Spurred on by family word-of-mouth, we have been streaming the hit TV show The Bachelor, in both its American and British versions, and enjoying it. The experience is both weird and compelling: distasteful on first viewing, but full of benign, almost illicit interest thereafter.
Like several reality shows of its type, The Bachelor subjects a temporarily enclosed group of a score of people to exacting, carefully chosen tests which separate weekly ‘winners’ from the rest and culminate in one overall tabloid anointed ‘winner’ who gets the prize.
In this case the objective, for the male – is at once pretty clear and morally murky:
“To find his true love and life partner, a bachelor dates a group of women, over several weeks, who compete in a series of challenges that are meant to prove their compatibility with him.”
So far, so harmless. But over the initial two or three episodes, the real questions begin. The first ones are the most superficial. In the male Bachelor (MB) shows, why do the contending women always seem to be wearing full make-up, even when (decorously) round the pool? Why are the rival men in the female spin-off The Bachelorette (FB) always drinking? Why do we never see any of them working out? Why don’t we hear more from each of them about their daily lives, out there in the real world? Why are there no contestants from the military? How does the camera always seem to be in the right place in the right moment for reaction shots?
Why does each group of contestants invariably contain two or three no-hopers from the very beginning of each series? Recent FB outings have paraded, and then dismissed space-wasters such as ‘Clint’ (for indulging in a bromance with another contestant), ‘Tony’ (for gross solipsism), a third for drunken misbehaviour and a fourth for being caught lying; there have been others.
Given that the age range seems to be 27 -36 or so, for instance, why was Becca Martinez allowed to take part in the 2018 MB barely 22 years old when the choosing Bachelor (Arie) was 36 and actually raised her age as an issue? This is one of several cases in each series where disappointed or confused participants fatally complain about the process itself. One has to ask: what did they expect?
Why is the show almost entirely devoid of irony, let alone humour? Why is there so little about matters sexual?
Other questions probe more deeply or raise important issues. Some of them are pretty fundamental: the reactions displayed by the down-home families of any of the front-runners chosen to meet them, for example, where a parent raises embarrassing questions along the lines of ‘are you really going to go ahead with this?’
At one level, all these questions can be answered fairly quickly. Doing so sets about building a narrative which encompasses progressively more frequent nuances about what is ‘actually going on.’ From beginning each season with a bovine herd of clueless but hunky macho men (FB) or a flock of beautiful but scheming, often lachrymose hair-pulling harpies (MB), the show morphs two or three finalists idealised in terms of a certain concept of what a marriage partner is really like and parades them for a final showdown ostensibly pointing to a wedding.
The fiction can only go so far. One wonders about the true narrative threads only hinted at in several episodes. There must be some occasions, quite early on, when the chooser’s gaze falls upon one particular contestant across a crowded room but needs must snog some of the others over the next few episodes. Situations like this have to be managed and edited carefully, if only to achieve convincing and entertaining arcs for each one.
A similar effort is required whenever there is a danger of the chooser and a contestant openly discussing what marriage is really like and what it requires. To these European eyes, however, the most obvious question not put – so not answered – is the one which explores – or would do if it were allowed – the candidate’s socio-economic and educational register. What the Bachelor or Bachelorette wants to know is quite another matter.
Many of these questions can be answered by remembering that this is a so-called reality show. In practice, the opposite is true. The programme bears all the marks of heavy-handed editing. Editorial hindsight, for example, dictates who in the group consistently gets the most coverage.
Every season, too, features a wild card stunt, usually by inserting a newcomer into the group, thereby destabilising it, or tweaking the rules. Every so often, but particularly towards the end, a deus ex machina compere appears to interrupt things, sort out a crisis or warn of challenges ahead.
The whole process and the way the developments pan out all point towards the basic overall truth: that this is a female arena designed to confront specifically female concerns (and this is true of both the MB and FB versions). The format sets up situations geared to provide answers to the questions that a young woman – an important age criterion – is bound to raise when considering whether a given man is likely to be a good long-term partner, or not. Is he presentable? Intelligent? Would he be faithful, dependable and a good parent?
These questions are so salient for the female that there is literally, in terms of TV editing requirements, no time available to do more. This requirement is at its most obvious as over the first several episodes the format progressively discards ‘weaker’ contestants (who may or may not fully understand where they stand; a recent ‘weakling’ boasted about his degree from Princeton but failed to spot how this affected his chances for the worse) and boosts the ones that are left standing.
Thus the context discerns and punishes the negatives but only for the female point of view. The reason that the male (FB) contestants are never shown doing manly things or doing each other down is that such things are of little or no interest to the female chooser. Her criteria are much more specific.
But the proces means that she has to be fair. Each contestant is given at least one chance to have a one-to-one date with the chooser at which he is expected to stumble through a tongue-tied attempt to express his feelings while the chooser listens triumphantly and judges accordingly.
To her, inarticulacy in the male has a certain charm which she has no difficulty exploiting. Even the hunkiest of the suitors is felled by this tactic. He is permitted to snog her, but not to critique her motives. He can kiss but not tell. The hometown visits to be checked out by the contestant’s family – and resurrect the pious mantra that all this is for life – serve to provide additional confirmatory context which allows the chooser to evaluate the real deal. The expectation is that the whole thing in the end delivers the best possible result. Therefore it must be the right answer. If only.