Love is an Empty Theme Park

Notes on this season of The Bachelor

by Mitchell Johnson

Illustration by Alex Hanesworth

published March 15, 2018

For the past few months, my friends and I watched The Bachelor almost every week. We said we were doing this somewhat ironically. But by the end, watching became a slow and joyless slog. It was clear that the show was onto us. Ironic viewing requires a sincere, relatively naïve object. But The Bachelor is fundamentally cynical; it sees your ironic viewing and mocks you for it. Like all powerful institutions, it absorbs dissent.

Last week, the show aired its 22nd season finale. The ratings this year, as in previous years, had declined. Since it premiered in 2002, a slew of other dating competition shows have entered and left the market. There were celebrity-centered shows, like A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila (which featured both male and female contestants; Tequila is bisexual) or Flavor of Love with the rapper Flava Flav. There’s the current hit Are You the One?, a show in which 20 people are secretly matched via an algorithm and then tasked with figuring out their matches to win $1 million (this show seems to have realized that there are sexier prizes than ‘true love’). In this landscape, The Bachelor can feel outdated and prudish. Case in point: what The Bachelor politely refers to as the ‘Fantasy Suite,’ Are You The One? bluntly labels ‘the Boom-Boom Room.’                        

But the original Bachelor—now a huge international brand—remains the most popular dating show in the US, and the center of an ever-expanding Bachelor universe. In addition to the flagship Bachelor and Bachelorette, there’s a version of the show in over 20 countries, as well as the spinoffs Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor Pad, and, this year, the Bachelor Winter Games. Billed as an alternative to the winter Olympics, the Bachelor Winter Games brought losing Bachelor contestants from around the world to date each other in between bouts of various competitive snow sports.

To say The Bachelor is anti-feminist has become a cliché, a powerless statement in the face of its absurdly heightened misogyny. The show doesn’t ‘fail’ the Bechdel Test so much as actively spurns it. The Bachelor leers at the Bechdel Test, sends it shirtless selfies at 3 AM. Still, the show now mostly occupies the benign cultural status of a guilty pleasure—Roxane Gay, a novelist and self-proclaimed “bad feminist,” is famously a big fan. Part of the pleasure in watching the show is in its welcome release from the demands of critique that apply to more nuanced cultural objects. To earnestly criticize The Bachelor (in a leftist alt-weekly, for instance) in 2018, is to commit the sin of not getting the joke. But the show itself seems to have internalized this stance. Rather than a chauvinistic but sincere valorization of patriarchal, heterosexual love, The Bachelor reveres its central object—the committed, straight relationship—only to defile it for our entertainment. Its genre commitments are more in line with dystopian fiction than romance novels, more Hunger Games than Pride and Prejudice.

A few notable characters from this season:

Arie, this season’s titular character, is 36 (his most prominent personality trait), a former race car driver who now does real estate in Scottsdale, Arizona (swoon!). The primary function of The Bachelor’s leading man is to be an empty vessel, and Arie’s eerily dead eyes made him perfectly suited to the task. He has a tattoo of the numbers ‘24601’ on his wrist because he strongly identifies with Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Misérables. Arie’s Les Mis fanaticism was never addressed in the show itself—one suspects details like these are potentially too interesting, or perhaps the comparison to Valjean too damning.

Bekah M. was the season’s young ingénue and fan-favorite. She’s 22 (her most prominent personality trait), clearly planted to garner millennial viewers. She goes rock climbing and has a cool pixie cut—the first contestant in the show’s history to ever have short hair (such is the pace of representational milestones on The Bachelor). Bekah often felt like the show’s sole voice of reason. In the first episode, she asked Arie what made him excited to be alive. “Excitement, you know,” he responded. Bekah then replied, “Excitement ... makes you excited to be alive?”

Crystal was the season’s villain, the lonely Other Woman in a show with almost 30 women. A blonde personal trainer with a seductive, raspy voice­—she was eventually eliminated for starting too much drama, but not before delivering the season’s best line: “I wasn’t hiding in my room. I was investing in myself.”

Kendall, Becca K., Lauren B. The final trio. Kendall is a taxidermist, clearly intended by the show to be a one-off joke in the first couple episodes, who through some glitch in the formula almost made it to the end. After one wilderness survival-themed group date, Kendall thanked Arie for the experience: “I’ve always just wanted to eat a bunch of bugs.” He went to Kendall’s hometown and together they stuffed dead mice in her garage. It was cute, but the show must inevitably discard anyone even slightly charming. Two women remained by the final episode: Becca and Lauren. Becca is portrayed on the show as just kind of boring. Lauren, on the other hand, managed to come off as boring enough to be riveting in her own right—so blank and inscrutable, one wondered if she was some sort of robot invader.

The bachelor is not the show’s main character, and nor are any of the women. The show’s main character is its own contrived structure, a perverse twist on the standard marriage plot. It is decidedly conservative but necessarily polyamorous; the producers seem to understand that straight-up heterosexual monogamy, among other things, doesn’t make for exciting TV. In each episode, the show presents an impossibly idealized couple form, one that is already unattainable within the show’s structure. The central drama emerges from each contestant’s inevitable failure to live up to this ideal, spurred by the show’s ruthlessly ticking clock. Contestants are dragged onward to the next group date, the next Rose Ceremony, always lamenting the scarcity of time with Arie. No relationship is ever developing fast enough for the show’s demands.

