Of those who watch The Bachelor, there are two types of people: viewers who truly enjoy and are invested in the series, and viewers who tune in every other week or so and hate themselves for it. Until last week, I existed wholly outside of this spectrum because I didn’t watch The Bachelor and thought, with great sanity, that I never would.
Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because the show’s women, with their bright primary-color evening gowns and fake eyelashes and ever-present smiles (most noticeable when they’re trying to maintain their composure), seem to be the antithesis of everything I am externally. Maybe it’s because I call myself a feminist, and I thought for sure that this country doesn’t need a reality show where dozens of women compete for a man.
I’m still not sure if we need a show like The Bachelor. But I do know that last week after watching my first episode, I realized I was wrong for a few reasons about ABC’s corporate love-fest. The newest season’s premiere starring Nick Viall had just aired, and my friend and I were surfing Hulu for something to watch. We thought, “why not?” Neither of us had seen The Bachelor before. Now seemed as good a time as any.
For those who don’t yet know, The Bachelor is a reality TV show where 30 women vie for a man’s affection. Every week, a few women are eliminated until there is one left, and the bachelor proposes marriage. In the female leading spinoff, The Bachelorette, men compete for one woman’s hand in marriage. The Bachelorette premiered one year after its mother show, and the shows — along with the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise — compose an empire in the world of television.
Clearly, The Bachelor is less about love than it is about making marketable television. Actually, it’s probably accurate to say that The Bachelor isn’t about love at all. It’s about a lot of things: drama, betrayal, heartbreak and sex, but love doesn’t come close. For the majority of the show, the happiness the contestants feel is temporary: one fleeting moment with Nick before he is whisked away to make eyes at or date or kiss another person.
Maybe the women on The Bachelor realize this, and maybe they don’t. But to assume that they’re all in the dark, that they all have the same reason for playing, that they’re all the same kind of person, is demeaning and reductive to women everywhere.
It’s easy to just hear of the concept of The Bachelor and think, “Oh, those ridiculous girls.” But everything is ridiculous on The Bachelor, not just the women. The set, with its dim lighting and faux-hominess, is ridiculous. The big limo and roses and evidently bottomless wine bottles are ridiculous. And Nick, the bachelor himself, is the most ridiculous.
Nick, who was runner-up not once, but twice, on The Bachelorette. Nick, who is handsome and well-spoken but who we all know has invested his entire heart and all of his dignity into this ABC sham. Nick, who believes that this last run has to be the one where he finds the girl he’s always been looking for.
There might be a double-standard here, and the girls (now down to 22 of them) are here to dismantle it. See, The Bachelor doesn’t just generate competitiveness, it requires it. Sure, to be picked for the show you need to be pretty. But as any first-time Bachelor viewer learns 10 minutes into an episode, when everyone in the room is pretty, looks don’t really matter anymore. To make it to the altar, you have to be determined and cunning and strong.
Call Nick a player, but the women are the ones playing the game.
Perhaps another stereotype The Bachelor receives criticism for is its pittance of women against each other. After all, despite airy talk of finding love and worrying over broken hearts, this show is a game. And it’s cutthroat. But here’s another thing to consider: Women should be able to be fierce, resourceful, competitive and sexual without being criticized for those qualities.
Finally, the girls themselves: They are indubitably their own individuals. There is Jaimi, a 28-year-old New Orleans chef, who told Nick that she once had a girlfriend and a relationship that didn’t work out, too. And there’s Rachel, a Dallas lawyer who is also the first black contestant in Bachelor history to receive the coveted First Impression rose (which basically means Rachel is here to stay).
Admittedly, The Bachelor is not quality television. In fact, it is pretty bad television. But that doesn’t make it immoral or unprogressive or demeaning to women. In fact, it’s the opposite: The Bachelor survives because of strong women. Their insistence that they know Nick is The One for them, if he would only just realize it, is certainly naive but also unquestionably brave.
Playing The Bachelor takes guts, fire and a fierce sense of self-confidence that no one — not other girls, not yourself and least of all Nick — can beat down. And to be able to don your best evening gown (or shark suit), strut onto a television set, and state with all your strength that your future husband is on the other end of this spectacle? In the realm of romance, what’s more ambitious than that?
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in screenwriting. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.