Even by the standards of reality TV, The Bachelor is remarkably two-faced. For 23 seasons and counting, the ABC stalwart has assembled a Playboy Mansion for its suitor, then demanded his betrothal to a woman he’s probably known for less than three months. Female competitors can’t help but wait by the proverbial phone—in actuality, “date cards” that determine which women get to leave the house that week and under what circumstances—but are also rewarded, in screen time and attention, for sexual or verbal aggression. The show’s masterful editing is split as well, to allow for two simultaneous readings: caring about the “characters” and the storylines on the one hand, and, on the other, rubbernecking at the poor, unfortunate souls who willingly subject themselves to reality TV manipulations.
Each season of The Bachelor runs like clockwork, taking its cues from old-fashioned courtship rituals presumed to be applicable to every couple. The current suitor, 27-year-old former football player Colton Underwood, will in a few weeks’ time meet the parents of his final four picks, ask each woman’s father for permission to propose, and ultimately ask one of the contestants to marry him with a big-ass ring that gets its own pornographic close-ups. For one kind of viewer, these romance rituals will be normalized; for others, they constitute an indictment of heterosexual romance as hackneyed theater.
Lately, though, the Bachelor franchise—its offshoots, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, are no less crammed with ideological contradictions—has gotten wobbly at its necessary balancing act. Many liberal-leaning citizens of Bachelor Nation were disappointed when last year’s Bachelorette, Hillary supporter Becca Kufrin, ended up with Garrett Yrigoyen, who gained infamy midway through his season because of his seeming enthusiasm for alt-right memes. (Political talk is reportedly verboten during dates.) Before that was the bungled handling of an alleged sexual assault on the set of Bachelor in Paradise, which ended with the apparent victim, Corinne Olympios, publicly apologizing to her castmate and blaming herself for drinking beyond the point where she could consciously consent. The current season has continued this rightward tack by focusing on some of the most polarizing institutions in American life: football, beauty pageants, abortion, abstinence, and marriage age. Seen one way, Colton’s season romanticizes conservative values and cultural pillars. Seen in another, it invites viewers to gawk at people with right-leaning values. Neither mode of watching is particularly pleasurable.
The Bachelor franchise has historically been notably lacking in racial and body diversity, and its gender politics are—again, depending on the type of viewer you are—either proudly traditional or a joke. Enter Colton, whose virginity is implied to be the result of his Christian faith and (perhaps excessive) thoughtfulness. He’s got the personality and charisma of a saltine, but his past athletic career and clean-shaven baby face are supposed to make him very attractive. Among the women vying for his affections is Elyse Dehlbom, whose moving account of her sister’s fatal decision not to abort her pregnancy after being diagnosed with cancer was coded in pro-life language. The bulk of the season’s drama thus far has been driven by the rivalry between a pair of Southern beauty pageant competitors, Hannah Brown and Caelynn Miller-Keyes, who at 24 and 23 are strikingly young to vie for an engagement ring, even on The Bachelor.
Those who believe that the franchise is nothing but a fount of regressive values found much to support their cause in Monday’s episode. A visit to (cosmopolitan, futuristic) Singapore, for instance, exoticized the city-state by portraying it as a land of leech treatments, fortune-telling, and fish-eyeball delicacies, all accompanied by musical cues that could have been titled “Oriental Voyages.” A date in which Colton has Caelynn try on a rackful of skintight dresses and purchases several made for stultifying TV, as it told us nothing about who they are as individuals or as a couple—only that the franchise believes any straight dyad can be plugged into its antiquated structure, like numbers into an equation. The man buys; the woman models.
The two ways of watching The Bachelor are meant to be complementary. If you’re too skeptical of the proceedings, the balance between fantasy and snark is thrown off. That was the case with the last Bachelor season, in which fan suspicion that oily ex–race car driver Arie Luyendyk Jr. was less than sincere in his search for love proved correct after he cruelly dumped Becca, the woman he proposed to in the finale, on TV, for Lauren Burnham, the runner-up. In the case of the current season, the stakes are different. By emphasizing the issues that divide the country into tribal camps, Bachelor producers seem to be asking us to choose sides. Are you on the team that identifies with the NFL, the Miss America competition, pro-life priorities, and early marriage, or the team that sees those things as foreign reference points to gape at and the people who embrace them as mere specimens? The front-loading of these cultural dividers feels less like a matter of delineating characters than the exploitation of the country’s pre-existing cleavages to stoke outrage. It threatens to derail the show’s balancing act, while denying the show’s participants the sympathy vital to the show’s enjoyability.
But perhaps even The Bachelor is finding its footing again. Monday’s episode also featured an exceptional segment with Caelynn, in which the beauty queen was allowed to discuss at length the rape she suffered in college and the many years it took her to recover from it. Especially for a franchise with a history of dealing with sexual assault (and female trauma at large) so inadequately, it was a welcome change toward using larger issues to humanize its participants, and vice versa. Even people looking for love on a reality show deserve to be treated as more than human targets in our ongoing cultural wars.