By Kasey Devine
In the days of the reality TV explosion, which began as the second millennia came to a close, there existed shows in which competitors came together, often in a hostile environment, to defeat one another in a sort of quasi-psychological or talent-based warfare. Each season ended with a victor claiming the final prize of what could normally be referred to as “a pile of money.” Survivor, American Idol, and Big Brother were a few such shows. Although I never suffered the desire to watch reality television – having always been drawn to scripted comedy or science fiction shows – I understood why one would. Humankind has always found something compelling about witnessing challenges of all kinds, and these shows became the challenge to see in the early 2000s. But one lazy summer Monday night I was flipping through some comic books, and my wife turned on the TV. What I had always assumed to be just another network reproduction of reality contests grew more morbid and sinister as it progressed. I always knew I didn’t like The Bachelor/Bachelorette, but in one incredible moment I suddenly had the words to explain exactly why. I present below, in the great tradition of the fiery Old Testament prophets, a retelling of my wild rant that lasted the full length of a commercial break and ended with my wife’s desperate command to “calm down.”
I imagine that to accuse a beloved primetime television show of being “morbid and sinister” in my opening paragraph would often be met with the reply that “it’s just a show.” I agree with you, hypothetical skeptic. I promise that my thesis will not be “This show is destroying society and it should be removed from all public record.” That said, I still wish to reveal a few things that I find to be worthwhile and meaningful. For the rest of my humble article, I ask only that you humor me with the assumptions that people not only watch this show, but passively learn from its structures, themes, and messages, however unintentional or hidden they may or may not be. To watch The Bachelor(ette) without challenge is to find it acceptable.
My first dispute with The Bachelor/Bachelorette ABC series is the warping of the competitive reality show into one that ultimately objectifies the participants. The prize is no longer a “pile of money,” an expenses-paid trip to a Caribbean beach, or an opportunity to make a living performing. The prize was never something as noble as modest self satisfaction or the prospect of charity (though some shows admirably do incorporate elements like these); now the prize is a person. I’m not forgetting that the bachelor(ette) does have choices available to him or her, but it still feels a bit awkward and perhaps objectifying to replace what was once the Stanley Cup or a million dollars with a 115 pound model-esque blond woman. It bears mentioning that at first, the contestants are competing for the time and affection of a person they barely know. Shortly afterwards, they are whisked away to an Italian villa, a tropical resort, or an expensive skyscraper apartment, where all but the most bitter of enemies could be comfortable and careless. I recently had the whimsical fantasy that in the future, the Patriots, upon their success at the Super Bowl, could win the privilege of taking bachelorette Emily Maynard out to the Space Needle for Filet Mignon and a three hundred dollar bottle of wine.
The show, and perhaps this is systemic in an overly individualistic society, displays a deep misunderstanding of the concept of “love.” The bachelor(ette) inevitably babbles on and on about “What I need” and “Who I really am” and “What I’m looking for in so-and-so” and “How I feel about this kind of person.” Comparably, the contestants slowly sink into the self deception that the bachelor(ette) is “What I was looking for” and now the only obstacles to “my dream girl/guy” are the other contestants. For them, one maxim remains: to lack attention is to lose the game. The whole show becomes a self aggrandizing, inward-looking, “me first” circus. And in this quest for the completion of self, love is certainly lost. This is precisely because love is not merely a shared egotism, not even a reciprocal altruism, but a forgetfulness and sacrifice of self. True love is the love of the other as other, and it is forever beyond the lesser ideals of attraction and selfish needs. The game allows the advantages and disadvantages of being with one person to be quickly weighed against the advantages and disadvantages of being with another. And with this instant choice, this treatment of each human being like a different dish at a buffet table, comes the destruction of the most beautiful sacrifice of falling in love. Love cannot, by its very nature, be reduced to a contest.
