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