Watching the latest Bachelorette poses again the questions we raised in November 2019. It is a reality dating show in which a personable young woman is provided with a number of candidates jostling for her hand in marriage. Like its sibling the Bachelor, it’s really an entertainment confection, carefully choreographed, culturally sanctioned and skilfully done. As such, and within its own terms, it is fascinating.
This time out (Series 15 in 2019, and so before the covid-19 crisis), the Bachelorette is the pretty, smart. vivacious interior designer Hannah Brown, Miss Alabama 2018.
To avoid spoilers, this piece refers to the show as it was halfway through May 2020.
We are currently approaching the shortlist stage, down to half a dozen or so remaining men prepared to be away from their workplace or businesses for however many weeks it takes to be the one who gains the lady’s hand in marriage.
That is the stated objective and a high-minded one. How it gets there is another matter: a mix of truth and fantasy where pursuit of the former discloses evidence that, for most of the suitors, fantasy is emphatically a good word for what they think about themselves. It is the main function of the Bachelorette to expose this in her own interests while having some fun along the way. You might say, it’s courtship Ms Brown, but not as we know it.
What have you got?
Let’s start with the trivia. Although most of the action takes place in the evening in some imposing hotel or swanky resort, you never see any local staff or other guests except drivers. There is a lot of drinking but almost no eating. Each episode takes time out to feature an encounter with a local tourist attraction such as sampling local cuisine or line-dancing classes or a trip round the bay in a luxury boat. In the later ones, the action and drama shifts overseas to a vacation destination like St Lucia, Scotland or Riga (!). In both series, Bachelor and Bachelorette, the war-paint maquillage that adorns the ladies and glossy, gym-toned six-packs on the men derive from what must be a conventionally American view of male and female beauty. Age ranges from the mid-twenties to early-thirties, and there is a diversity quota silently in operation.
It’s noticeable that by far the majority of participants come from warmer, sun-kissed states such as Florida or Texas or California or the Deep South; almost never from comparatively colder, harder states such as Ohio or Indiana or New England (this observation of course is mere speculation; it needs an American to validate it).
The Bachelorette’s interaction with the suitors takes three forms: a plenary event, such as a rugby game in which all take part; one or more private one-on-one meetings that may or may not include a slow, lingering kiss; and, for some, a cutting-in intervention where one candidate interrupts another’s moment of intimacy. These stagey events provide opportunities for the men to declare their love for the B or, more commonly, to talk about themselves, usually in the most inarticulate terms.
Among the men there are no weedy nerds, but some of the candidates are clearly no-hopers from the start. These are the silent ones who, in the earliest footage, stare about them, nervously baffled at what is going on and progressively fading into the background. By the third episode or so they have almost all disappeared, leaving the field of combat open to the ‘real’ contestants around whom the show is built and who are each periodically rewarded, in a weekly ceremony as ritualistic as a Haydn minuet, by a single red rose.
This is, of course, a natural trigger for male contention. The men, all hunky, coifed and on ludicrously best behaviour, piously claim to be focused solely on the Bachelorette, to please and impress her, but in reality are pursuing the real objective of the mission, which is to win points with each other. Early on, the pack identifies one or two of their number as being losers. The others build a case against them, alleging lying or duplicity. They are then driven out lest they contaminate the group and its high-minded purpose. This communal proceeding has to be repeated again and again as the pack grows ever smaller, and the race tighter. Thus, one by one they fall, the selection ritual being watched benignly by the lady, but at a distance.
Usually too ill-equipped to try some Beatrice and Benedict-style verbal fencing, and too insecure to flirt, the candidates struggle to convey to the lady how they feel about her. As we have noted, in meeting her one on one, some resort to deploying heart-rending stories of loved ones felled by serious illness or death; stories that are clearly designed to affirm that the candidate has Feelings which the B will find moving, before they are interrupted by a rival candidate.
The other suitors watch and wait – their comments only too obviously pre-scripted – which raises the question, what do they do all day when not on snogging duty? Gossip? Work out? Get drunk? Plot stratagems? Phone real girlfriends? To what extent do they bond as men, even as contending ones?
