Let’s skip the part where I convince you that The Bachelor is an important part of the American cultural landscape. Thirteen years in, with 33 franchise-related seasons of television under its belt, The Bachelor is more than a brand, it is an institution. You can argue with me all you want about how this Monday’s finale hit a record low in ratings, but it was still ABC’s highest rated night of the past year. Just as Survivor redefined the game show when it premiered in 2000, The Bachelor redefined the dating show with its long-form premise and those iconic red roses. Claiming that The Bachelor doesn’t matter to pop culture is like saying cheese doesn’t matter to pizza. It doesn’t make the pizza any healthier, but if you wanted a healthy snack, maybe pizza was the wrong choice for you. I’m just saying.
This Monday marked the conclusion to one of the most fascinating seasons of The Bachelor to date. The Bachelor’s success, in large part, glides along on the pre-existing devotion of its fans. There will always be people who want to watch The Bachelor just because it’s The Bachelor. But this season felt different. It felt interesting. I know that Chris Harrison exaggerates, but I really do believe Season 19 has been “the most talked about season in Bachelor history,” or at least of the last ten years. What about this season was so striking, and so unsettling for many? Yes, there were the usual complaints about its almost too-obvious objectification of women, its stubborn sex-negativity, even a point to be made about farm subsidy reform. But none of that is new. (Well, except for the farm thing.) What made this season so stickily engrossing was in its internal discord. For the first time in a long time, maybe even at all, we’re seeing The Bachelor straining its gears. We’re getting little glimpses of the reality behind the reality show, and it’s as amazing as it is disturbing. I see this strain as the result of two opposing forces colliding. On the one hand, we had a deeply felt sincerity from the leading players that gave this season’s love story extra credibility. On the other hand, pushback from some key supporting players gave question to the credibility of the show itself.
Let’s start with the first. Chris Soules, the “Prince Farming” bachelor of Season 19, is a hard man to hate. He’s no sensation, either—the guy barely strung six words together in the course of the show, and when he did, it looked like it physically pained him. But while the question for other Bachelors/Bachelorettes might be, “Why on Earth would you do this show?”, for Chris, the question would be, “Why on Earth wouldn’t you?” The man lives on a farm, and the nearest town of Arlington, Iowa has a population of 416. He’s 33 and, whether he actually wants a wife or just another notch on the bedpost, getting to spend a few months casually sorting out 30 beautiful women has got to sound a hell of a lot easier, not to mention way more fun, than whatever he’d been doing before (FarmersOnly.com, I guess?). And for the record, I do believe Chris wanted a wife, and not a girlfriend, as his sisters scolded him in that last episode. Not for a moment did I think the finale was going to end with anything other than a bent knee proposal and a shiny Neil Lane diamond.
And the lucky lady? Well, I believe in Whitney Bischoff’s sincerity too. Her helium voice had me gritting my teeth in early episodes, but as the season wore on and other women’s caricatures solidified, Whitney’s effortless goodness was a welcome relief from the producer-amped “drama” that plagued her castmates. Sure, she told Chris she loved him halfway through the thing, but who couldn’t believe her: she’s kind, bold, smart, and sure. Is it crazy that two people can fall in love on a reality show? Absolutely. And The Bachelor‘s record at producing lasting relationships could be called “spotty” by only the most generous critic. But it’s not unprecedented, and if anyone can make it work, it’s gotta be these two kids. And besides, Chris was ready to marry any of these women if it came down to it, and stick it out with them no matter what. 416 people, remember?
(A moment, please—There’s been a lot of talk, both positive and negative, about the message behind this season’s assumption that the “winning” woman would move to Iowa to marry Chris and have his cute mute babies while he works the combine harvester. Some are aghast at the notion: surely glorifying these women, many of whom had planned to leave successful careers to be housewives, sets back feminism a hundred years? Others still praised them, citing the same feminism for their right to choose to leave the workforce to be a wife and mother. I fall somewhere in between the two camps. I think it is perfectly acceptable, admirable even, to want to be a wife and mother above all else, and there’s nothing wrong with aggressively pursuing that, either. And Chris is a very wealthy farmer—his pre-Bachelor net worth is reported at 1.5 million, and that’s before he signed on to Dancing With the Stars. These women aren’t “giving up everything” to live in a barn with a ranch hand. At the same time, not a single woman on this season even hinted the suggestion to Chris that he might be the one to move, or that perhaps a long distance arrangement might be an option. And I hate to say it, but some of the young single mothers seemed to be in it just for the opportunity to provide a stable home for their children. Is that a bad thing? Not at all! But it’s not exactly a modern vision of love, either.)
This very real sense of sincerity from our strongest and final couple was just unusual enough to have thrown The Bachelor for a bit of a loop. Chris’s relationship with Whitney was so strong that the charade of shedding the other women one or two at a time was revealed to be just that: a charade. I’m not saying Whitney was the obvious One from the start, but come on, was anyone on the edge of their seat to see if Chris would fall in love with Kardashian lookalike Ashley I.? (Yes, here on The Bachelor we do initials like it’s grade school.) The oft-rumored “producer picks,” those girls left in the running because they make good ratings, became glaringly obvious. Ashley I.’s inexplicable continued presence was a reminder that all is not always as it seems in Bachelor-land.
