If you aren’t watching “The Bachelor,” you’re missing out. And not just because it has everything the average television viewer is looking for: comedy, sex, drama and helicopters. More importantly, the show is like a time capsule that let’s us take a look at how mating and dating evolve in America over time, or rather, don’t evolve.
Popular culture is often intended as harmless fun, suggesting to its audience that they not take too critical an eye to its content. But the gender roles on display in “The Bachelor” require more serious contemplation about why such norms are so entertaining. Further, they remind us why being critical of something accessible – lighthearted, even – is relevant and necessary; reality television is not a mirror unto the social world, but rather to the social world’s flaws.
The root of “The Bachelor’s” problematic material is not the simple fact that upwards of 20 women compete for the affections of one gentleman, playing into the trope of finding a husband as a woman’s highest aspiration. The interpersonal relationships between contestants on the show demonstrate the need to be more mindful about perpetuating harmful cliches.
The sexual politics of the show revert to the age-old stereotype that women are either whores or virgins. During this particular season, two women confess that they are virgins. Another contestant assures these ladies that being virginal works to their benefit in wooing the Bachelor. And when some of the women decide to skinny dip on a group date, another contestant bemoans how hard it is for a woman of class to make a good impression. Finally, when it is revealed that one of the final four contestants previously posed nude for Playboy, another woman worries that this makes her unsuitable as someone a person could bring home to their family. In other words, the women on the show imply that utilizing female sexuality is indecent, and that women who don’t have sex deserve more respect than those who do.
The formation of allies and enemies also speaks to a regressive ideal of femininity in which a woman is expected to be sweet and nurturing. Despite dating the same man, women on the show continually take issue with any contestant who does not get along with the others. The women expect each other to be patient and encouraging with the other contestants: being nice to other people is their number one goal in spite of their odd romantic circumstances.
It is difficult to suspend disbelief when one wants to be entertained. Popular culture seeks to entertain us. But it is important to keep a constant check on its power to subtly reinforce norms that take us back in time, not forward.
Without a critical eye, one would assume that “The Bachelor” is the reality of expectations for women and men in courtship. Though unscripted, this show is set in an artificial environment that leads to certain predictable reactions. It encourages women to engage in superficial relationships, find common foes and compete with one another for the holy grail: being a wife to a near stranger. In this way, it exploits women. The existence of “The Bachelorette,” with a reverse gender dynamic, does not eliminate this criticism in the context of a multitude of shows that exploit women as sexual objects. Female contestants on “MasterChef Junior,” for example, girls no older than 13, are the ones asked by the all-male judges about their boyfriends, not their ambitions on the competitive show. Furthermore, “The Bachelor” and other reality programs must be viewed in the context of the entertainment industry at large in which women are not main characters.
A birds-eye view of the film industry shows women as 30 percent of speaking characters, 29 percent of major characters and only 15 percent of protagonists in a world dominated by male studio executives. Women who do portray the role of protagonist are not only under-represented, but they are also sexualized and objectified.
This macro perspective is intimately related to the dynamics that women portray on screen, even on reality programs. The messages we receive through content meant to entertain us influence our desires and behaviors, especially when this content is seen as frivolous. This is when we are most susceptible. As difficult as it may be to resist the urge to treat reality television as nonsubstantive, it is the only way to break the chain that links our social lives to the content makers that aim to reflect it for our entertainment. Reality television may seem a trite entity, but its themes demonstrate the power of entertainment to communicate destructive examples of gender roles that become ingrained into individuals and the larger social psyche.
Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu