How to Love Reality Television

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I’ve have not missed an episode of the The Bachelor franchise since 2002 when I stumbled upon a Rose Ceremony during the first season.

It was all so medieval. What was going on exactly? Why was he choosing them?

I still remember my fascination with the pageantry. Young women in cocktail dresses posed in a faux-formal parlor. Then an average-looking white man offered each a rose. One by one, with feigned solemnity, the women would approach and accept the flower.

I felt that familiar cringe–the nausea that accompanies most reality tv-watching these days. Now that every episode is survey of someone’s embarrassment.

The premise of The Bachelor bucked against all my notions about romance and dating, forged as they were through feminism, and what I had thought was a new era. Instead, I saw that we never left that retrograde arrangement where a woman’s sex appeal marked her highest value.

I was the type of woman who could never be cast on the show.

And though I would never deign to be on television (for what I hope are obvious reasons,) it irked me to recognize that I wasn’t good enough to be cast. That I was fundamentally undesirable. Undateable. Anti-telegenic.

I was a single mom. Divorced. Over thirty. I didn’t own a bikini or anything that could pass for a “gown.” I bought cheap cosmetics and used them minimally, without expert training. I never worked out, and worse, neglected to care that I didn’t. I shampoo’d with Suave because it was cheapest. I didn’t own a blow dryer or know what one was for. If I ever showed cleavage it was purely accidental. And I was a woman of strong opinions (most substantive by conventional standards.) Further, I had little clue about the domestic arts (from fettuccine to fellatio to feather dusters.) I had never been able to summon the interest.

While I knew it was fine “to not want a man,” I was also quite sure that no man would want me. The Bachelor proved it.

I took a tawdry delight in tuning into a world from which I was firmly excluded. There was both a safety to that wall, but also a seething worry. Because sexism flourished. The show did not create this new strain. It merely provided the lens for a look-see. The world I watched was all-white (with occasional dashes of difference like the bit players cast in so many movies.) And this world was firmly misogynistic. Misogyny was its raison d’etre. It’s very spine.

The parade of bachelorettes, “the ladies,” slinking drunkenly from season to season, suggested that all the waves of feminism had crashed against the shore.

These same young women cried during interviews at dawn. The cool morning light revealing, however shallow, pain and anger. Rejection, so obviously a save, was instead felt as the collective shove-off from the at-home audience. It wasn’t just one guy. It was a humiliation from society as a whole. One that we all got used to.

These rejections were so arbitrary. Everyone was beautiful, thin, in possession of excellent tits. At this level of physical perfection (when “brains” were off the table) the degrees between greatness were slivers. The same way all beauty pageant contestants and centerfolds are already “winners” simply by admission.

I watched the rejectees with particular empathy.

“This is the best possible outcome, trust me,” I would project to her, telepathically. “Forget him. Move on. This isn’t rejection. It’s a bullet-dodge. You’re free now. Go prosper.”

I can’t think of a Bachelor who was worth tears, let alone a lifetime commitment. They were all famous rapscallions. The Willoughbys of the World.

Indeed, there was something novelistic, Brontëian, plot-like and inevitable, in watching Juan Pablo and the others turn into rakes.

Jake became a textbook abuser. Travis was solely invested in a tele-career. Jason was dangerously indecisive. Ben’s ego inflated to an irreducible scale. Every man was corruptible, and the format seemed to set free their miscreant natures. Sean seemed the best of the lot, but only by virtue of not being terrible, as if that’s the best to hope for. Ryan Sutter also scored points for consistent baseline decency.

The bar on a woman’s physical perfection rose. While the one for male personalities lowered. Whomever exhibited the least amount of assholery was deemed golden. And even the gargantuan jerk, The Chad Bear, was offered multiple chances and then guest spots in related spin-offs. If the #ChadforBachelor campaign had worked, I might’ve been more prepared for the ascension of Trump–“men of the zeitgeist after all.

The Bachelor has always been devoid of the love it claims to promise.

It has become more artful about this absence in seasons past, employing editing and production techniques that are scathing and satirical. These moments have always been the keys of reality television. The small sparks that highlight absurdity and spotlight artifice. That bring us a mirror, and while we adore the clown face with its painted tears and its teeth, we are also searching for our souls. For some hope they are present or matter.

I have always reveled in the way The Bachelor reveals to me the failures of feminism. I need that reminder. It is there on The Bachelor, in the shots at dawn, in the aftermath, in the sequins and the tear drops: that is where this show finds its power to haunt me.

I have always adored such a scare because it brings me so close to the sad, sour truths of our real world.

Its constant ache for love–and too, its disasters.

(You can read more of my #BachNation analyses here and here.)

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