We at The Millions appreciate good criticism for its own sake, whether it be about The Paris Review or soccer commentators, Orhan Pamuk or Beyonce Knowles. In that spirit, we present this dialogue–inspired in part by Slate’s TV Club–about one of this season’s most fascinating television shows, The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love. Edan Lepucki and Patrick Brown are not only regular contributors to The Millions, they are also married. They watch the show together, and they started this dialogue via email a few weeks ago. Neither can wait for tonight’s season finale.
Edan: We started watching The Bachelor on Hulu two episodes after it began (it took us a single night to catch up). Although you originally expressed displeasure at the thought of watching the season, you quickly became invested in Bachelor Jake and the throngs of ladies (most of them blonde–oh how my people embarrass themselves again and again!) who adore him. It’s strange, because, although the show is fairly boring, with its drawn-out rose ceremonies and its empty-platitude-strewn confessionals, as soon as an episode ends, I begin salivating for the next. I must be drawn to the show because it’s so inane and heinous. I suppose I enjoy being incensed by 23-year-old women who feel their lives are empty and meaningless because they haven’t found “Prince Charming.” Do you think there are people out there who watch this show without judgment? Is there an audience for whom The Bachelor is neither a farce nor a tragedy?
I know a married couple who watched the show religiously, and even place bets on who would be the last woman standing. Is The Bachelor a narrative for smug married people (ahem)? Or is it more for smug single people, who would rather remain unattached than degrade themselves on national television? What, do you think, is the appeal of this show?
Patrick: It’s true, I wasn’t too excited by the prospect of watching The Bachelor again after a couple years off. The last one I remember before “On the Wings of Love” was “An Officer and A Gentlemen.” The bachelor that year was a captain or a lieutenant or something in the Navy. He was the most boring person I’ve ever encountered, either in real life or through my television. All he did was work out. That was it. He was like The Situation on a battleship. I think he married a personal trainer, too, if I remember correctly. Anyway, that guy turned me away from the show for a while.
But surprisingly, I’m enjoying this season. Whether it’s the bachelor himself — Jake (Pilot Jake, as I call him) — or the women, this season is genuinely entertaining. To answer your question, there’s no doubt that there are plenty of people who enjoy the show “unironically” or however you want to put it. And I think, on some level, I enjoy it this way. I love the drama of it. I like to see people put it on the line. Whether you believe these people can really feel something in just a few weeks or not, I do think they feel a profound disappointment when they’re dumped. I’ve seen women crying so hard they were hyperventilating. That’s good TV.
I think the reason the show resonates with so many people is several fold. Mainly, I think people crave repetition, and The Bachelor is highly repetitive, which Adorno claims reassures us against death. This is why good pop songs have a tried and true structure (also, incidentally, why a song like “Pink Moon” is unsettling, because it turns itself upside down and doesn’t follow that typical structure). Everything about The Bachelor — the sensationally stagey rose ceremonies (My favorite part is when the guy stares at the pictures of the remaining girls, thinking longingly about which ones will make it to the next round), the way they all keep saying the same key phrases (“I felt a connection,” “I’m not sure she’s here for the right reasons,” etc.), the way even the characters know the sequence of the show (“Next week is hometowns, and I don’t take that lightly”) — it’s all there to reassure us that we’re still alive and everything is moving along as it should. I think this is especially powerful in that it deals with marriage, so not only is it “We won’t die,” but rather “We won’t die alone.” That’s powerful, whether you enjoy it ironically or sincerely or whatever.
I also think that people love to judge one another’s relationships. How many conversations have you had in your life that were about how wrong two people were for each other? A lot, right? Well, this is that on a national scale. Of course, whenever you’re judging a relationship, I think you’re always insinuating that one part of the couple is wrong or poorly matched to the other. There’s an implicit (or, sometimes direct) suggestion that one of the people is inferior. I think we see that with Vienna, who comes off as fake, desperate, cloying, etc. My question to you is why does she illicit those responses from us? Is she not successfully playing the role we’ve assigned her? What is it about Vienna (and others of her ilk who have come before) that makes everyone hate her? If Jake really thinks she’s the bee’s knees, who are we to judge?
