On Monday nights, my 19-year-old daughter, Lilly, and I commandeer the television to watch a show that admittedly has no cultural value. Mindless entertainment, this reality show isn’t based on reality at all, but rather, it’s a carefully contrived dating competition, in which 30 women compete for the affections of one man in the midst of sprawling hilltop villas, sequined gowns, helicopter dates, tropical resorts, champagne-fueled cocktail parties, rose ceremonies and ginormous diamond engagement rings.
That show is, of course, “The Bachelor.”
When it first aired back in 2002, ABC had no idea that “The Bachelor” would become so popular that it’s now in its 24th season and has spawned several spin-offs — “The Bachelorette,” “Bachelor Pad,” “Bachelor in Paradise,” “Bachelor in Paradise: After Paradise” and “Bachelor Winter Games.” No one could predict that millions of loyal viewers would be known as #BachelorNation, throwing weekly parties, forming fan clubs, and betting on contestants in “Bachelor” fantasy leagues.
Lilly and I aren’t fanatics, but we’ve played Bachelor Bingo during a few shows, marking squares on cards we printed from the internet with common Bachelor phrases — “my journey,” “not here to make friends,” “can I steal you for a sec” — and common Bachelor scenes — “make-out session,” “Bachelor cries,” “jump-and-straddle hug.”
It’s all in good fun, I tell myself. But sometimes I wonder, do “The Bachelor” contestants’ attention-seeking behaviors negatively impact stereotypes of women in the #MeToo generation?
Producers ramp up the drama to satisfy fans who expect host Chris Harrison to make good on his promise that every season will be “the most dramatic yet.” Contestants engage in more and more outrageous antics to win the Bachelor’s heart, or at least to be considered for one of the spinoff shows. If they play their cards right, they might even be invited to compete on “Dancing with the Stars.”
In early seasons of “The Bachelor,” good looks and stunning formalwear was enough to get viewers’ to notice. But 23 seasons later, contestants willingly humiliate themselves for attention. “Hmm,” they ponder, “perhaps I’ll get more airtime if I step out of the limo with a humongous windmill strapped on my back, wear a giant paper airplane around my knees, or escort a dairy cow into the mansion on a leash?”
Although coyness was an advantage in the early days of the show, today’s “Bachelor” participants must “open up” and “be vulnerable” on national television in order to progress in the game. Getting dumped by a previous boyfriend, being divorced or being a single parent is no longer enough. Women must take the Bachelor aside, force crocodile tears and reveal debilitating insecurities, shocking family dysfunction, incarcerated relatives or childhood trauma involving amusement park rides.
If a contender is disadvantaged by good mental health, she can still employ the oldest trick in the book — sex. In the irony that is “The Bachelor,” ladies must maintain an air of chastity and virtue while throwing themselves at the Bachelor every chance they get. In the early years, participants didn’t smooch until halfway through the season. But in 2020, competitors lock lips with the Bachelor within hours of entering Villa De La Vina, profess the “L-word” soon thereafter, and willingly have sex in the Fantasy Suites, in the ocean, in a windmill, or anywhere else for that matter. A contestant on the current season walked out of the limo to introduce herself to the Bachelor, but instead, she surprised him with a blindfold and a steamy French kiss. Smart.
What does the future hold for this pop-culture phenomenon? What will contestants do to win five years from now? Dispense with sequin gowns and foreplay altogether, and beckon the Bachelor into the limo for an introductory shag? Will producers add a Pregnancy Testing Group Date for a suspenseful new twist? Would viewers tune in to find out: Will the Bachelor propose to his baby mama?
I’m not sure if “The Bachelor” is irreparably damaging human culture or if it’s just mindless fun, but one thing is for certain — on Monday nights, Lilly and I will be there, pencils poised over our bingo cards, when “the final rose” is announced.
Lisa Smith Molinari is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, blogger and speaker, as well as the wife of a Navy retiree.