“I wish I could have been different with Aaron,” says a tearful Angela as she is driven away from the harem house of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” The large, black limousine in which she sits, back rigid and hands trembling, resembles a hearse. “I’m just not used to anyone showing affection, saying how they really feel, and I don’t think it can be that way, one person loving you forever. But I don’t want to be like this, I’m afraid I’m going to be 40 and an old maid and I don’t want to be that way . . . I think about it every night before I go to bed. I just pray that I’m not the cold-hearted bitch that I seem to be.”
Angela is thin, white, blonde, and conventionally pretty. At the age of 27, she is also desperately afraid of ending up an old maid. That a show like this can exist in 2002 indicates that the anti-feminist crisis in the American media (expertly documented by Susan Faludi in her 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women) is, one decade later, alive and thriving. More is the pity, especially for American women who have not yet given up on television as a cultural medium. How people can watch this stuff, without irony, is a mystery to me. The show’s creators have tapped into a well of insecurity the depth of which is galling. “The Bachelor” relies for its success on a total lack of context—either a total ignorance of or a willful blindness to history. A woman who enjoys this program is like a black person taking pleasure in a minstrel show. And yet, like so many horror films, it is strangely mesmerizing. And the show’s ratings are highest among women.
The concept of this show is almost surreally medieval: a bachelor must choose from twenty-five beautiful women one “lucky” lady on whom to bestow a rose, the symbol of his “love” that grants her a few hours more with this prince. There is a slow and cruel process of elimination, involving several rounds of dates with the women, after each of which a certain number are, as the show’s announcer sadistically puts it, “sent home . . . broken-hearted.” That Aaron, the bachelor, is himself a fabulous catch is taken for granted; of course any woman so unlucky as to be sent home would be heartbroken by the loss. After all, according to ABC’s website, Aaron is 28, “good-looking,” and the senior VP of a chain of family-owned banks in Springfield, Missouri. In fact, Aaron is a “third-generation” banker whose entrepreneurial aspirations have been sated with the opening of Trolley’s Bar and Grille, “a casual fine dining establishment and sports bar.” Though his educational and career achievements may be dazzling, Aaron would still like to eventually “share his life with that special woman.” He believes that together they could “broaden their horizons and even possibly start a family.” What more could a girl ask for?
The bachelorettes are, unsurprisingly, self-hating masochists reared under brittle and brutally enforced gendered codes of conduct. In other words, they are the kind of women who would willingly submit to an auction of the flesh, in which they are expected to package, advertise, and eventually sell themselves—bodies and souls. Women (and TV executives—practically mutually exclusive categories) continue to justify these actions as the informed decisions of adult women who know perfectly well what they’re getting into and really want to do it. But this argument cannot erase the fact of their cruel exploitation, nor can it mask the true nature of the situation.
The female participants in “The Bachelor” are no different from whores, and, as such, they are no less susceptible to abuse at the hands of men, whether those men are the pimps of ABC or the glorified john of the bachelor himself. Much like show dogs, the women are trotted out one by one for inspection; a regular viewer would not be shocked in the least to hear the bachelor request to examine their teeth. After all, every other aspect of their bodies, personalities, and psyches is subject to judgment; what would be absurd or offensive about demanding a fine-quality jaw from the woman he is going to marry?
Confession time: this reviewer watched almost every episode of “The Bachelor,” including its two-hour series finale. I started watching long before I had any intention of writing about it. I was hooked. I like to tell myself that the fact that I have taken a women’s studies class and know “women’s history” pretty well makes this okay. After all, I know better than to take it seriously. These women are pathetic! The show’s creators are exploitative and viciously misogynistic! And besides, women don’t really think like this anymore. We are a new generation of educated, intelligent women, and we have long accepted that, in the immortal words of Gloria Steinem, “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”! We know that getting married isn’t the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence.
Or do we? Apparently, if we can watch and even enjoy, however fiendishly, the revolting pageant of “The Bachelor,” we have not yet learned the lessons of our feminist foremothers. And the bachelor himself is emphatically not the enlightened, sensitive, “new man” of our most progressive dreams, although he seems to think that by speaking softly and wielding a big stick, so to speak, he is being as sensitive as he can be while still maintaining his credibility as a straight man. The show is horrifically offensive, but the real horror is not that it’s on the air and lots of people watch it. It is not even that lots of women watch it. The real horror is that, deep down, lots of women believe it. Women have bought into the media-produced, media-fed terror of winding up alone lock, stock, and barrel, and a significant number of us is now willing to do anything to avoid such a fate. Some of us might even go on “The Bachelor.”