The State of Reality TV: The Pain of Watching The Bachelor

February 2, 2011
By | 12 Comments

Recently I find I’m not watching any of the same network reality shows that caught my attention during the reality TV boom of the early 2000s. It seems like a lifetime ago when I sat on my couch watching network programs such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, and The Bachelor. Instead, I’m watching cable reality series such as Married to Rock, Kendra, Kate Plus Eight, Jersey Shore, and every HGTV series imaginable. This semester, I promised myself a return to some of the network reality series that initially convinced me that reality TV was worth studying. They are still around—some of them for more than a decade. Are they the same, or have they changed?

One night as I flipped through the channels, I came face to face with Brad Womack, this year’s bachelor. His vacant look, mannequin smile, and pumped-up physique reminded me of everything I loved about The Bachelor: An Officer and a Gentleman, the last season I watched, where a beefcake guy walked around with his shirt off, said cheesy lines such as “I’m in Heaven when I’m with Bevin” (the name of a female contestant), and spouted every romantic cliché possible. I figured the new season with Brad Womack would show how hollow an unquestioned embrace of traditional patriarchal romance and romantic coupling can be. Mainly, I thought I would be experiencing the carnivalesque pleasures of reality dating shows that Jonathan Gray has astutely noted, ones that can subvert gender roles and patriarchy. I hadn’t seen Brad’s previous season when he left two women at the altar and incurred the scorn of viewers who believed in fairytale romance.

Normally I find the carnivalesque pleasures of certain reality series or subgenres painful. They lead to such corny moments that are both hard and delightful to watch, and usually the painful moments question normative assumptions about our identities. I’m all for this type of pain. It’s masochistic, but fun.

I think I’ve found a different type of pain on this season of The Bachelor. While this season has carnivalesque moments filled with over-the-top romantic clichés, love-crazed women, and a zombiefied prince, I’m amazed by the way the season has the patriarchal past impinging on the happiness of the present and the hopes of the future. So far episodes have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining how Brad went into three years of intensive therapy after ditching his two love interests in his last season, and Brad goes on about how he had commitment issues because he felt abandoned by his father at a young age. Brad recounts numerous stories of his father coming back into his life, only to leave quickly and devastate our beau. I was particularly surprised when Brad talked about how he turned to body building in an effort to overcome his emotional weaknesses that he developed from being abandoned. Even he concedes that his inflated body is meaningless. Brad claims he came back on The Bachelor in hopes of freeing himself from the past and finding happiness in the present and future.

A few contestants add to the theme of patriarchal ruins destroying the happiness of the present and future. Emily seems trapped in unhappiness because her husband died in a plane crash on a business trip, yet she has come on The Bachelor in hopes of discovering happiness in life. And Ashley S. talks to Brad about the devastating sudden death of her father and how she is trying to find peace in the present. Brad has developed what I call the “patriarchal crisis” look. Every time a woman tells Brad of a devastating loss of a man in her life, he clenches his lips and looks down to the right. It seems to be the image of the season.

Sometimes I feel this season of The Bachelor shares more in common with Vertigo than it does with other seasons; however, maybe I haven’t seen enough previous seasons to make such a grand claim. But I feel like I’m watching a traumatized man re-enter the same love story when history might not allow him to find happiness this time around either.

This season is painful to watch, but not in a fun, carnivalesque way. Rather, the pain seems to be much more serious and reveals the emotional trauma that we can experience when we blindly submit ourselves to normative ideas of patriarchy and the nuclear family. Common sense tells me that the producers aren’t consciously promoting this, but it appears prominently in this season because of casting.

