The story begins simply enough, but, as matters of the heart tend to, gets complicated fast. For 17 seasons you find yourself ambivalently engrossed in the longest running dating reality franchise of all time, the enduring shows The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Bachelor Pad. The premise, part game show, part soap opera, part arranged marriage/harem/PG-13 porn epic, casts a man or woman in their search for true love. You know it's scripted, edited, and producer influenced. You don't relate to the hunky, dull people who populate this artificial reality. And yet there you are, each season, pulled back into the vortex of suspense and surveillance, examining this cultural artifact, its profundity and triviality in equal measure, awaiting with baited breath the pre-determined surprises and faux cliffhangers.
So, do you:
A) Unabashedly regale friends with Bachelorette updates at dinner parties (go to Part I).
B) Have an existential crisis about your proclivity for bad television and take up some light reading and research involving immersion in Marxist theory, Derrida and feminist texts (go to Part II).
"I've been getting into The Bachelorette," you tell people proudly whenever they bring up more intelligent shows such as Mad Men. People laugh nervously and wonder if you're serious as you entertain them with stories about Bryden, the Iraqi war vet who doesn't know what Brie is, Chris who writes poetry where ocean rhymes with emotion and the federal prosecutor who speaks mostly in legal puns ("the people vs. Ben, case dismissed," he says, when his nemesis is sent home). You find this all hilarious and imagine there must be some deeper symbolism at work. Your questions are unending. Is it just so bad it's good? Is it tapping into some subconscious yearning you have for a traditional, domestic life? Is it simply a sociological train wreck from which you can't avert your eyes?
A) Secretly have a favorite bachelor who you hope with all your heart will win, and read spoiler-alert gossip blogs to satisfy your desire to know the winner weeks in advance (go to Part III).
B) Worry a bit about representations of gender and narrative manipulation on the show (go to Part IV).
You listen to feminist critic Rachel Dubrofsky's really interesting interview where she discusses her book The Surveillance of Women On Reality TV: Watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Dubrofsky breaks apart how the show is ostensibly about monogamy, while actually illustrating an extreme opposite. One recent "two-on-one" date involves both men kissing the bachelorette chastely on either cheek and it's indeed really creepy. You wonder how the winner of the show feels when he watches these episodes after the fact. All the kissing of other men must make him sad. And what of the fact that all the dates, not just his, involve jumping from great heights and elaborately chandelier-lit dinners? Dubrofsky is a fan of the show and you admire how she compartmentalizes her critique alongside her enjoyment, something it seems intelligent people are able to do without much self-doubt, and something which you will practice from here on out. While reading Marxist theory, you learn that reification occurs when human creation is confused with facts of nature. "The Bachelorette is full of reification," you declare, looking the word up in the dictionary to see if you're saying anything at all.
You re-read parts of Backlash, Susan Faludi's bad-ass book about contemporary resistance to feminism, which discusses how, "the afflictions ascribed to feminism are all myths. From 'the man shortage' to 'the infertility epidemic'...these so-called female crises have had their origins not in the actual conditions of women's lives but rather in a closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising — an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood."
This is at the heart of The Bachelor/Bachelorette: a closed system where the rules of the story make the ensuing proceedings seem plausible, even as something insidious is at work. It reminds you of this article in The Atlantic, how truths are being twisted, told and believed in certain ways. You begin to worry all incarnations of this show are illuminating something awful about cultural logic and reinforcing retro notions of gender and marriage. As the real world makes strides in more enlightened directions, popular culture often does reflect back at us the very opposite of our better selves.
A) Try to put it all from your mind (go to Part V).
B) Play a rousing game of Heartthrob in an attempt to get further toward the heart of the matter (go to Part VI).
See Brooks, pictured below. You want him to win from the get-go. He's tall and halfway cute, at least by comparison to his competitors. In one episode, he breaks his finger after a game of dodgeball and later shows up to a group date still loopy on pain killers, pronouncing, "Oh, just make out with me!" In keeping with what you believe to often be true about love, he is the most unsure of his feelings and ability to commit, and so the bachelorette is most in love with him, or so you believe. Regardless, you're hopeful for them and like her more for having picked the right guy.
See James, pictured below. You don't like James. He has the shiny, dark eyes of a lunk-headed villain. And yet, his premature departure from the show, wherein the more sincere men bully him into admitting he's a horrific cad for imagining a life post-Bachelorette, strikes you as unfair. More importantly, James illustrates an important aspect of The Bachelorette, one in which each person has many stories that might be contrived around them, and yet only one is deemed provocative and predictable enough to work within this structure. There must always be the bad guy, just as there must always be the hysterical woman. There must always be someone who cares too much and someone who doesn't care enough. Someone who can't open up and someone with a deep, dark secret they long to share. The material the editors and producers are given by their cast must be shaped and molded into these narratives, ones with, when you think about it, very little suspense at all. The twists and turns of these romances are not those of real romance. In the world of The Bachelorette, you are guided to make the most boring choices, you're told who's most middle-road, neither extreme, and therefore desirable. Yet, when the winning couple enters the world, they almost always crumble. There's a lesson there.
You busy yourself with other things, or try. You go to brunch and take walks. You Instagram and work on your Tumblr pages. You read fiction that has nothing to do with love. You go to work. You idly Google image search your most and least favorite Bachelorette men. You read dissertations that discuss critical and cultural approaches to watching the show. You discuss your findings over drinks with friends. They ask you what the deal is with that show anyway. You shake your head and say, "I don't know."
The Bachelorette reminds you a lot of the 1988 classic board game, Heartthrob. You find a well-preserved edition of this game at a thrift store and many an evening is spent playing. The general gist is that you must choose a boy for yourself and guess who your friends are choosing. The boys are '80s hunks who get three good trait cards and one bad (nice odds!). You have to decide if the bad trait can be outweighed by the good ones, much like the ever-important decisions of actual love. It's a hilarious, amazing, horrifying game, as is The Bachelorette. How do you critique or participate in these things, somehow weighing the cultural influence and importance, the impact on you and your adventure? The bottom line, you hope, is that being critical and being a fan are not mutually exclusive. You can and should thoroughly criticize even your most favorite things, especially your favorite things. Heartthrob comforts you. It all means very little, perhaps. It's all good fun, you tell yourself.
Unlike the bachelorette, you live happily ever after, or at least until Season 18 starts the adventure all over again.