27 September 2019

Most Dramatic Ever: The Bachelor by Suzannah Showler

Hi I'm Meagan and I'm addicted to The Bachelor. Not just The Bachelor, but the entire franchise. I started watching in the Trista Sutter era (likely before I should have been, thanks mom) and haven't missed a season since. A friend of mine from high school recommended this on Instagram and I ordered it almost immediately. It's a cultural analysis of my favourite show and the only thing could come closer to my dream of a book would be if Chuck Klosterman had written it.

Suzannah Showler is a Canadian poet and Most Dramatic Ever is her first full book. It's part of the Pop Classics Series published by ECW Press, a Canadian publisher that began as a journal of literary criticism. This is the coolest series ever, and I only just learned of it when I began digging into Showler's book. Any writer can submit a proposal to write a book for this series on any topic. Currently there are ten books in the collection and they cover a wide variety of cultural topics such as Calvin and Hobbes and Twin Peaks. There is one solely on Nicolas Cage.


Showler, like myself, loves The Bachelor. I mean, clearly, she wrote an entire cultural analysis of the franchise that reads like a thesis. She referred to herself once in the book as a "bachelor scholar" and I'm thinking I need to jack the term for my Twitter bio. Her book is clear, engaging, and articulates the 'inner battle' I think a lot of fans feel, appreciating the content but understanding it's ridiculous all at once. I think both fans and non-fans alike would appreciate it's insights, and I'm sort of desperate for Meghan's boyfriend to read it.

Viewers remain safely on the inside of the joke, aware of the preposterousness of the situation while also allowing ourselves to be carried away by its results. It's a form of emotional engineering so effective it seems to work almost on a cellular level - the entertainment value of a Cheeto's ability to disappear when it hits your tongue, leaving you with all the caloric intake but still hungry for more, certain you've consumed only air."

Whether you want to admit it or not, the show is a cultural phenomenon. It's loved by A-list celebrities, professional athletes, and politicians' wives alike. It's seemingly more respected than MTV-type reality shows, and the show's alumni go on to be c-list icons themselves, some of them dating real celebrities. Showler points out that it's that it's the event-style format that makes the show most successful:

At a moment when it's permissible - almost to the point of default - to watch TV while spooning your laptop in a nest of solitude, queuing episode after episode in surrender to a particular kind of self-loathing pleasure, The Bachelor refuses this paradigm altogether. It's the opposite of a binge watch: instantly episodic, locked into the pocket of its Monday night airing, churning at a serial slow-roll... The Bachelor is a standing date, an event - not a product to be consumed, but an experience to be had."

Having never been a team sport kind of gal, this franchise fills that void for me. It gives me an opportunity to spend time with my favourite people, enjoying something we all commonly love. The September-January period with no shows is akin to a sports 'off-season' (I will defend this comparison, don't test me)... because as Showler mentions, it's not as though I'm going to binge watch past seasons. Who would I talk about them with?

The show also seemingly continues to gain popularity year-after-year, seventeen years later. Showler notes that it continues to bring in new advertisers with highly coveted and expensive time slots, the show performs well against both competitors and itself, and in 2017 Nick Viall's season was the only network television show to grow it's audience. I'm certain the event style format she mentioned plays into that. It's just not the kind of show you can watch on a streaming service after the fact. Who wants to see the playoff winning goal a day late? In fact, in my home we only have cable for this franchise and NHL hockey. That's it.

Nick Viall and Rachel Lindsey on Viall's 2017 season

I meet people all the time who suggest that the show is superficial or stupid. Once in our MA I got in an open argument with some loser that the contestants are actually there for love. And for the most part, I believe that. I think a lot of them want Instagram ad deals as well, but you get more if you're in a happy couple from what I've seen. Both is the goal for most, I assume. But that doesn't mean these contestants aren't a bit dumb and superficial themselves. My husband tells me literally every season that he would never propose to a girl who had just openly 'taken three dudes for a spin' the week earlier. Something about the timing makes me uncomfortable as well, but that's because as Showler puts it so articulately in the below excerpt, there is no room for critical thought on the show:

Here's the thing: reality TV rewards a very particular kind of intelligence. Bachelorette contestants with qualities born of higher order intuition: social acuity, kindness, canniness, cunning. The kind of smart that allow a person to vibe what's happening around them and lock into its pocket. But a certain kind of deconstructive, arm's length braininess that favours the critical tends not to make it on the show in the first place, and when it does, it's usually a pretty big impediment. The Bachelor demands wholesale participation, a two-heeled jump motored by faith, not reason. To think is to unravel."

