Have you ever watched clips from The Bachelor on mute? Without background music, narration, or chatter, the show loses any semblance of storyline and romance—it’s just a series of shots of beautiful, shellacked people prancing about twinkly lit sets while making extended eye contact with one another. Watch enough episodes or trailers, and all the characters start to look the same, too.
Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane noticed that the women on the show also looked a particular sort of uncomfortable. They’d pull up their migrating necklines, futz with their hair, and tug at too-tight bikini bottoms; the showy outfits they’d donned to get people to look at them were making them insecure about being looked at. Lane and an intern cataloged and strung together dozens of these moments from The Bachelor, removed the native sound, and rerecorded sound effects of the movements they depicted.
The result is Normal Appearances, an eerie five-minute commentary on the performance of heterosexual desirability for an audience of millions. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll be surprised by all the self-conscious gestures you might have missed. If you’ve never watched The Bachelor at all, the women in Normal Appearances will blur together in a creeping ooze of disobedient hair extensions, tottering wedge heels, and shoulder straps that refuse to stay put. As the video progresses, it starts to look like the women’s bodies are rejecting the trappings of consumerist femininity as if it were a transplanted organ.
Lane, who recently released a feature-length film on Morgellons disease called The Pain of Others, is showing both films at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City this Saturday. In a phone conversation, I spoke with Lane about the appeal of reality television, the difficulties of working with reality show footage, and the “morbid self-attention” women are expected to pay.
Are you a fan of The Bachelor?
Yes. The way I describe this video is—you know how there’s this genre of internet video that we call “fan videos”? This is like my version of that. It’s like, ambivalent fan video. I don’t like the idea of a “guilty pleasure.” I’ve never really liked this phrase. But certainly, most people I know who like The Bachelor might categorize their love of The Bachelor in that way. Love-hate, love to hate, hate to love, I don’t know. But the short answer is yes. I’ve been watching the entire franchise obsessively for many years.
How did you decide to make this dubious tribute to it?
I had a conversation with somebody about the way that women who are wearing clothing that is too revealing—women who want to look very sexy, but they’re wearing clothing that actually makes them uncomfortable—are constantly adjusting their clothing. Once you notice it, you can’t unnotice it. So once I started seeing that, I started seeing it everywhere. Women just tugging their shorts down that are too short, or whatever. Including myself! And then I started thinking about how, on The Bachelor, they try to cut it out. They really try to pretend the people on the show feel totally comfortable in the circumstances they’re in, but they’re obviously so uncomfortable, because it’s an uncomfortable situation to be in, I imagine.
So I started noticing it on the show, these accidental moments of adjusting. And then I had a summer intern whom I was using for a different project, and I was like, “Well, I also have this other idea of trying to catalog all these gestures on The Bachelor, but it’s really a lot of labor. I could only do it if I had a lot of help.” And he was into it. So he spent really the lion’s share of that summer watching all these episodes and logging all these gestures that I’d asked him to find. It had to do with that feeling of wanting to be looked at, and then suddenly realizing that you are being looked at and having a little ambivalent discomfort around that.
What makes the show, and reality TV in general, such a rich trove of material for a documentarian?
I think a lot of documentary filmmakers have a specific relationship to the concept of reality TV because in some ways, it’s the same thing. I can’t give you a really clear line that says, “Here’s why reality TV is reality TV and documentary film is documentary.” I think there’s a fascination with that form of television for me, anyway, because it’s a very specific kind of viewing. You’re watching these layers of performance and authentic feeling or authentic action mixed up with performance and acting in a way that I find—it’s everything I think is interesting about nonfiction as a form. Trying to negotiate what’s real and what’s not is what’s fun about reality TV. I think that’s how everyone watches it. Actually, there’s this fantastic podcast, Decoder Ring?
Ah, yes, the Slate podcast by Willa Paskin!
Yes! The most recent one is about reality TV, and I thought it was smartly laid out in that episode—how what you’re watching as a viewer is a tug of war between the intentions and purpose of the contestants on the show and the intentions and purpose of the producers of the show. You’re watching this elaborate negotiation of people trying to get what they want out of the situation. That’s what’s fun about reality TV. You’re watching it on multiple levels at once.
One of the eeriest parts for me about Normal Appearances was the sound, or lack of sound. What does the material lose or gain when you take that out?