And finally, even if my preceding arguments are wrong, even if the contestants are unshakably and perfectly sincere, the bachelor(ette) is not some objectified prize to be won, and in some cosmic twist of the universe love is no longer a selfless gift, I still have a final point to present, mostly regarding the viewer. If we as observers are convinced that the relationships revealed to us are real, then a new problem presents itself. How can we enjoy the ultimate consequence of the show: the elimination of the “losers”? An easy answer from the watcher is “How can we not? It is mystery unfolding; it is great competition; it is entertainment.” I’ll readily grant that the suspense and mystery are very real, and in a sense very compelling, but on the other two points I cannot agree. Competition breeds both winners and losers, and assuming the relationships are real, then the losers are indeed losers of the most sour and miserable kind. Losing suitors in The Bachelor(ette) are not the result of failed relationships themselves, as would be the case in a world where two persons could be repelled or attracted anywhere at any time. The brokenhearted are the result of a manufactured game, where a relationship must be destroyed. Parallel relationships are forcibly forged, and the number of roses dwindles from five, to four, to three, and so on. If the suitors are sincere, if they truly love, then The Bachelor(ette) undoubtedly produces a steady stream of wounded hearts and fractured relationships. If this is competition, it is certainly not great. If this is entertainment, then we should happily move on to watch the reality shows where a father disowns his son, a friend sinks into addiction and despair without aid, or a child is verbally abused and shunned by his or her peers. To admit that The Bachelor(ette) depicts meaningful human relationships is to admit that the systematic destruction of those relationships is both acceptable and worthwhile entertainment.
When we watch a man get into the airport-bound car after not receiving a rose, he confesses one of two things: he didn’t like the bachelorette anyways (he was insincerely competing and love was not present), or he thought there was a true connection but unfortunately wasn’t the chosen suitor (he may have loved, but the game has effectively ended the relationship). If we are convinced the love of the man in the car was genuine, we let out an empathetic sigh of “oh, that’s too bad.” We then turn off the TV, wash the dishes, and conveniently forget that a man’s heart has been broken by the time we lie down in bed at the end of the night. A person in real life is hurting, and we call it entertainment. ABC manufactures a romance contest that by its nature breaks the bonds between us, and we call it fairy tale love.
And now that the retelling of my rant is nearing an end, I’ll propose a few remedies, a few things we can do to be proactive regarding the problems I’ve seen in The Bachelor(ette) that I’m convinced are also problems deeply embedded in our own modern society.
- Respect people instead of objectifying them. Even telemarketers or solicitors that interrupt your dinner have dignity – so act like it. Look your supermarket cashier in the eye and ask them a question, even if the topic is as benign as the weather. Clean up your own mess at a fast food joint. Never use a boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or significant other for his or her money or sexuality. Avoid verbally harassing people or giving the finger in traffic. Get to know the person that delivers your mail or picks up your garbage. People aren’t just a means to an end.
- Ask questions, do some reading, find out what love is and isn’t, and challenge secular society’s vision of self and relationships. The definition of love I’ve used in this article is firmly grounded in Christian tradition, which can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy if you’re interested in theology or philosophy or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings if you’d like examples of true love in literature. If you’re short on time, watch the YouTube videos made by wordonfirevideo and Fr. Robert Barron (I’d begin with his “YouTube heresies” but he also has a few videos on subject matter similar to this article regarding love, sex, and relationships).
- Remember this the next time you say, “It’s just a show”: what we watch, find acceptable, and leave unchallenged shapes our moral character. I won’t argue that some reality shows absolutely never be watched, but you’ll also never hear me refer to The Bachelor(ette) as either “wholesome” or “entertainment.” Simply don’t find it acceptable to be accustomed to structures, themes, or messages that are ignorant of or hurtful to humanity, and to the Body of Christ.
- Stop romanticizing the Hollywood relationship. Real marriage is only sometimes a honeymoon, and it is always a togetherness that forgets what I want for me. Remember that the reality TV relationship is often doomed to fail. (of the 23 combined Bachelor(ette) seasons, I counted 2 couples still together)
Kasey Devine is a graduate from St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville MN.