Where is this theme going, and what are we to make of it? Perhaps this theme about the past and patriarchy will simply die out and be replaced by the carnivalesque that dominates reality dating shows. I’d be fine with that, since I initially started to re-watch The Bachelor to experience some subversive fun. But I hope that if the season continues with issues of the past and happiness, it envisions a coupling that doesn’t fall back on assumptions of a good man simply being there for his family—as if that in and of itself is good enough—or a good woman simply standing by her man just because he is there and alive. If issues of the past continue to concern the series, can The Bachelor work through a vision of love that truly frees these people from the ruins of patriarchy instead of redeeming patriarchal roles for them?  Promos for the season hint that Brad might be abandoned by the woman he proposes to because she can’t free herself from the past. If this season continues with its Vertigo trajectory, I hope the final rose ceremony isn’t on an exotic ocean-side cliff with nuns lurking around. If it is, I hope the producers attach Brad’s love interests to bungee cords and harnesses.


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12 Responses to “ The State of Reality TV: The Pain of Watching The Bachelor ”

  1. Nick Marx on February 2, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    Interesting thoughts, thanks Jon. It seems the decided lack of fun in this season is part of a broader narrative arc of redemption for many contestants on the show, one that, as you note, is tied closely to normative ideas of patriarchy and the nuclear family. Last season’s Bachelor foregrounded a handful of characters whose behavior strayed from these ideas a bit: Rozlyn, DQ’d for an affair with a staffer; Ali, who left for her job (how unruly!); and Vienna, whom bachelor Jake seemed to choose because she was the first to sleep with him. Even if this season ends in a mismatch, the show is trying to contain any semblance of subversion (if anything on the Bachelor can be really described as such) along the way, e.g. the widowed Emily, who, despite her many proclamations that she’s moved on and become her own woman, was made to work through her husband’s death by taking up his profession of stock car racing.

    • Jon Kraszewski on February 3, 2011 at 12:18 PM


      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I wasn’t aware of how unruly last season was. That provides an interesting context for this season.

      You make a great point of the season trying to contain any subversive element of Emily. The producers really arrange for events between her and Brad to deal with her dead husband. You have to wonder if she’s thinking, “Why is this guy taking my in an airplane? Why is this guy making me drive a race car?” I hope these events don’t continue if Emily makes it to the family visit round!

  2. Bob Rehak on February 3, 2011 at 10:05 AM

    Jon, thanks for this post. You read The Bachelor with depth and humor. I watch the show over my wife’s shoulder, under the gendered viewing protocols that obtain in our house (her: Brothers and Sisters, me: Family Guy, both of us: Parenthood and 70% of NBC’s Thursday-night lineup). The Bachelor has always struck me as a show in which men learn to be men and women learn to be women, all straight, of course (I’d love to see a gay Bachelor/Bachelorette on ABC, but ain’t holding my breath), and Brad’s turn toward therapy seems in step with his overall earnest-child demeanor; he might as well be wearing a banner that says “See what a good boy I’ve learned to be?” Still, the brutal heart of the system, like that of most reality shows, keeps my pleasure in check: it’s a cold contest of elimination, the production of a winning couple at the cost of countless serial rejections. In the negative space of The Bachelor I relive the social traumas of high school, and find it almost impossible to identify with the pretty pair that survives the process.

    • Jon Kraszewski on February 3, 2011 at 12:40 PM


      Your comments on Brad’s childlike nature are right on. In fact, I think that’s why the season portrays him as interested in two contestants who already have kids. He’s like a prepubescent boy who wants a family but isn’t ready to procreate. Thus, these women can offer him a family, but he can continue to be the boy (in fact, he reminded me of Peter Pan in the Cirque Du Soleil number this week).

      I really agree with your comments about the brutal nature of the system in dating shows and reality TV, but the brutality usually makes me laugh. The shows seem to get at the nasty nature of social systems and the power dynamics that operate underneath any signs of cordiality. And this often plays out in really ridiculous ways–like on Brad’s elimination date with the Ashleys where, because they both have the same name, it becomes impossible to keep track of the one he is complimenting and the one he is eliminating.

    • Jon Kraszewski on February 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM


      I forgot to mention one other thing. You mention that The Bachelor has you relive social traumas. I have similar reactions to reality TV. Even though we all know reality TV is fabricated beyond belief, I often have this base reaction to social experiment reality programs where I think, “Yeah, this is how life sometimes works.” I wonder if that is a key aspect to the pleasure or displeasure of reality TV.

      Thanks so much for the great comments.

