I've been thinking a lot recently about one of the most relevant and pressing social issues of our day: the reality TV show The Bachelor.
I became obsessed with The Bachelor by accident. One Sunday a few years ago, my friend Limpho and I were hanging out in my flat, and decided to ironically watch the first episode of South African version. We were a little tipsy, and thought it would be a fun game to take a sip every time somebody said the word "ladies". Four hours later, we were halfway through the season and too drunk to form coherent sentences. By this point, we were so invested that we promised to meet up again the next weekend to watch the next chunk of episodes together.
So, of course, the next morning, I had to message her and confess that I'd stayed up all night and binged the whole season and she texted me back and said "oh thank god, me too".
If you've somehow missed it, the premise of The Bachelor is that a bunch of nearly identical almost-all white women in their early 20s spend three months living together in a mansion, trying to win the affections of one eligible bachelor (always a chiselled-jaw dude, often an ex-professional athlete or otherwise rich, usually with about as much personality as a clothes rack). They go on hyperbolically romantic dates, spend a lot of time in bikinis and evening-wear, and are eliminated one by one until the chosen one is awarded the "final rose" and - often - an engagement ring. It's kind of like the Playboy Mansion but overlaid with a veneer of respectability because the intention is that you will get married at the end of it.
The whole thing is bizarelly regressive. All of the women have a specific beauty pageant look (indeed, many of the contestants are former beauty pageant winners). The bachelors are traditionally handsome, rich, and usually older than the women (often by an uncomfortable margin). The show has famous racism problems, and has had consent scandals. Everybody's performing strict gender roles - for instance, men always propose (even on the gender-flipped version of the show, The Bachelorette). The show is obsessed with who's a "virgin" and who's not, which is weird for a show that features a literal sex room (the "fantasy suite").
Obviously, it's a wildly misogynistic premise, and the creator Mike Fleiss is exactly the person you imagine would have come up with The Bachelor. So you might be surprised to learn that the viewership is overwhelmingly female.
The show's been so successful that since its debut in 2002, there have been over 100 seasons of it in 30+ countries, so at least I'm not alone in my Bachelor addiction. There's a culture of fans holding Bachelor viewing parties, usually involving betting pools and a lot of wine, and fans refer to ourselves as members of Bachelor Nation.
The idea that the best way to find love is on a reality TV show is - of course - absurd. The contestants are removed from all the gritty realities of life: their family, friends, jobs, money problems, the realities of keeping up a home and other stresses of adulting. They get to know each other against a backdrop of hot air balloons and ocean picnics and horseback rides. The show presents the idea that you should choose the person you marry based on the strength of the "connection" you feel with them in this artificial love-bubble, in less than three months.
Unsurprisingly, the success rate is awful. Twenty-five seasons of the US Bachelor have produced exactly three successful marriages (in two out of those three cases, the bachelor broke up with the winning contestant and ultimately married the runner-up). The contestants would have been better off getting an arranged marriage, or, ya know, actually building a relationship based on mutual trust and affection and a shared vision of a good life in the real world.
But it's illuminating to see the "romance" ideal presented in such a straightforward way, because it's an ideal that underpins a lot of how we still talk about heterosexual relationships in the real world. Girls like me growing up in the 90s and 2000s were bathed in the romance narrative from birth: contestants falling in love on the Bachelor aren't that different to Ariel falling in love with a dude she's never spoken to in The Little Mermaid.
It's just good TV! After making so many seasons, the producers are experts at creating D R A M A. About half of the screen time is devoted to romance stuff, but the other half is about them getting into jealous fights with each other. Standard scenarios include women accusing each other of having secret boyfriends back home, of stealing too much of the bachelor's time, of faking injuries to get attention, of being too drunk, of stealing each other's stuff, and of being inappropriately sexy (instead of exactly the right amount of sexy that the show mandates).
The women are cast into familiar sexist stereotypes: there's always the "crazy one". The "slut". The "jealous princess". The "kooky girl". The "bitch". The "drama queen". The "dumb blonde", best embodied in this clip from the opening episode of The Bachelor Australia season 7 (possibly the greatest moment of television ever made):
Of course, none of it's real. That clip above, hilarious as it is, is edited to suggest that Abbie is stupid, when in fact both she and the bachelor Matt confirmed that she was making a (very witty) joke. The storylines are created through editing. Season 13 (US) contestant Megan Parris is on record saying this:
I don't think [the producers] showed any real conversation I had with anyone ... The viewers fail to realize that editing is what makes the show ... You'll hear someone make one comment and then they'll show a clip of somebody's face to make it look like that is their facial reaction to that statement, but really, somebody made that face the day before to something else. It's just piecing things together to make a story.
