Exile in Bachelor Nation
Main Character Problems
If you’re a citizen of Bachelor Nation—the name that fans of ABC’s long-running series “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” use to refer to themselves—or, if like me, you have found yourself permanently exiled there, eagerly awaiting the end of the war so you can go home, you may have noticed a curious problem over the last couple of years: the Bachelor/Bachelorette is significantly more interesting in their role as contestant than they are as Main Character.
Take for example, Katie Thurston (Bachelorette #17). She made her first appearance on Matt James’ season (Bachelor #25) as a funny, sex-positive, and interesting person. On her own season, however, she was a cypher—a blank, boring, and safe person who is mono-maniacally fixated on finding love and getting married. Almost everything that made her interesting was subdued, clipped, or altogether ignored. (This includes her sex-positivity; in maybe the most bizarre heel-turn, she banned the contestants from masturbating for a week. Why?!)
The same is happening for the current Bachelorette Michelle Young, who was runner-up on the same season as Katie. What was once an interesting person whom the audience wanted to succeed is now a two-dimensional entirely defined by her love of basketball and the fact that she works as an elementary school teacher. Yawn.
Now, I’m aware that neither of the women (and I focus on the women because I have yet to watch a season of the Bachelor in which I’m not bored to tears by the men) are really either The Contestant or The Main Character. Whoever they are away from the cameras is someone much more multi-faceted and complex than anything presented to us on television. I have no delusions (except for the ones I purposefully put on to enjoy the drama of the show) that what we see is nothing but a character that is constructed by the producers and editing team. So, when I say that “Katie and Michelle are boring the bachelorette,” I really mean “Katie (the character) and Michelle (the character) are boring as (the character of) the bachelorette” and not that the very people who play those characters are boring.
After all, we should never forget that these shows are primarily a work of fiction designed to generate advertising revenue for the show and to transform aspiring actors into Instagram “influencers”—all facts that the show often acknowledges. Think about how bizarre its premise is: twenty or so very attractive people (most of whom are aspiring musicians or actors) are so consumed with finding love and getting married that they are willing to compete for the attention of one equally attractive person whom they don’t know, but must be willing to marry should they win. Over the course of maybe two hours of interaction a week, every single person falls head-over-heels in love with the unique and special aura of this attractive stranger until only a handful are left. The true love that has been facilitated through eating hot dogs competitively, hurting other contestants, or uh…refusing to masturbate I guess, is tested, those found lacking (i.e. those there for “the wrong reasons”) are sent home, and the happy couple is engaged with the help of that bejeweled crypt keeper Neil Lane.
The whole thing is absurd if ever considered as a reflection of reality. Why would such attractive and successful people be so obsessed with “finding love?” Why would it be hard for them? Why would they be so fixated on this particular person that they don’t know and whom they don’t really get to know? Are we really supposed to believe that someone can be so attractive that meeting other people becomes a problem for them? (Is this another version of the old myth that beautiful people must be miserable or stupid in some respect because otherwise the world would be a horribly place unfair for the rest of us ugly chuds?) The answer is, of course, no! This is fiction and these are the rules of the fiction—one has to be there “for the right reasons” not because there are such reasons, but because without the pretense that those reasons are there, the show simply doesn’t work
Such pretense isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is its presence that makes the show interesting and it is why the “Bachelor in Paradise” if so dull. The latter does away with all of the pretense of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise and just says “okay, here are a bunch of attractive people who are going to try to fuck as many other people as possible.” Not only is this boring (well, yeah, what else would they be trying to do?), but it also undermines the premise of the original since it now tells the audience that the very same people who were inconsolably in love two month ago and who were willing to be engaged to a stranger have had a dramatic transformation into someone who is almost the completely opposite character. This tension is resolved when the audience remembers that the people they’re watching are just characters, but it’s still disappointing—like seeing Tobey McGuire play Peter Parker and remind the viewer that Spider Man isn’t real.
In any case, the characters that I’m discussing and the criticisms I have of them are not reflective of the people behind them. They’re just playing a role.
But it is precisely in the context of a fiction that I find the production and editing choices made with respect to Katie and Michelle so strange. When they’re not The Main Character, the women are given interesting edits, fleshed out motivations, and loveable quirks—when they are The Main Character, all that is sanitized away and they become almost an afterthought. One would imagine the opposite happening. That is, one could imagine that quite apart from the “grand prize” of love at the end of the show, or the material benefits that come from being on the show in terms of influencer status, the motivation for being the next bachelor/bachelorette in terms of the show itself would be that of being able to step into the role of the Main Character in which you, as the center of attention, gets to be developed as an interesting and captivating person. What we see, however, is that it is precisely when one steps into that role that one becomes a kind of undifferentiated, unspectacular character (can you imagine being a teacher and liking basketball?! Incredible! And she loves her parents! Wow!).