  3. Trevor J. Blank on February 4, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    Great article! Did you ever watch the various iterations of Bret Michaels’ “Rock of Love”– a lot of similar emotional responses to the pain of viewing, just with more tattoos and boozing on the screen. Do you see the similarities?

    • Jon Kraszewski on February 5, 2011 at 12:39 PM


      Thanks for the kind words. Yes, the Rock of Love franchise definitely takes a carnivalesque approach to marriage and normative gender roles. Those shows set up events so that the contestants and Brett can rehearse monogamous relationships that might lead to marriage, but the series simultaneously reveals how the events won’t lead to a final couple. We know all along that there will be another season of Rock of Love and that this coupling won’t work.

      In terms of the past and emotional traumas in ROL, the past becomes synonymous with your occupation, specifically how being a rock star or a stripper has affected your ability to have a relationship. While both professions are stigmatized to a certain extent—Brett says rock-n-roll ruined his relationships and the women want to name the strippers because they are somehow damaged goods—both professions ultimately become a source of pleasure and sexual freedom within the series. That is, Brett wants to party with strippers, no matter what the narrative goals of the series might claim. Of course, I don’t mean simply to celebrate raunch culture or claim that it is anti-mainstream. It is worthy of critique, too. I’m working on a book chapter now that touches on the class assumptions about raunch culture in Flavor of Love.

  4. Sarah Murray on February 7, 2011 at 3:03 PM


    Much appreciated and insightful article. I watch The Bachelor with a group of women who set aside Monday evenings to gulp wine and revel in the masochistic moments you (and others) describe. What you have tapped into here, I think, is something we have also noticed but have been unable to articulate, other than to state repeatedly our collective observation that Brad is just really not that into it. (The question of “it” is open to debate and your discussion of Brad’s abandonment issues prompts further dissecting of what, exactly, Brad is resisting. Whereas previous bachelors have also proffered the vacant look and mannequin smile, Brad’s emptiness is vaguely different, prompting curiosity about what, specifically, he’s resisting – these women? women in general? the process? the inescapable decision at the end? the idea of love?)

    This season is unusually painful for the very reasons you suggest, and I think you quite accurately pinpoint how the show’s present moment reveals the gravity of “blindly submitting ourselves to normative ideas.” As regular viewers, our recognition of Brad’s resistance – his not-into-it-ness – is the first step toward changing the channel because, as Nick points out above, it’s just not very entertaining. However, I want to tentatively suggest that our curiosity about WHY he’s not into it and ultimately the possibility that he might actually free himself from these patriarchal ruins (via a finale that fails to end with a partnership) are why we keep watching despite the truly painful pain.

  5. Jon Kraszewski on February 8, 2011 at 12:58 PM


    Thanks for these great comments. I completely agree with you that one reason to watch is to find out why Brad’s not into it. And he is so not! I love when he eliminated the one Ashley and said he was going to walk her to her car. It seemed like a kind gesture, but he never said anything during that walk. He drug her to the car like a bouncer booting someone from a bar. I think the analogy holds when you consider how bored and frustrated bouncers look in those situations. It seemed like a boring job for Brad. And Chantal—the double entendres she was throwing at Brad last night. Brad was either too dumb to understand them, too bored to react, or too bothered by the entire premise of the show. And yet he feels the need to be on the show. . . again.

    Like you, I’m fascinated to see how the series ends.

  6. Jon Kraszewski on February 8, 2011 at 3:10 PM


    One last thing: you raise a very interesting question: is Brad resistant to women in general? I see no romantic feelings of love toward women in him. Is he so damaged that he can’t love? Is he a misogynist? Or is he ready to ready to go on a season of the Bachelor that Bob references above? It’s hard to tell.

    • Sarah Murray on February 10, 2011 at 10:50 AM

      Exactly. There is a decided lack of chemistry. With anyone, at all, ever. Whether we’ll get any clarity on why remains to be seen.

      • Jon Kraszewski on February 11, 2011 at 10:29 AM

        Brad is always robotic, but he gets even more so when a contestant kisses him.