.  I’m a sucker for old-school, structured courtship. I’m okay with traditional gender roles. Despite all of its regressive, whitewashed glory, I love the show. I especially love deconstructing the shit out of that reductive piece of reality garbage.

My fascination with The Bachelor started around the same time I began watching General Hospital. I became invested in the latter while eating my after school snack and channel-changing the little TV in the kitchen. I loved Arthur and Dragon Tales, but I had to see what else was out there. Spread my wings, you know? My interest in age-inappropriate TV snowballed from there. 

I don’t know how I jumped from children’s broadcasting to scandalous soap operas. It’s possible that I missed a cornerstone of childhood development. Considering that my only takeaway from GH was that coitus involved a lot of rose petals, soft lighting, and a man on top of a woman, I don’t think that scandalous show had a detrimental effect. The Bach was positively G-rated in comparison, and didn’t misrepresent romance anymore than my favorite Disney strongholds.

Obviously I was never going to be flown over the countryside in a helicopter and then picnic on a remote island illuminated by thousands of tea lights. That was not what my pre-teen self found so romantic; it was when, season after season, the contestants divulged their tragic past for the sake of vulnerability. The Bach always stared silently and nodded as supportively as a nod can be. My former self could relate to those tragedies; no, I hadn’t been previously engaged, nor had my fiance died in a firefighting accident, but my parents were so unfair and just didn’t understand me. I too had been touched by misfortune.

Eventually I did some dating of my own, fell in love, out of love, and stayed far, far away from love. It’s great and all, but doesn’t give anyone a happily ever after. The fantastical love portrayed on The Bachelor is manufactured through manipulation, and the final outcome of that manipulation isn’t really love; it’s the same lust that every couple feels in the first months of a new romance.

One-on-one dates (known to regular humans in the real world as “a date”) are opportunities to stimulate the production of the two chemicals that make us feel head over heels in love: norepinephrine and dopamine. The love messengers, if you will. Norepinephrine makes us feel excited and creates heightened awareness. Dopamine is key to any attraction; it signals feel-good sensations and makes us want to keep feeling that way.

Usually these feelings develop over several months, before two people feel comfortable professing their love. But the show’s strict structure and major time restraints doesn’t allow a leisurely pace. The love messengers need to come into play ASAP. While attraction comes easily, it’s not super exciting to watch, and there’s no guarantee that contestants who get one-on-ones will be excited about the Bach as she needs to be for our entertainment. As luck would have it, adrenaline has the same effect as norepinephrine; it gets our hearts racing and palms sweating.  Cue an exciting or terrifying experience to get that adrenaline pumping.

Let’s say the Bachelor takes his lucky Current Chosen One bungee jumping. How exciting! But it turns out that she’s afraid of heights. How terrifying!

Since contestants undergo a lengthy psych evaluation and reveal things like their fear of heights, it’s unlikely that this was a coincidence. It creates drama, and adrenaline abounds!

The Bach comforts his lady and reassures her that everything will be okay. How heroic! They take the leap. Like adrenaline, metaphors abound. Then endorphins take over because they’re both hella relieved they didn’t die.

This contestant presumably equates the thrill and subsequent relief, not with the jump itself, but with the person she jumped with. The Bach! Which brings us to dopamine, high levels of which are found in couples deeply in love.

Cut to a close up of her smiling shyly into the camera and telling millions of viewers that she’s falling in love. Whenever this happens, I have two go-to reactions.

  1. If I don’t like her: Ugh, shut up.

  2. If I do like her: Ugh, shut up, you can do so much better.

Within a few episodes, several of the women feel like they’re falling in love with this man, despite how little time they’ve spent with him. Jealousy and insecurity show up, and tensions rise.

The explanation for that bizarro behavior is known as the scarcity principle. There’s only one bachelor and far too many women. Each woman wants to love and be loved in return, but there’s only option. Since the demand greatly outweighs the supply, the only available option becomes more appealing. It’s like playing hard to get. When someone or thing seems unavailable, we want it more. Seems like a super healthy way to start a relationship, right?

