Is 'The Bachelor' Franchise's Popularity Rooted in Fear of Social Progress?

Becca and Garrett on 'The Bachelorette,' Season 14. (ABC)

If the wealth of recent headlines about Becca, Blake and Garrett are to be believed, The Bachelorette and The Bachelor are still, over 16 years after the latter first premiered, still pop culture staples. The franchise has collectively produced 28 failed relationships and eight successful ones (only one of which came together via The Bachelor), over the span of 389 episodes. There have also been four Bachelor spin-off shows, one of which -- Bachelor in Paradise -- briefly halted production last year after a consent-related controversy.

Back in March, The Bachelor's Season 22 finale was also roundly criticized after showing the winner (Becca) getting dumped by bachelor Arie in an excruciatingly uncut scene, so he could instead go back to his second choice, Lauren. The break up was presented in split screen, lest we miss out on anyone's discomfort. It was so horrifying to watch, it even garnered an SNL parody.

The three-hour finale of The Bachelorette's fourteenth season also made no bones about reveling in the misfortune of at least one of its contestants. In his introduction to the live show, Chris Harrison, who so closely resembled Caesar Flickerman from The Hunger Games that it was borderline disturbing, proudly declared, "One man will walk away with Becca, while the other will leave so broken-hearted, so devastated, we really haven't witnessed anything like this before. This is an absolute tear-jerker."

The Bachelor and Bachelorette have had their appeal dissected by multiple outlets over the years, almost all of whom have cited the compelling combination of reality show, game show and fairytale as the reason for the franchise's longevity. A couple of years ago, Glamour also suggested that women were still watching The Bachelor because "women ultimately emerge the heroes of a story that was originally about a man looking for love" -- a bit of a stretch, given how the show so obviously pits women against each other.

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One Huffington Post blogger cited her primary reason for watching as: "the hope of a happy ending." Talking to AdAge in 2015, Robert Mills of ABC Entertainment said he thought fan influence over the shows was a major popularity factor. "The audience has become a silent producer," he said. "They help decide who the leads should be, the kind of dates they want to see; it really makes them feel they are on the journey together."

There's no doubt that all of the above contribute to the Bachelor/ette's appeal, but there may be more significant societal factors at play as well. Neither show has ever shifted from its original format, despite the myriad ways the world has drastically changed since the show first premiered. Tinder came along in 2012 and radically transformed American dating. #BlackLivesMatter has shone a light on everyday inequalities faced by people of color since it started in 2013. Marriage equality was achieved in 2015. Birthrates reached their lowest point ever in 2017. The post-Women's March feminist swell has been unstoppable since the day after President Trump's election. The gender spectrum is no longer a fringe conversation. Polyamory is no longer considered an obscure lifestyle.

And yet, The Bachelor/ette continues to be a strictly heterosexual world, in which lifelong, licensed monogamy is the ultimate end goal. It's a bubble in which old-fashioned courtship is still standard practice, and traditional gender roles remain firmly intact (it's the man's job to propose, even on The Bachelorette). There are always discussions amongst contestants about future children. And overwhelmingly, most of the people involved are white. The few people of color who do get included don't generally last long. (In 2016, Splinter News reported that: “In the history of the franchise, on both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, a black contestant has never lasted longer than five weeks. In fact, more than half -- 59% -- of black Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants leave the shows within two weeks.”) The Bachelorette may have cast their first African-American lead in 2017, but The Bachelor has yet to do so.

The majority of The Bachelor/ette's viewers have always been women. In 2013, BroadcastingCable.com presented viewer statistics to prove it: "The Bachelor averages a 2.7 in the 18-49 demo, but among women in the demo averages a 4.0." In 2015, ShowBuzzDaily reported: "The Bachelor is one of the youngest-skewing shows on ABC, delivering substantial numbers of females 12-34 (quite rare for ABC)."

One can presume that many of these women are seeking an escape from the complexities of modern dating, with all of its swiping, unsolicited photos and lack of resemblance to what girls were told to expect from dating, growing up. The men watching might enjoy the old-fashioned gender roles for entirely different reasons. But there is also likely a significant element here of using The Bachelor/ette as a means to hang onto the idea of a bygone America in general.

In 2015, Nielsen ratings listed The Bachelor as Number 1 in a chart titled "What the Young & Rich Watch." At the time, Deadline explained that the show did "a 111% higher rating in 150K+ homes than it [did] in regular demo ratings.” Given the fact that the Huffington Post cited data in 2016 from the American National Elections Studies to demonstrate that "the rich tend to be far more conservative than the average American," it makes sense that wealthy people, in particular, would love these shows. It's one of the only things left on primetime TV in 2018 that continues to present so many old-fashioned American values as still the norm.

It's true that the ratings of both shows have dropped, but that's mostly because TV ratings have been dropping across the board. The Bachelorette started in 2003 with an average viewership of 16.65 million. By 2017, that number had dropped to 5.89 million. The Bachelor has fared better, having fluctuated between an average of roughly 8 and 13 million viewers throughout its history. In 2016, Variety reported: "The Bachelor continues to stomp the competition," and 2018's Season 22 finale brought in ABC's best figures of the season.

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With all that in mind, it's hard not to wonder if the continued popularity of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in 2018 speaks to a longing at the heart of white, wealthy America to hang onto The Good Old Days. As culture rapidly changes, accelerated by the internet, and thanks to a strength in grassroots social movements not seen in this country in decades, The Bachelor/ette refuses steadfastly to acknowledge that anything has changed. Maybe these shows aren't popular despite their white, heteronormative, sexist structure, but because of it.

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