Biannually, my family and I sit together for two hours of quality family time watching ABC’s The Bachelor, a reality series where men and women (depending on the season) compete for a proposal from The Bachelor or Bachelorette. Each of the twenty-five to thirty contestants (depending on season) repeats the usual mantra of, “I’m here for the right reasons,” “my future husband/wife is in this room,” or “I’m ready to embark on this journey of love.” Don’t get me wrong! The Bachelor is a guilty pleasure and a dirty secret of mine, as it is for many people of my age group and socioeconomic class. I am instantaneously hooked as soon as I hear Chris Harrison, the quintessential wingman of the Bachelor or Bachelorette, exclaim that this season will be, “the most dramatic yet,” over the thunder of climatic orchestra music. Each season, the contestants embody the same archetypes (crazy girl, girl next door, black widow, etc.). There are “scandalous” secrets, “cat fights”, attractive people in revealing swim wear, and lots of crying, regardless of gender norm. Simply put, it’s a soap opera framed as a real life experience. Although it is enjoyable to watch, many like myself cannot help but wonder if we are validating sexism and the objectification of the contestants, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. If I am watching The Bachelor, am I sexist? Am I a bad person?
When watching the The Bachelor, disturbing images are constantly on display. For example, in the 19th season of the show, the women on a group date with farmer Chris Soules are filmed walking down a busy street in nothing but their small bikinis to have a tractor race in competition for a “one-on-one” with Soules. Although the women have the free will to do this, I remember being outraged that there was a double standard when it came to The Bachelor and the women on the date. Throughout the scene Soules remained in his blue hoodie standing while the women rode tractors towards him in swimwear. From a viewer’s perspective, this seemed to be fetishistic of women doing farm work which seemed a little shameful seeing as Soules claimed to be looking for a partner open to farming in Iowa. Although I was offended, this scene did not stop me from watching the show every week. Does this make me a sexist? A bad person? Not inherently I do think, however, this participation renders me a passive observer of damaging content on TV. Shows like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette capitalize on stereotypes about each gender under the guise of reality TV. Scenes like the tractor race, skinny dipping, debauchery and clingy, over-emotional women do nothing but reinforce gender stereotypes in the eyes of the greater public. If ratings, which correspond to the number of viewers, continue to be high, the show will continue to be produced. Even if we do not agree with the message and are not sexist in our thoughts or actions, we, as an audience, merely prolong the problem and assist in reinforcing gender stereotypes on television by watching the Bachelor and shows similar to it.
However, the Bachelor is not solely damaging to women; ABC’s “feminist” response to the show is as well . Men in The Bachelorette are also objectified and stereotyped. In order to be cast for The Bachelorette a general criteria for men is that they have to all have perfect bodies and stable jobs. They also have to be tough, which means you don’t want to “ p**** out and act weak in front of her,” as contestant Tanner from season 11 of the Bachelorette eloquently states. Although the women also have perfect bodies, the pressure to have a job is not as apparent as it is with men. The show likes to use the stereotype of the man taking care of the woman, so he needs to have a glamorous job, whereas women in the Bachelor shows can get away with just being “chicken enthusiasts.” With the inclusion of the Bachelorette, does the franchise in general become less sexist? I would have to say no. Although women are given the spotlight, they are still scrutinized by men and in the end, have to answer to a man. For example in season 11 of The Bachelorette the show decided to “do something they have never done before” and have two Bachelorettes as the leads on the show. Instead of having both women “find love” at the end of the season, the women competed for the attention of the twenty-five men on the first night, and at the end of the night the men voted for which girl they all wanted to date. This idea took away the choice away from the women and gave it to the men, something that has never been done on The Bachelor.
Lastly, why do middle class, educated people enjoy this show of gender stereotypes? As a cynic and a passive observer, I like to think it is because the program shows us what we don’t want to be. Television is an escape. The Bachelor competition is, in its design, a giant escape. The contestants are isolated without any type of outside stimulation, and their sole purpose is to find their soul-mate while simultaneously entertaining us. In that hour, we are with them on their “journey to find love” in an exotic location. We believe them when they say, “my wife is in this room.” For an hour we escape our boring, everyday lives. We are on romantic helicopter dates overlooking the Ivory Coast, we are eating dinner with Jimmy Kimmel, we are scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef. No wonder these relationships almost never work out. They are all built on fantasy. The Bachelor makes us not want that sort of luxurious life even if at some points it looks amazing. We tell ourselves the show is scripted, they are being payed to act that way, and that she is totally an actress. Regardless of whether we clear our conscience that way us closeted fans play a large role in the show’s longevity and permitting the reinforcement of gender norms
Today, the show is still on air and in its 21st season. The same routine begins. Chris Harrison claims this to be, “the most dramatic season.” There are steamy kisses backdropped by a breathtaking landscape, bikini shots and of course, endless sobs. The stereotypes are reused, and the cat fight inevitably ensues between the ladies in the house. And at home, America is still watching the fantasy play itself out, scrutinizing and secretly enjoying, keeping reality TV alive and well. Will you stop watching the Bachelor?