What makes romance romantic is its specificity, but The Bachelor requires the production of the least specific romance possible. There’s no magic that comes from any particular interaction between people on The Bachelor, only grand, empty gestures filled with a rotating set of characters. Rather than talk about their interests, experiences, etcetera, each date takes the form of relentless self-examination of the state of that week’s relationship. This produces a unique lexicon—every conversation is spent reflecting on the “progress” of “ that connection,” or “those feelings” (always prefaced with an article). “I feel like we have that connection. You know what I mean?” Arie says on one date. There is never anything more than this to say, and the strings of empty signifiers, combined with a few romantic guitar chords, gloss over each date’s utter dead-eyed vacuity. After watching enough episodes, the show starts to feel like a mechanistic nightmare, or perhaps heterosexuality’s death drive: the production of a relationship that is all form and no content. It’s easy to understand why robotic Lauren did so well.

For the purposes of easy filming, nearly every location in The Bachelor is completely desolate. The couples spend their time ambling about deserted gardens, eating in empty restaurants, and exploring vacant theme parks that nevertheless contain an inordinate number of intimate nooks. In one episode in Italy, the show's producers seemed to have emptied out an entire town for the happy couple to stroll through. This gives the proceedings a post-apocalyptic character, suggesting a world in which everyone has fled so that rich straight couples can peacefully spend a lazy afternoon followed by dinner. Compound this emptiness with the fact that, by the end of the show’s two-month filming process, the few remaining women are basically spending huge amounts of time alone in hotel rooms awaiting, at most, one date with the same man each week, and the romance starts to feel even more abhorrently compulsory. Falling in love, which in the real world never occurs in a vacuum, becomes the only possible activity. No one is allowed to do anything else. After dinner, the couple will often dance alone in an empty room, while a live band serenades them onstage.

On The Bachelor, unlike other reality TV, there’s no thrill of watching the mundane, no captured moments that inspire the pleasure of witnessing anything ‘real.’ The show feels, essentially, like a casting call—in each season, the women audition for a single role. A contestant either performs convincingly enough to make it to the next round, or misses her mark and is eliminated. Relationships, in the show’s universe, are fatalistic—women are most often sent home for moments of doubt or ambivalence about the long-term viability of their ‘connection’ with the man they met just weeks ago. The ones who succeed are those who can muster up enough enthusiasm, who can most blatantly perform their affection in front of the bachelor and Bachelor Nation.

The finale of The Bachelor is a bizarre spectacle. Like every episode, it’s taped months before airing, but the last episode is screened in front of a live studio audience and broadcast on TV—a surreal viewing-of-a-viewing-of-a-show. This year’s finale took place in Peru (Arie: “[There are] alpacas walking around the streets randomly, you know, Machu Picchu ... It’s incredible!”). As is required by the show, he was conflicted. But The Bachelor ends with a proposal, and one of the women has to go. In the first part of the episode, Arie went on dates with both women (Lauren, in reference to Machu Picchu: “I love that”). Then, on the final stage, in a field populated with alpacas and tastefully-overturned, ancient-looking vases, Arie dumped Lauren and proposed to Becca.

But the episode was only halfway over. After a commercial break, we saw Arie show up at Becca’s rented house in LA, months after the proposal. They sat down on the couch, and he explained to her that he was feeling uncertain, that he didn’t want to break things off with Lauren, and that he regretted proposing. In an extended, unedited sequence, the show made the failure of their finally-monogamous partnership into yet another spectacle.

This dragged on through several commercial breaks, as each person was filmed in disjointed split-screen. Arie continued to follow Becca throughout the house, at one point asking if she wanted to talk or wanted him to leave. “I want you to leave,” Becca responded, but Arie ignored this and stayed in the house. For the first time during the season, the presence of the filming crew was obvious, in the house’s mirrors and at the edges of the frame. The entire scene felt predatory. As the camera and Arie followed a distraught Becca around the house, the show’s bad faith was laid bare; it was always less invested in marriage than in the surefire entertainment of a camera’s lingering gaze on a crying woman.

Of course, some version of this breakup scene happens after every season of The Bachelor, it just rarely happens on camera. In 22 seasons and 14 proposals, only one couple is still together. The show totally fails at producing its stated final product, even as it spends most of its time convincing you of its success. This is the central irony pervading all of The Bachelor; what made it impossible for my friends and me to watch it with any ironic distance. The falsity of engagements on the show is well-known, but this has little effect on its viewership. At its core, The Bachelor knows we’re not watching for the romance.

“There’s nothing more to say,” Becca said to Arie in the final minutes of the finale. But that’s never a problem for The Bachelor. The camera cut back to the live studio audience, where the show’s host announced another live two-hour episode the next night, featuring Arie, Becca, and Lauren. It aired last Tuesday; I didn’t watch it. Apparently Arie proposed to Lauren (she accepted), and ABC announced that Becca would be the next Bachelorette. This summer, she’ll be introduced to a couple dozen eligible men, and after countless dates and another long trip around the world, she’ll likely be engaged to one. The machine marches onward.


Mitchell Johnson B’18.5 wasn't hiding in his room, he was investing in himself.