How is The Bachelor OK?

Today is international women’s day, and next Monday is The Bachelor finale. The juxtaposition of the two events on my social feeds already had me thinking, but then a friend posted a Facebook meme that asked a fundamental question about The Bachelor, and the people who watch it. The meme reads:

            The bachelor is about a man dating multiple women at once, primarily watched by women who hate men who date multiple women at once.

Of course, memes are memes; they are meant to make fun of ridiculous parts of culture. Yes, The Bachelor is an American guilty pleasure, but just entertainment, right? No harm no foul? In real life the majority of people who watch The Bachelor would never condone 25 simultaneous dating partners for one man, but it’s TV, it’s fantasy, and fantasies don’t come true.

The thing about fantasies on TV is that they are sometimes presented so that fantasy feels within reach. Reality TV in particular requires an investment of viewers beyond passive consumption; it relies on fans for casting, which means any viewer could, theoretically, become a part of the fantasy. To the human mind, both developing and developed, that ostensibly thin line between fantasy and reality is what makes shows like The Bachelor so tricky.

I used to watch The Bachelor religiously, like many religious people in this country do. I stopped watching years ago, mostly because I grew out of it. The exaggerated suspense and prolonged drama between never-ending commercial breaks wore down my patience, and the moral questions I stuffed to the back of my mind became too obvious to ignore.

I cringe when I think back to how much I wanted to be like the women in that show. I applied to be on the show twice while I was in college. Fortunately, being a Bachelorette wasn’t in the cards for me, but I was still buying what the show was selling. In my audition submissions, I would think about how to make myself stand out against other potential contestants. After all, that’s the name of the game, every woman for herself – the thing is a literal competition!

I thought about my curly hair, and how it would hold up in the pool against the ladies with naturally smooth locks. I’d think about my curvy frame, and how much I would have to work out to look decent against thinner contestants. Not to mention, I’m not white, which doesn’t bode well for winning (or even being a part of) The Bachelor’s universe. I spent perfectly good evenings obsessing over my body, as well as dissecting those of total strangers, because the show rewards that behavior by catapulting normal people to fame.

Women are taught to compare bodies from the time we are small. In my case, it was as a nine-year-old cheerleader who was acutely aware that my uniform orders had to be placed with girls on older squads because I was bigger than everyone on my squad. It was also around that time that I began to understand that important men like President Trump prefer women who look like those who walk in his pageants, and speak less than they show their skin. In high school and college I learned the lengths that some of my female peers would go to in an effort to mold to that standard – literally purging themselves of food and smoking to stave off hunger.

Until only a couple of years ago, I stressed about my appearance every day of my life. In hindsight, it was such an insidious distraction I’m surprised I was able to pull off good grades in school. When I think of having a daughter someday, I am horrified by the idea of her spending so much energy worrying about her appearance. The world has greater things it will need her power for.

I wonder what I will allow her young mind to be exposed to, and what images and people I will introduce into her consciousness. When I think of her, I cannot understand how every week, mothers, sisters, daughters, Christians, fathers, brothers, teachers, and feminists tune in to watch The Bachelor and think it is okay.

My habit of watching The Bachelor didn’t come with me when I left college over five years ago. I have not watched an episode since then, but I have been temporarily drawn into its universe of drama through social media and general cultural interest. Every time I’m sucked in, I am surprised at how long and how strong The Bachelor has dominated this Christian country’s airwaves.

I am also surprised that the rise of mainstream feminism has not slowed down The Bachelor juggernaut, in spite of the show’s reliance on the kind of female competition that celebrity feminists like Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj argue is no good for anyone. Aside from feminism, the show exalts the worst of the male ego in a way many people believe helped bring us into the age of Trump.

And yet, it is primarily women who tune in.

I don’t know the answer to the question of the cultural phenomenon that is The Bachelor. All I can do is wonder at how many women religiously watch The Bachelor, and think it is okay.

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