Edan: Well said, Husband! Regarding this idea of repetition, one of the things that bothers me most about the show, and which I also depend on and anticipate each time a new episode begins, is the use of overly familiar and vague language. As you’ve pointed out, the contestants from season to season use the same key phrases (if another person refers to the process as “the journey” I’m going to throw up), and Jake repeatedly describes the women he likes in the same bland terms. For instance, in the last episode we watched, where he and three of the women go to St Lucia, he kept saying, in confessional, “She’s amazing”–and he was referring to a different woman each time! The women, too, aren’t able to tell us why they actually like Jake, other than to say stuff like, “He’s the kind of guy I’ve always dreamed of,” or, the most meaningless of phrases, “He’s perfect.” In many ways, the rhetoric of the confessionals is a fiction writing teacher’s nightmare: all telling, cliched language, absent of specificity and individualized, perspective-driven emotion. But I wonder, is that the comfort of the show? And is that the comfort of the marriage narrative? I wonder if the scenic action on the show–the scenes we see of Vienna and Jake making out on the deck of a pirate ship, for instance–is meant to suggest the spontaneity of a romantic relationship, while the voice-overs and direct addresses to the viewer, emphasize the comfort, the familiarity, of that same relationship. A fantasy of marriage, in other words, one perfectly counterbalanced by risk and safety.
It’s funny you should should bring up Vienna, the show’s villain. She’s been demonized on the tabloids and the other contestants disliked her. You say she’s fake, cloying, and so on–but, you know what? I love her! This has been my favorite season of “The Bachelor” because Jake, for all his washboard ab dullness, has made some surprising choices. Yes, he got rid of your favorite hot girl, Gia (Lord, is that crush getting tiresome), but he kept her for much longer than either of us expected. And Vienna continues to hang on, and online gossip says she is the ultimate winner. She’s not the prettiest, she’s got terrible extensions, and her relationship with her father (she’s a self-described “Daddy’s Girl” ) is questionable. Vienna subverts our expectations. The villain is not meant to win this kind of show! Nobody is supposed to want a villainous wife! What do you make of Jake’s choice to keep her on the show? And how do you compare her to sweet and wholesome Tenley, the woman of “values” with the I-was-molested-as-a-child porn star voice?
Patrick: Vienna’s father uttered one of the truly remarkable phrases in recent TV history, when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “You want a good wife? She’ll be a good wife. You come home, your house will be clean, your kids will be raised right.” It’s perfectly acceptable to want a marriage where only one spouse has to work (you could point out how unlikely this is on a pilot’s salary, but that might poke some unwanted holes in the narrative), but coming from her father, it seems wrong, somehow. Like that’s all she has to offer. Vienna seems to represent a certain kind of person in America. I think the fact that you (and some of the other women on the show) see her bad dye job and her unsubtle tan, and what they really see is a clue about class, right? She just seems lower class than some of the other girls (like Ali, who has a plum first-world job tending the cloud at Facebook). That seems significant to me, since the show is pretty much an aspirational narrative. We forget that the origins of The Bachelor aren’t that far from the sordid Fox shows like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? A previous bachelor was heir to the Firestone tire fortune, and a major part of his narrative was that he had a ton of money and would make some lucky girl into a real life princess. Another Bachelor was titled nobility somewhere (they filmed that season in a castle, in case the fairy tale element wasn’t obvious enough). I think that’s what America sees in Vienna. They have dyed hair and spray tans. Many of them want the sort of rigidly defined gender roles that Vienna’s dad described. And if Vienna can win, it means they can be the princess (in a standard middle-class fantasy life in suburban Dallas).
Speaking of Ali, when we were watching the episode in which she had to choose between keeping her job and staying on the show, you remarked that it was the typical “Man or career: you can’t have both,” dilemma that women have been confronted with for years. In a way, this season’s final four encapsulates the show’s reactionary sexual politics quite nicely. Of the final four, Ali had to choose between her job and her love life, Gia was too sexy, maybe, to get a husband, leaving the slightly lower-class woman who the man could dominate economically, and Tenley, the juvenile one, who he could dominate psychologically and physically. Or maybe I’m just a cynic. Tenley seems like a bland religious type (there’s one in every season, though, like the villain, they don’t often make it to the finals). Jake’s connection with her is all about “values,” which I think means that they don’t think gay people should get married (though that’s never explicitly addressed). She’s juvenile, in a creepy sort of way. My question to you is why does The Bachelor — a show with a largely female audience — continue to enforce these sexist stereotypes of what a women can (and in some cases, should) be? Why can’t sexy Gia be a wife (or villainous Vienna)? Why does Ali have to choose between her man and her career? And if we can agree that the show does reinforce some retrograde ideas about gender, why do so many women enjoy it? Is it a self-loathing thing?