What takes precedence in these shows, then, is not the Main Character and their “journey,” but rather who the next Main Character will be. Part of this is, of course, unfolded through the ostensible drama that the boring protagonist goes through. But, crucially, that drama is for the viewer just the means by which the next Main Character is established. Most importantly, because the Main Character in each successive iteration is eventually just turned into a blank cypher, the focus on who amongst the contestants will be that Main Character becomes a kind of continuous, self-sustaining enterprise. That is, we watch The Bachelor to see who the next Bachelorette will be, so that we can see who the next Bachelor will be, and so on and so on. But in that process, the actual Bachelor/Bachelorette is only a necessary element, and not a driving force. What keeps the viewer going is nothing having to do with the development of a character they care about, but all about “the process” that maintains the presence of those characters in the first place.
In other words, the real main character of the Bachelor/Bachelorette is not the person who holds the current mantle of ‘most pathetic hot person’, but is the very show itself.
I think the producers of the show know this quite well. It’s perhaps most obvious that they do when the show the contestants being punished for making meta-references to the show or trying to meta-game it. This happens a lot. A couple of weeks ago, one was kicked off when it came to Michelle’s attention that he had made himself a “Bachelorette” folder in which he had taken note of previous contestants’ successful strategies, what things should be said, what things shouldn’t, and so on. Most damning of all, he had done research on teachers and basketball (can you imagine!). Others have been removed for making off-hand remarks about their potential future on the various spinoffs, for talking too seriously about their acting or musical aspirations, and so on.
The message is, of course, that the highest imperative of the show is to not make explicit what we all very well know—yes, the emperor has no clothes, but he’s still the emperor. In this respect, the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise is uncannily similar to wrestling with its notion of kayfabe. Everyone knows that although the athleticism of professional wrestling is very much real, the drama depicted in the events is not—Hulk Hogan doesn’t really betray anyone at the 1996 Bash on the Beach; Bret Hart doesn’t really hate America; The Rock’s elbow is not really of “the people”, and so on. This, for what it’s worth, is why I continue to watch the show: it’s wrestling for people who don’t like wrestling.
In another respect, the show is very much like one of the countless Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the purpose of each being to set up the next movie to come after it. What happens in each of those is quite irrelevant and what matters is that at the end of Captain America’s latest brush with…uh…Hitler? (does Captain America still primarily fight Nazis?), there is the promise of another equally exciting, equally familiar story. Just as the main character of The Bachelor/Bachelorette is the show itself, so the main character of MCU is just the MCU. Incidentally, it is this feature that makes it possible for people to become “fans” of the MCU and what allows there to be such a thing as “Bachelor nation.” Cultural products that aren’t the main character cannot have such adherents—nobody’s ever heard of The League of Thomas Mann or declared their membership to the Mrs. Doubtfire Nation (two examples as far apart as I could think). Star Wars on the other hand…
This very phenomenon has some interesting implications, only one of which I’ll touch on here (and then only briefly). In particular, I keep thinking about Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and the special role he thought art could have for revolutionary politics once it was unmoored from its aura of authenticity. Although there is nothing revolutionary about The Bachelor/Bachelorette or the MCU (in fact, I see both as rather reactionary pieces of culture), the mechanism by which both pieces of entertainment have managed to subvert the normal way in which people engage with art to produce what may be called adherents to the continuing piece of art itself could be informative. One wonders what it would mean to present socialism in this way…But I’m getting carried away.
Let me close by descending from the lofty heavens of masturbatory cultural criticism and return to the point with which we started: namely, that the show seems to be having Main Character problems that it didn’t seem to have before. That is, it seems to me that there was a time in which the Bachelor/Bachelorette show didn’t look quite like this. I think, for example, that Rachel Lindsay was an interesting character on her own right as was, perhaps, Hannah Brown. In those two seasons, at least, it seemed that the show’s self-awareness wasn’t as blatant. Yes, there were still people who weren’t there “for the right reasons” and there was always talk of “trusting the process” which was, of course, coded language for sticking to the fiction. But the show didn’t seem so nakedly self-aware. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, these last few seasons strike me as significantly less interesting than the ones in the past; on the other hand, there’s something about the openness with which the show is playing with these boundaries which could develop into something truly bizarre. I’ll be watching!