It’s at this point that the stakes grow and the emotional manipulation of the viewer really takes effect. With cameras rolling almost 24/7, the contestants’ best and worst sides are all digitally captured. Their true selves aren’t necessarily shown; their portrayals depend on what will tell the most entertaining story.

Every season has a villain, who is disliked by other women because she either

1.) gets the Bachelor’s attention using her sexuality

2.) says that she isn’t there to make friends in defense of her unpleasant behavior

Both implicitly disregard acceptable, polite social conduct and say more about those being judgmental than those portrayed as villains.

Every season also has an obvious frontrunner, a jokester, a weirdo, and one or two black women, who don’t make it past the first few episodes.

Regardless, they’ll be nothing more than two-dimensional caricatures created by slapping together different clips from various points in filming, ultimately flattening dozens of unique and complex human experiences.

The show’s sister series, The Bachelorette, is maybe an attempt to flip the script, but the concept of 25 men fawning over one woman is hardly revolutionary, or even original. Honestly, from what I’ve watched, it’s downright boring. Beefcakes, douchebags, and nerds are stuck together in close quarters without any connection to the outside world. Like the female contestants of The Bachelor, the men are forced to interact with each other for the sake of conflict and “drama.”

While the petty antics of immature women can entertain me for hours on end, the hairless, hypermasculine suitors of The Bachelorette lack that same appeal. The show’s behind-the-scenes look at the unremarkable lives of insecure men really detracts from the romance. Yeah, I want my man to be sensitive, but only show that side to me. The fantasy is to be the exception to his typically unavailable emotions, not one of  hundreds of thousands of women and men across the country.  

A successful flip of the traditional structure may be just around the corner, though. Rachel Lindsay is the first black person to be featured on either The Bachelorette or The Bachelor. She was among the top 3 finalists from Nick’s season, and even though she didn’t get that proposal, was a huge fan favorite. The Bachelor franchise is way behind on the social progress front, but so is most of the country.

The show’s first attempt to diversify with season 18’s bachelor, Venezuelan former pro soccer player Juan Pablo Galavis, was halfhearted at best and failed abysmally. Juan Pablo repelled several women so strongly, they left the show of their own volition. Things got really weird when JP had sex with one of the contestants, Clare, way before the show’s allotted sex window (a.k.a. “The Fantasy Suite”) and then basically told her that he regretted doing so. For some reason, she stuck around, and even made it to the final two! But he picked Nikki instead, without proposing or even professing his love, which is actually commendable. He didn’t love her or want to marry her, and didn’t make false promises. The couple announced their shocking breakup a few months later.

It should come as no surprise that after 21 seasons, only two Bachelor-made couples are still together and married. In 2009, at the end of season 13, Jason Mesnick proposed to Melissa Rycroft. Three months later, when the show taped the live “After the Final Rose” follow-up episode, Jason dumped her. As if that wasn’t awful enough, a few minutes later, on the SAME EPISODE, runner-up Molly came out on the stage and Jason told her that he just dumped his fiancee, the woman he chose over Molly, and wanted Molly after all! She gushed that she only dreamt this would happen, and immediately took him back. Because that’s a super healthy and emotionally sound way to start a relationship. (Do you think she got a giant Neil Lane diamond too?) But hey, they’ve been married since 2010 and have a kid together, so it seems like things have worked out.

But technically, Jason and Molly ended up together after the show, not on it, so the only successfully married, Bachelor-made couple is Sean Lowe and Catherine Guidici. A successful match was bound to happen eventually, and it only took seventeen seasons! As of July 2016, they have a baby boy, too. Good for them.

Zoe is a non-fiction writer who has written a variety of content for different health and wellness startups. Her creative work focuses on personal relationships, feminism, and social psychology. She previously contributed such writing to Elite Daily, and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Zoe currently resides in Los Angeles.