Last night, The Bachelorette had its 14th season premiere, with Becca Kufrin, a reject from humdrum Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s season of The Bachelor, taking up the mantle as the lucky woman bombarded by 28 suitors. In all, The Bachelor and its spinoffs have been around for over 22 seasons, or since 2002. That’s Jurassic in TV years, and even more so in reality TV.
The key to the show’s enduring popularity is that we enjoy the failed romances as much or more than the supposed storybook ending. Many more relationships fail than succeed during the course of a season. These failed relationships must collapse in order to make room for the big payoff, an engagement between the Bachelor and a contestant which usually doesn’t last more than a few months after the show’s finale, called “After the Final Rose”, has aired. Yet watching The Bachelor or Bachelorette (for my purposes, they are interchangeable) is a way for viewers to learn about relationships by seeing them derail every week. The true frisson of pleasure of the show is not in the projected fantasy engagement, but in the failure of the dating enterprise. The discarded contestants and burnt out shells of relationships, the inability to make a connection despite the most ideal romantic conditions — these aren’t the obstacles to the show’s draw. They’re the best part.
Two books have recently been published about the franchise. Bachelor Nation (also the name for the franchise’s fans) by Amy Kaufman offers a well-researched and reported history of the show; Kaufman covers entertainment for the LA Times. It also contains testimony from famous fans, and a lot of behind-the-scenes material Kaufman elicited from former contestants and producers. But her book doesn’t really probe why the show is so popular, even among women who consider themselves feminists, except to do the obvious and speculate on people’s desires for a grand romance and lasting love. But this theory doesn’t capture my investment in the show, which isn’t about the final couple and their infinitesimal chances of a happy marriage. It’s in the process, which is watching people grappling with why they don’t have a chance together.
Most Dramatic Ever by Suzannah Showler, on the other hand, contains fresh theories and excellent analysis of the show. It’s a very sophisticated reading of how the mashup between the dating show and the game show has reached its fruition on the Bachelor. Showler maintains that the show provides a marriage plot for our age, a reflection of how difficult it is to find true love when there are so many distractions (in this case, very concrete distractions, a/k/a other people the protagonist is also dating). Showler writes, “Culling its heroes and heroines from those felled in the name of the journey, the show chugs onward, giving the audience permission to believe that our voyeurism is useful. Without all of the pain and drama we are hungry to witness, there would be no love stories at all.” This thesis jives with my idea about failure: that we watch The Bachelor and Bachelorette in order to make sense of contemporary romance, to figure out how to talk about how love stories go sour. We use it to categorize flaws and track potential problems: not giving enough, giving too much, being too shy, being too aggressive, confessing love to soon or not confessing it when the Bachelor/Bachelorette needs romantic reassurance.
Basically, The Bachelor is breakup porn.
My own viewing habits are an aberration among Bachelor/Bachelorette watchers: the aforementioned Bachelor Nation, in which people (men and women) have longstanding viewing parties that even attract former contestants as special guest stars. I haven’t seen every season; and occasionally, I binge one, which is not the pace the show expects. More critically, I watch alone, and not when the show is live, so I not only don’t post about it on social media but I don’t follow anyone involved with the shows, lest it gets spoiled. This means I also miss a lot of the off-season action, which transpires on Twitter and Instagram, where, as Kaufman explains, former contestants can get lucrative sponsorships just for including brands as a hashtag in their Insta-posts. So my relationship with the show thus far has been intensely private. Now I’m coming out: I’m the Robinson Crusoe of Bachelor fans, an island of one in Bachelor Nation, like a weird hermit who lives in an outcropping of the Hudson River or on a tiny island in the lakes of the Adirondacks, willfully isolated from other fans and commentators.
Being a solitary watcher intensifies the internal group versus individual dynamic of the show. Though the show’s stated aim is to end with a heterosexual couple about to start their lives together, I see it as reflective of both group and individual struggles. The Bachelor has a neat economy of scarcity and abundance: the Bachelor is a resource everyone wants, while the contestants are, well, a dime for two dozen. Nearly every season there is a contestant who disrupts the group, which, yes, makes for good interim drama in the long middle of the show where there are ten contestants and at least two of them are interchangeable. Real life example: I spent much of one season wondering who was Ben H. and who was Ben Z.? Never worry, the show provides viewers with identifiers across the bottom of the screen again and again until we can maybe tell the contestants apart.
The Bachelor is about power, not love. It’s a series of humiliations, of demonstrations of vulnerability contestants can only hope will be reciprocated. On the show you want to make yourself memorable to outdo the competition, but you don’t want to be the person everyone is talking about, because that’s usually the villain. Though nearly every contestant will claim that he or she is not here to make friends, they do. The goodbyes after the rose ceremonies seem heartfelt, and the thriving alumni network of the show (which we see on the spinoffs, the now defunct disaster Bachelor Pad and the thriving, pleasantly sleazy Bachelor in Paradise) is also testimony that the contestants form close bonds with each other. Being on the show must be like a slumber camp with a lot of booze and ugly evening dresses.
To use the vernacular of the show — and the show has a fully developed vocabulary for the precis of courtship — bonding is not what the contestants are here for: not to “make friends” but to find a husband or wife. Let’s pause there: not a boyfriend or girlfriend, but a husband or wife. The stakes have to be heightened to make the show an entertaining and an emotional enterprise. We hear a lot about confidence, chemistry, connection. Contestants are there to fight for love, which the show views as interchangeable with marriage, and the show exploits that with actual competitions which comprise the many group dates in the early episodes of the show: athletic events, comedy contests, sing offs, etc. Contestants must affirm that they are grateful for the opportunity to fight for the love of such a worthy person—”the whole package”, as the Bachelors and Bachelorettes are often described. The strongest weapon in this fight is the elusive quality of sincerity, realness, or authenticity. Yet the contestants spend the season as supplicants, with no real agency in how their romance is progressing.