So let’s get back to that second thing, about this season’s unruly supporting cast, as it will lead us directly into the real heart of the current Bachelor conversation, which is the announcement of the Bachelorette–sorry, Bachelorettes. This has been a season of fascinating female characters, and I do mean to emphasize that they are characters, not people. Sure, they go into this process as their own persons, and they come out of it, too, but signing on to reality television means, ironically, that you sign over your own reality. These women are at the mercy of producers and editors, those shadowy figures hovering by the craft services table who write the real stories. Ashley S. wasn’t wrong to accuse the producers of gambling on the contestants; that’s not far off from what they’re really doing, which is carefully arranging the pieces for stories to “emerge.” It’s important to remember that it is completely unnatural for a two hour slice of “life” to have a beginning, middle, end, and cliffhanger, even though we’re so used to seeing that formula week after week. Even the biggest “drama” of the season, that of the icy Kelsey and the revelation of her deceased husband, wasn’t shocking in the sense of what actually happened (which, if you’ll recall, is basically nothing: a conversation set to ominous music, a “cancelled” mixer, an over-the-top panic attack). It was shocking because, as Kate Dries over at Jezebel deftly points out, it breaks the fundamental rules of The Bachelor: do not break the fourth wall. Do not address the elephant in the room. Do not comment on your own “amazing story.” You do not own your story. The Bachelor does.
And it wasn’t just “scary Kelsey” who broke the rules. The aforementioned Ashley S. was this season’s Token Crazy, and clearly, the producers could not be more thrilled about her erratic behavior. But if we look closely at Ashley’s “craziness”, (which included her prancing into the green room and other “behind the scenes” locations, picking a pomegranate from an on-set tree, and talking to a local cat who’d wandered into a scene) we see something else: editors scrambling to cover up a woman who just didn’t feel like playing along in Bachelor-world. It becomes especially apparent in her brief interviews after filming wrapped: Ashley might have been a little weird, but mostly she was just weirded out by the horrors of the slanted universe she’d stepped into. Her obvious reluctance to sign on to Bachelor in Paradise (Chris Harrison asks her twice on live TV just to muster an uncomfortable maybe) only further tells how disillusioned she was with the show and its cardboard walls. Imagine having all your jokes met with stony silence, to be later filled in with classic reality show “this bitch is loopy” music (you know, it sounds like doop! Di loop di loop. BING!) Ashley’s fatal mistake was the same as Kelsey’s: assuming that her reality would somehow override the reality of the television show. And that’s what made this season particularly salient: these women ground up against the Bachelor machine, and we were able to catch the moments of reality flickering between the cracks.
Which is why, of course, the producers picked the two women who played by the rules the nicest to be the next Bachelorettes. Britt and Kaitlyn knew they were playing a game the second they walked onto that hosed-down driveway. Britt, as the first lady out of the limo, took the emotional tack: hands to her mouth, Stefon-like, she choked out an introduction to Chris before wrapping him into a sensuous and overlong hug. Game on. Kaitlyn opted for personality over “connection:” she introduced herself to Chris with a raunchy joke, solidifying her role as Cool Girl. (I refuse to print that joke, not only because it was terribly unfunny, but because I’d be willing to bet Kaitlyn has kicked herself into fits of humiliation over it.) Neither of them stood a chance, Britt because hotness and a “true connection” does not a relationship make, and Kaitlyn because she could banter circles around Chris, and it was pathetic watching him try to keep up. So, great, let’s pack them up and give them another go round, but this time, let’s pit them directly against each other and make a “huge finale twist!” out of it.
As a producer of The Bachelor, you must know you’ve made a mistake when your own darlings start to turn against you, as former contestants have begun to speak out against the decision to feature two Bachelorettes—one of whom will be kicked off after the first episode. Kaitlyn, in her self-deprecating Cool Girl way, joked that the situation is “not ideal.” Even Bachelor-married golden boy Sean Lowe called the move “downright degrading.” It sends the message that these women, and therefore all women, are interchangeable, that a group of men can definitively vote on who makes better “wife material” (host Chris Harrison’s words). Remember in Bali, when Whitney looked at Becca and said, “If she’s the right one for him, then he’s not the right one for me?” Well, if Whitney and Becca are different, then Britt and Kaitlyn are polar extremes. Assuming that they can be thrown at the same group of men just to see who sticks isn’t just insulting, it invalidates their very existence as individual human beings.
But in a weird way, I suspect I understand what the execs are doing here, even if they’d never admit it. This is a way to regain control of The Bachelor, to remind the women (yes, specifically the women) that the point here has never been about love, or relationships, or finding The One. It’s about making great reality TV, and reality TV doesn’t care about you. Reality TV is ruthless. So, yes, in a few months when The Bachelorette airs, we will see one of these women go home in tears on the first night. The other will make a gracious show of it, and blithely continue along her “amazing journey.” It will be horrifying and sad and dramatic and outrageous, and most of all very, very good television. All will be set aright in the twisted world where The Bachelor lives, and we’ll be sure to tune in next week for the next installment. After all, it’s not your reality, girls. It never was.