In an interview, Mike Fleiss said that that he develops contestants into characters that will cater to his audience's tastes and that they "need [their] fair share of villains every season." The producers are running around on set the whole time, goading the women into saying and doing outrageous things. They're plied with alcohol constantly and bullied into saying what the producers want them to say. There's a great scripted TV show about this called UnReal.
The women who come on the show have seen The Bachelor, presumably. They know what they're in for. So why do they do it? Being a contestant on the show is a major financial risk. The contestants aren't paid, and they have to be on set for 3 months. Some are lucky enough to take a leave of absence, but many of them have to quit their jobs to be on the show. The women have to provide their own wardrobe, buy their own cosmetics, and do their own hair and makeup. Performing femininity is hella expensive: contestant Jillian Harris said "I had remortgaged my house and spent something like $8,000 on clothing."
Some of them are sincerely looking to find love with a rich dude, I guess? But many of them are hoping to launch independent careers as influencers and models. The more entertaining and outrageous their behaviour, the more the women are rewarded in screentime, which can help them achieve their goals, so many contestants are happy to perform the sexist stereotypes and play the roles they're cast in. Power to them!
But my favourite moments in the show are the times when a bit of real reality peeps through, when you get glimpses of the fact that these people are more complex and surprising than they're pretending to be. The contestants are supposed to be jealous of each other and fight over the dreamboat guy. But the truth is, they're spending much more time with each other than with the Bachelor, and often develop adorable friendships. In the purest moment of The Bachelor Vietnam, two of the contestants fell for each other and left the show to be together (they're still dating! My heart!!).
That first South African season was practically Shakespearean in ways that I don't think the producers could ever have planned. Throughout the show, the Bachelor (Lee) is very obviously in love with one contestant: a very driven and independent lawyer named Jozaan. He's so into her that he goes on dates with other women and only wants to talk to them about Jozaan (rude, but also pretty cute). And then, in the final episode, they finally have an actual conversation about what their life might look like after they step out of the romance bubble of the show, and she says that - uh - no, she's not just going to uproot her whole life in Pretoria and move with him to Cape Town, so at the very last minute, Lee dumps her and gives the final rose to the other woman, Gina. Even Gina's surprised by this!
Gina seems like Jozaan's opposite in every way: Jozaan is tall, blonde, takes longer to trust somebody, and is very invested in her career and her large family. Gina's petite, dark-haired, sweet, and a makeup artist who's used to moving around a lot, so she's much happier to fit into his life than demand that he fit into hers. I was rooting for Jozaan because it felt surprising that bland Lee would choose the more "difficult" woman. For most of the season, it seems like he's going to, until he gets cold feet right at the end and gives that final rose to romantic, seemingly undemanding Gina.
And then, in a final delicious twist, they catch up with the couple a few months later, to find that Gina has dumped his ass because "real-life Lee was different to fairytale Lee" oh and by the way Gina's best friend was REEVA STEENKAMP (the woman Oscar Pistorius murdered) and she saw familiar red flags in their relationship, and her final words on The Bachelor, a show that's entirely about constructing fairytale romances, are "You don’t have to buy into the fairytale. You can create your own happy ending and Lee wasn’t mine."
I was dead. DEAD! I should never have underestimated you, Gina!
I like to think of The Bachelor as being like drag for heterosexuals. Just like drag affectionately exagerrates the performance of gender until it becomes absurd, and thereby reveals new things about it, The Bachelor presents the straight romance ideal in its most heightened, ridiculous splendour. It's more complex than parody, because it's completely impossible to laugh at the silliness of it without getting sucked in and sincerely enjoying it on its own terms.
I fully intended to enjoy The Bachelor ironically, but I'll confess, friends, I also just bloody love it.
Wishing you fun times in the fantasy suite,
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This newsletter was sneakily pre-scheduled, because I am in the Peak District right now, hopefully watching The Bachelor, and celebrating MAH BIRTHDAY!