Edan: You write, “And if Vienna can win, it means they can be the princess (in a standard middle-class fantasy life).” You may have a point, but how do you read the public’s vilification of her, then? Most people (not me!) don’t want her to win. They don’t believe she’s worthy of Jake, worthy of the life he would provide for her. So if she doesn’t deserve to be the princess, do they? Does her vilification mean we don’t believe the classes are as porous as we’ve been taught? Or perhaps this season of The Bachelor proves that love (or at least sexual attraction) conquers all, and that Jake–Mr. Values, Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Stable, Mr. Right–will choose the former Hooters waitress over the classy Christian woman simply because he likes her better. This seems to return the show to its purported roots: a narrative of two people finding one another and discovering an undeniable connection despite a series of obstacles. So why the outrage?
Fans of Ali protest that picking Vienna wouldn’t be a wise choice, but that brings me back to the question of marriage, and what it means in our cultural imagination. How is choosing Vienna unwise? Cannot one’s wife be a bratty 23-year-old? Perhaps that’s what Jake wants in the end: a fun girl to take care of. Maybe “dominate economically” is the official term, I don’t know. When Jake asked Vienna how she imagined marriage, she said she expected it to be like they were kids, just so in love, doing what they pleased, kissing all the time. This definition of marriage must be devalued in the eyes of the viewers. I agree that her vision is a little narrow, but, then again, it’s not a totally inaccurate depiction of marriage, or ours, at least. But is there only one definition of marriage? I marvel at how many woman on the show have mentioned “the fairy tale” narrative–as if that were the only one, and as if, as if!, this were a plausible reality. Never do these women point out that the fairy tale ends with the wedding.
It’s funny that you think Jake kicked Gia to the curb because she’s too sexy. That’s definitely your biased interpretation; I’m not so sure Gia is as sexy as you keep exclaiming. I actually think she was kicked off because she’s from New York City, and still lives there. Jake was intimidated, perhaps turned off by, her cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the narrative in Jake’s mind, one can date a New Yorker, can revel in the Carrie Bradshaw fantasy of it, but that woman isn’t wife material. On the show, his explicit reason for dumping her was that she “didn’t open up” as much as he needed her to. Every season, we see this conflict; the game requires the women profess their love, but strategically: not too early, and not too late. Perhaps this is one of the appeals of the show: it mirrors the dating life, if that mirror were in a fun house. Maybe the fantasy of The Bachelor isn’t that woman will revert to these outdated gender roles that you speak of, but that there are single men out there who want to get married and have children. They’re ready for the commitment, and, on top of that, they require a woman to speak her heart. Usually, it’s women who are asking this of men, not the other way around. Perhaps, here, this reversal of roles, is what gets the female viewership off. Maybe they’re turned on by the anti-Old School story that The Bachelor perpetuates.
Patrick: You’re probably correct that I’m inventing the “Gia’s too sexy” narrative, in part because the women on the show aren’t sexualized (at least not in the context of hypersexualized contemporary American culture). On this show, it’s the man who is sexualized. It’s Jake who soaps his abs for the camera. Even the scenes where the women are in bikinis are pretty tame. It’s clearly a show for women, and I’m not supposed to be thinking about who is the sexiest, only who is the best mate, the most fitting for Jake. It’s another reason Jake is a bit of a rogue, as far as Bachelors go — he’s probably going to choose Vienna, and a part of the equation has to be her sexuality. As for the New York angle, there’s certainly some validity to that, though Jake was pretty comfortable with Ali, who lived in San Francisco. I think it was also that Gia was ethnically a New Yorker — she had an accent, etc. — while Ali was suitably blond and “All American.”
In the end, I think the show succeeds because it holds different appeal for different people. For those in a committed relationship, they can mock the people proclaiming to have fallen in love after just a few hours together. Those who are still looking for a partner can feel a bit of envy, and more than a touch of escapism. My issues with the show remain its cliched portrayal of love as the result of some sort of checklist. Does your partner: look good, enjoy the outdoors, drive a truck, proclaim to want kids, have a Golden Retriever and believe in traditional marriage? Then it must be love! Maybe this season has been so enjoyable because it has, to some small degree, subverted this idea. Nobody can put their finger on why Jake likes Vienna precisely because she doesn’t conform to that checklist. (Does your partner have a bad dye job, a strange ex-marriage and a 401K from her days as a Hooters waitress? Then you’re in love!) This version of the show, early on at least, had a bit of spontaneity to it, something earlier seasons have lacked.
Of course, if Jake picks Tenley tonight, then everything I just said is moot. He’ll have chosen the same kind of goodie-goodie they always pick. Most people, I think, would be happy with that, but I think I’m coming around to your opinion, that choosing Vienna is the more interesting way to go. I wouldn’t want to be married to her, but who can say what’s in Pilot Jake’s heart?
Edan: Amen to that. Can’t wait to see what happens tonight. When I was a kid, my vision of marriage was eating dinner in front of the television with a handsome and witty man who’d read The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Dreams do come true.