To compete on The Bachelor is to prepare yourself for a high drama, high stakes experience, and to wade deep into the show is to immerse yourself in what’s basic. The show conjures both an ideal contestant and viewer into being: no one involved in the Bachelor gives a shit about the Bechtel test. She wants to talk about love and relationships 24/7. The holy trinity of Bachelor conversation topics is the Bachelor, feelings about the Bachelor, and hopes for the future with the Bachelor. These are women who read women’s magazines, which cater to them and exploit their insecurities about their bodies, their personalities, their sex lives, their existence. The Bachelor the show, like the Bachelor the man, is catnip for them, these easily slighted, insecure, vulnerable women. They are mainstream and proud of it. They reap the rewards of feminism without claiming it. Their ultimate goal is marriage and children. They favor traditional weddings, baby showers with silly games, pillows with sayings about wine, taking their husband’s names, the excessive use of Instagram hashtags, and “Hey ladies!” emails. They believe in rigid gender roles in time of increasing fluidity; they are resolutely heteronormative. They are Rachel’s, not Phoebe’s or Monica’s. They are Charlotte’s, not Carrie’s, Miranda’s, or Samantha’s.
Here is a sampling of professions of the contestants: personal trainer, software salesman, brand manager, department store buyer, insurance agent, flight attendant, dental hygienist, lacrosse coach, teacher, pharmaceutical sales rep, administrative assistant, marketing manager. These are not the jobs anyone wants when they are growing up: they are jobs which signify an accommodation of adulthood without glamour or, for the most part, any particular expertise. But occupations aside, looks obviously matter here. Both the leads and the contestants are all self-consciously TV-genic. As Showler puts it, “The Bachelor and the Bachelorette does turn out examples of stunning physical beauty—men and women primed for the passport to n-level celebrity they’re all but guaranteed to be issued if they stay on the show long enough. More than being attractive, though, what contestants have in common are looks that display knowledge of what is considered attractive” (emphasis in original). To that I would add that the show traffics in people who conform to mainstream American culture. There are no Goths on The Bachelor.
The Bachelor franchise deals in hardcore banality, where clichés are the norm, in words (put myself out there, on the journey, total package, etc.) and in deeds. The show rewards sentiment because heightened feelings lead to juicier breakups. It also harnesses the most powerful stereotypes and trappings of contemporary romance: Candlelit dinners, wine and cheese platters, endless bear rugs in front of fireplaces, bathtubs filled with bubbles and surrounded by candles with champagne on ice. There was a period where I wondered if the contestants would ever eat indoors again, as there are so many not impromptu picnics and perfectly staged dinners on the patios of romantic resorts.
Like Tania Modelski and Janice Radway’s work on romance novels and soap operas, the Bachelor reminds us that one of the tropes of television marketed to women is the prospect of listening to men talk about feelings. It’s this talk that makes the show irresistible for basic (a term I use to describe the people on the show because they are meant to signify the norm, the baseline) women: where else could you find guys talking endlessly about love in prime time? The Bachelor/Bachelorette furthermore gives us the precious gift of male tears. To wit, during a marathon viewing session my husband walked in and asked me, “Why are the guys on this show always whining?”
“Whining is talking about feelings,” I answered.
“Oh, I get it,” my husband said.
And the feelings that matter most to this show are the bad ones. Love, the nominally key feeling, matters, but it doesn’t matter the most. Though the show tries to make it new every time, the constant condition of being the Bachelor or Bachelorette is that you will be in love with more than one person at a time, and that this state of affairs is absolutely unexpected and heart wrenching for you, and you will disappoint people. The show leads to a big dramatic finale, the proposal — but the show is built so that the proposal can’t be reached without a heartbreaking breakup.
And it’s the breakup people talk about. What did he say? How did she handle it? Was she crying in the “depression mobile,” the limo where contestants get shuttled after the deed is done? Will she be the next Bachelorette, as the franchise shrewdly recycles contestants from one show to star on the other? Who better to lead Bachelor Nation into battle again than a spurned contestant, who now gets to switch positions and be the chooser instead of the supplicant.
The universality of these breakups is so familiar it’s consoling, so the show really does heat up as you narrow the field of contestants. By the final two, with the guys picking out rings, the wedding-industrial complex is in full swing.
“I guess I just don’t understand,” contestant Molly said to Bachelor number 13 Jason Mesnick when he broke up with her for Melissa, the other remaining contestant. These words have been said by every dumpee to the dumper everywhere ever. Molly, however, gets her fantasy ending, and the viewers get the delicious treat of an extra breakup. In a truly dramatic turnabout on “After the Final Rose,” when Jason ditches Melissa to go back to Molly. “I don’t get it at all. None of it makes sense,” Melissa says to Jason when breaks up with her for Molly (they are the rare Bachelor couple who remained together). This too could be said by anyone to anyone they are leaving. It doesn’t make sense. It’s love, not logic, and Bachelor Nation sympathizes and understands, and eagerly awaits the next season to see more love gone awry.
Lisa Levy is a cultural critic living in Brooklyn. She has written for many publications and is a contributing editor at Crime Reads and Literary Hub. She tweets @RealLiveCritic and her website is deadcritics.com.