Why The Bachelor Matters More Than Ever In 2017

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently argued in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter that The Bachelor is killing romance in America. With all due respect to Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, I disagree that The Bachelor is doing anything to romance in America: It is romance in America. The show so often publicly denigrated by Twitter users and my mother alike has more to offer us than the strange discomfort of laughing at weeping women.

The Bachelor attracts more than 9 million adult viewers ages 18-49. Evidence also indicates that many of these viewers are affluent with education above that of a high school degree. Despite high viewership and what amounts to cultural obsession, the Bachelor franchise has yet to receive critical attention (after nearly 15 years on air, the series has never received an Emmy nod). At best, it is treated as television’s most obscene guilty pleasure.

But, clearly, people are paying attention. The reality is that the franchise captures something ineffable and, with season 21 in full swing, it’s high time we admitted that The Bachelor matters, especially in 2017 — and ask ourselves why.
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In recent years, we've seen the slow emergence of true Bachelor love from certain corners of the internet. NPR covered the summer’s premiere of The Bachelorette (much to commenters’ dismay) and sites like The Huffington Post routinely publish think pieces on the interactions between contestants. (A recent essay suggests that the shark-dolphin controversy from this season’s premiere is a metaphor for the year to come.) A quick search yields at least five recap podcasts about the show that openly adore it. (I am an avid listener of two such podcasts.) It seems more and more of my comrades are removing their camouflage, happy to be denounced as so-called lovers of The Bachelor.

I have been a devoted follower of the franchise ever since floppy-haired Ben Flajnik, and I don’t think the show hides any insidiousness. In fact, that’s the glory of it — The Bachelor and its sister shows flaunt the dark realities of dating and love. The show is a public performance of courtship, which is not all that different from, well, courtship. Michael Moore professed as much to Vulture late last year, when he pointed out often the moves of the Bachelor or Bachelorette mirror the tragic motions of everyday dating.
“Kaitlyn [on The Bachelorette], everyone thought she was going to pick Nick. She went with Shawn. And the whole country's coming apart: What the hell is she doing? Clearly Nick was the winner! Shit happens in this country,” Moore said. (The prophetic director even tied Kaitlyn’s decision to the 2016 election.)
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Photo: Rick Rowell/Getty Images.
Pictured: Kaitlyn Bristowe rejects Nick Viall on the 11th season of "The Bachelorette."
Katie Levine, who produces Will You Accept This Rose, the Nerdist network podcast on the series, agrees. “He seemed more genuine and sincere and he really seemed to love Kaitlyn. I still think she should have chosen him. It seemed obvious they had a deeper connection,” she says. In essence, the cheerleader chose the jock, despite a deeper connection with the nerd. (Bear with me here — in Bachelor Nation, Nick Viall is among the nerdier variety.)

Arden Myrin, who hosts the podcast, attributes this mistake to the atmosphere of the show itself. It forces a high school hierarchy upon the contestants. “The drive to do well on The Bachelor or Bachelorette would have you do well in high school, but not necessarily in real life,” Myrin points out.

Look, the show is silly. I’ve seen one too many helicopters to argue that it isn’t. It is still a quest for love, though, which should be noble, right? But somehow, in juxtaposing the earnest search for love and a camera, we feel as if the franchise has transgressed. This transgression hinges on the idea that love is a private act.

But is love inherently private? In an era when Snapchat reigns (see: Ariana Grande and her beau Mac Miller canoodling on the platform), is there be such a thing as private love? We broadcast nearly every other aspect of our lives on Instagram — I don’t see why love should be any different, for either me or Nick Viall.

How is The Bachelor any different from the way one interacts with suitors on Tinder? One might be faced with 50 suitors instead of 25. But, like JoJo Fletcher or Ben Higgins, one must still winnow the choices down after a series of dates. What difference does a camera make?

It seems we are desperate to prove that technology has an adverse effect on love. Studies have shown couples who are overtly active on social media are less likely to endure. Last Summer, Vanity Fair published a piece declaring 2015 the “dawn of the dating apocalypse.” The author, Nancy Jo Sales, attributed this so-called “apocalypse” to dating apps that have taken love, well, public. The internet quickly disagreed with the rhetoric of the essay, however, and the jury is still out on the effects of dating apps on the quest for lasting relationships.

The other argument against the franchise is that it presents inauthentic interactions. The contestants are actors, the producers are writers, and the show is just that: a show, a performance of love. However, in situations such as these, the line between artifice and authenticity buries itself in the sand. Who’s to say if the contestants are performing? Aren’t we all performing when we love? Cameras or not, we are all pirouetting about each other, desperately seeking applause. Nick Viall seeks America’s attention — perhaps that’s a crime. But when we love, aren’t we seeking attention from another person?
Roxane Gay posited in a 2014 op-ed for The New York Times that the Bachelor franchise strikes us “where we are most tender.” She doesn’t adore the show but she admits to watching it regularly (this is how intellectuals talk about the franchise: with shame). She argues the show is addictive because it is about love. While Gay is correct — romantic comedy is a genre for a reason — her piece treats the franchise as utterly frivolous. But love stories have mass appeal, and Gay won’t admit this that is a valid iteration of one. I would argue that it is.

The Bachelor is not simply an indulgence. It is the broadcast of a human mating ritual. Technology has evolved; there are cameras and dollies and lavaliers that enable this sort of anthropological study. But humans have yet to escape our deep, animal need for love, affection, and attention.

I suppose I agree with Abdul-Jabbar in some ways. The former NBA star compared the show’s contestants to “ravenous crabs on a washed up seal corpse.” Definitely gross, but not untrue. Where he misses the point is that, unfortunately or not, we’re all ravenous crabs. Some creatures have mating calls. The Bachelor has a curtain call.

When I go on a date, there may not be helicopters or sound guys hovering around me. I may not be wearing a mic, but I am wearing a pained smile and a blanket of effort — a facade to demonstrate my mating capabilities. I am not the Bachelor — but we’re not that different, he and I.

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