While the news is full of horror and injustice, I’m feeling some very intense guilt about using this public platform to discuss The Bachelorette.
I couldn’t really tell you what happened in the last episode. JoJo continued to narrow down the contestant pool to an increasingly homogenous group of men. First she came for the contestants of color and no one said anything because that was so predictable. Then she went for the short guys and red heads without gym bodies. And no one spoke out because those guys also happened to be really annoying. Then she was left with a group of identical quadruplets who she could not tell apart. And no one spoke out because they wanted to see if Aaron Rodgers would make a guest appearance.
This week a friend texted me about the recaps we’ve been posting: “I’ve noticed recently that some smart people are watching the show and talking about it together and taking it very seriously. I watched a few (very long) episodes so I could understand what’s going on. It was just as bad as I expected, maybe worse! As vapid as the worst of television…you could write about 1000 other things I’d gladly read about.”
I strongly believe that it’s possible to change cultural attitudes by applying critical analysis to pop culture (and that this analysis is important work). Given The Bachelor’s immense popularity and surplus of material about normative gender behavior, I initially saw these recaps as a fun way of communicating a broader message about gender/social dynamics. But I feel gross right now. I feel like I’m buying into something evil by giving it so much attention; like news stations giving Drumpf so much air time. As Roxane Gay said in her own writing about The Bachelor, “inevitably, if you are investing that much time and energy into looking at any sort of cultural product, you’re buying into it to an extent.”
The problem is not that the show is inane and meaningless but that is insidious and representative of larger problems in our country. The Bachelorette is an all-white fantasy world where superficiality and conformity is prized and real social evils (race segregation, male dominance) are evaded. Sure, it’s two hours of boring nonsense and hot bodies, but this is the banality of evil. The Bachelorette feels more grim than a fun “bizarro societal case study”—it feels like the case study is our sometimes banal, sometimes openly freakish reality.
The Bachelorette gives us a prescriptive, aggressively vanilla version of whatever is really going on in interactions between contestants. When I watched Ben Higgins’ season, I thought he was cute, bland and harmless. But I’ve recently heard the “exciting news” about Ben’s ambition to run for Colorado house seat as a Republican. He pitched his upcoming reality show, “Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After”, as an opportunity for the GOP to spread their message about “small government and personal liberty”.
Right now we have an actual reality TV star running as the Republican presidential candidate. He just hired his own Apprentice villain as his “Director of African-American Outreach.” LOL, I’m serious. A lot of people have been fretting over the blurred line between reality TV and reality in this political season. TV has always reflected our social reality. But now TV-level outrageousness is being unleashed outside the container of “entertainment.” Now that the line between entertainment and reality has been breached, it’s hard to feel like “reality TV” is any kind of escape.