(Some bond more obviously. Bromances are not unknown, in the spirit of the Biblical lament, “my brother Jonathan: very pleasant thou has been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women”(II Samuel 1:26). We can choose to regard this as a piece of Bronze Age anti-feminism if we wish or take it as a tease.)
Is this for real?
Back on track, I assume that behind the scenes the Bachelorette production team meets daily to review where the winnowing process has got to, and adjust the tiller accordingly, advancing this one and undercutting the other. The unfolding story lines are subjected to fierce, clever editing, amply demonstrated by the cameras’ uncanny ability to be focussed on the right shots at the right moments, especially when one or other of the suitors tries to break from the pack, risking reality crises for the overarching narrative.
For the basic reality is that it’s all carefully edited. Using the daily rushes and script conferences, the producers can bring forward or freeze out selected candidates, approve or curtail developing story lines, and adjust the tone, and do this once all the footage has been shot; the dross discarded and the best bits bigged up. The whole thing is a confection designed to tap into women’s ambitions and fears about relationships with men, and to construct narratives which explore these concerns, or warn about them.
“I need the real!”
Occasionally the framework or parts of it are exposed when, as we have seen, the game allows itself to show that some initial candidates have no chance, being either too dull or too immature to gain traction on the situation. At a crisis point in Hannah Brown’s fruitless attempts to get one particular suitor to explain where exactly he is coming from, she is shown very briefly consulting a couple of anonymous adults briefly in shot (presumably the team’s on-call psychological firefighters) and then wailing “I need the real!”; not on offer, unfortunately, Ms Brown.
Despite the scripting, the suitors’ gender-specific motivation goes largely unexplored. The truth about atavistic male rivalry and contention, after the group expulsion mentioned above, is only sketchily referred to, and the alpha males constrained; for now. Tuning this beauty-and-the-beast register is one of the production team’s principal functions and they have to get it right.
A woman’s lot
For her part, and this being an emphatically a women’s show, the Bachelorette is not immune from pain. In what amounts to quasi-martyrdom on behalf of all her sex, she must be shown to suffer. This is despite her best efforts to respect the men’s sensitivities, however they can be discerned. In the early episodes at least, she treats each supplicant with even-handed politeness, however clumsy they are or solipsistic or just plain confused. This inevitably leads to trouble as the suitors jostle to put forward their special claims – their particular deservedness in each case – whatever the B might feel.
Each series shows at least one melt-down or crying jag on the part of the B. In this, given the short change proffered by the men she is up against, she is entirely justified. Her tears of rage are for having to deal with male perfidy and self-absorption, but above all for the universal Number One sin in female eyes: Betrayal of Trust.
Not that this is necessarily easy to follow: the latest crisis we have reached in series 15 turns on some notions of who-said-what-to-whom confusion made worse by the baffling inability of any of the men to express themselves in a clear and cogent way. Perhaps that is true of most men. No wonder women weep in frustration.
At the end of each episode there are teasers for the next few ones. These contain sly hints about what is to come, particularly the ghost at the feast: sex. (There is very little sexiness in this show, let alone sex: her clothes and demeanour, however glam, signal that this is a good girl only concerned with the prospect of a happy marriage). This coyness serves to begin laying out who the last three or four candidates might be, and what they might get up to (bungee jumping, or sharing a room or half-naked foreplay).
Thus reality, such as it is, is beaten into shape. After an obligatory visit to the B’s home and family (much unsaid), the final questions fade, taking any irony with them. What happens if she genuinely falls for one suitor early on? What if the chosen one cannot sustain the illusion of falling in love with her? In this meaningful fantasy of dating what happens to the real questions between prospective marriage partners (e.g. where would they live? Who would be the breadwinner?).
But these have no purchase here. This is a piece of serious whimsy about finding Mr Right. This is a universe in which being 32 years old marks you out as a greybeard loon with a Past. Any hint of the real world outside the resort is taboo. At its base, this show is a what-if fantasy, for women, about what the wooing and selection process should be, but somehow never is. The Bachelorette’s heroic role is to get through the process as an advocate or model for women, confronting male assumptions, shortcomings, deficiencies, faults and even crimes, and winning.
The B always wins because in the testing situation she finds herself in, she must.