It’s hard to make a video using images from reality TV. It’s really difficult to take those images out of context because they’re so tightly edited. Every scene has music playing. Every scene has narration, and the shots are cut really tightly together. It’s hard to keep any of the dialogue, for example, because the dialogue is all layered up with music, and you can hear all the cuts when you rip it out of context. That’s a technical problem, which actually killed a different project that I was trying to make that would have required the dialogue. I couldn’t do it.
What was that other project?
Maybe I’ll find a way to do it someday. But I was trying to do something with the show Catfish, extrapolating the way the stories we tell about falling in love are always fictional. It required me to use a lot of the dialogue, picking up on a lot of the things people say over and over again. If you watch The Bachelor, you know there’s a vocabulary they all use, like, “Put yourself out there.” It’s such a specific catalog of tones that make up the reality of that universe. And in Catfish, it’s like, “I fell in love with someone and I don’t know who they really are.” And I feel like that is universal. There’s nothing specific about that being from the internet or Catfish. But the technical limitations of trying to get that dialogue out of context were too difficult.
And so you couldn’t use any of the native sound in Normal Appearances, either.
Right. And basically, taking out all the dialogue and all the sound takes all the narrative out of it completely. You sort of have a vague sense that there’s a world that they’re in, and there’s certainly an attempt to get some guy to pay attention to them, but it’s not really clear what’s going on. I was desperately trying to remove all the specifics of what’s going on with these particular characters in this particular storyline. There’s nothing left there.
Then putting in the Foley sounds, we just wanted to hear the bodies. I wanted to emphasize the feeling of discomfort that the women are feeling, and so the best way for me to do that was to put the microphone as close as possible to the gestures that are being highlighted. You really want to hear that bra strap being adjusted, or that skirt being tugged down, or those really high, high heels. I wanted to make it all about the body and not about the story—not about what is actually going on, but just heighten the discomfort of the gestures that I wanted you to pay attention to.
Did you record all those sound effects yourself?
Yeah, I went to a Foley studio and we had a great time. I put on lip gloss and got some high heels and walked around on some stone floors and all that kind of stuff. There’s some background ambients that we didn’t record ourselves that came from a sound-effects library, but all the physical gestures we did Foley for. It was really fun.
Tell me about the title, Normal Appearances.
I was looking at some academic articles about how physical gestures communicate psychological states. It was in psychology textbooks that I found in the college library. Normal appearances was just a phrase that I found that I underlined and thought was cool. For me, appearances picks up on the idea of the women appearing out of the limousine at the beginning, and then the idea of normal—I wanted to be a little bit in your head—just how banal this is. Somebody described it as these everyday miserable quiet moments that most people aren’t paying attention to. And I wanted you to pay attention to things that you think are normal and make them feel a bit strange.
One of my biggest takeaways from the video was a strong sense of these women’s conscious, or unconscious, performance of femininity, which is magnified through the show’s extremely heterosexual lens. Is that something you were thinking about when you made it?
Definitely. It’s a difficult thing to prove, but there is a sense that we have that women are more self-conscious, that somehow we’re always aware of being looked at in a way that men aren’t … certainly, I do think of those kinds of self-conscious gestures as being very feminine, and this hyperattention to what you look like. Even on The Bachelor, there was some dialogue that I pulled that I didn’t use, where they’re getting ready to go on a date, and the woman has to go spend three hours getting her makeup ready and the guy, like, puts on some shorts and makes a joke about it. We all just accept that that’s normal. It’s kind of weird! It’s a fact of the gendered world we live in that there’s a kind of morbid self-attention that women are expected to do. It’s so obvious that it’s like the air that we breathe, and it sounds banal when I point it out.
The video points it out in a way that makes it feel fresh, though, because it became clear to me that the things these women are doing on The Bachelor when cameras are on them are the same things women do when cameras aren’t on them. We just assume that the eyes of society are on us at all times.
Yeah, I could have made the same film just on streets of New York, right? But there’s a heightened-ness to it when you put it on reality TV, because they’re not only being looked at by Nick—they’re also being looked at by millions of Americans. And they’re really trying to look a little bit like movie stars. I’m so obsessed with the clothing they wear. That discomfort you have when you buy something that’s really pretty and you’re wearing it for the first time, and it’s not actually comfortable, so you’re kind of excited because it’s a new outfit, you know? And then halfway through the day you wish you didn’t wear it? I know I wore this romper the other day that was too short, and I was like, oh, this looks cute. And then I was walking around Central Park, spending the entire day miserably worrying that my ass was showing. I feel like that’s all they’re feeling all the time [on The Bachelor], kind of wishing they could wear a sweatshirt.