We've seen this happen a number of times, most notably Sharleen Joynt and Andi Dorfman from Juan Pablo's season who clued in eventually that this guy knew next to nothing about them and yet they were going to get engaged... and also partially Nick Viall who we've seen unravel a few times on this franchise because he just thinks too much for his own good. This is the number one reason I've never thought for a second about applying for the show, despite loving it so much. I spent 90% of my time in my own head and I've never jumped two-feet into anything in my entire life.

Andi Dorfman in a 'famous' scene where she tells Juan Pablo he's made zero effort to get to know her and leaves. Dorfman was one of my favourite Bachelorettes

Showler calls this out as a 'special kind of hypocrisy' possessed by franchise fans. We can immerse ourselves completely in a show we believe we're above. So for everyone out there who thinks the show is a bit stupid and superficial, it is, but that doesn't mean you're not missing out by not joining the Monday night club. The water is warm when you're ready.

And yes, the track record is particularly shitty for a show as popular as it is. Most couples don't make it (although I would like to point out the majority that do are from The Bachelorette because women know how to pick a partner better than men do), but the psychological conditions ARE there to fall in love. Take the dates, for example, which Showler writes about brilliantly:

Group dates put contestants on display in uncomfortable ways, but one-on-one dates can be downright Fear Factor-esque... The Bachelor would have you believe no one could ever fall in love without belaying there. These extreme dates bond couples through experiences that are not merely scary, but designed to activate a bodily sense of mortal danger. This is pleasure in extremis, dating in technicolour. Experiences that vibrate beyond the standard register of emotional pitch... This is romance as neurology, love as a chemical equation: adrenaline plus dopamine over limited time. With no room in the production schedule to guarantee couples will fall in love, they are flung, dangled, and tossed there.

This adrenaline rush combined with a dash of Stockholm syndrome and a sprinkle of herd mentality, and you have love, folks. The conditions are there. Showler notes that while the success record is terrible, we've seen no Bachelor divorces, and all married couples now have children. Suck on that haters.

Showler is also really great at addressing the hypocrisy with regards to the show's 'diversity'. Diversity is something the show is admittedly really bad at, but I can see all the challenges. It's hard to include LGBTQ contestants, for example, because the show's entire premise revolves around every contestant vying after the lead, and sexual preference separates those two groups. Imagine if the contestants could just hook up with each other instead? However, the most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise did deliberately include a lesbian couple. I wish Showler had written the book just a few years later to have been able to cover it.

Demi and Kristian, a lesbian couple from the 2019 season of Bachelor in Paradise

She does however, discuss Rachel Lindsay at length. Lindsay was the franchise's first black lead, and while she was fantastic at carrying the show, there was all sorts of extra weight attached to her season that the poor woman likely didn't want or need on her search for true love. Lindsay was flung into the role of not only The Bachelorette, but a spokesperson for black women and a badge for the franchise to show they can be successful and diverse. However, Lindsay was still from a prominent and wealthy family. Her dad is a federal judge. And while Lindsay was a great choice for the lead regardless of race, the show tried to show off their 'diversity' while really only stepping out a little bit. 

Showler focuses in on America's expectations for Lindsay, and how people everywhere and especially women of colour wanted her to be this perfect Bachelorette. In reality, fans were disappointed. Most people felt she settled when she chose her now-husband Brian in lieu of her 'front runner' Peter, only because Peter wasn't ready to propose. I personally never felt she settled but, that seems to be the majority opinion.

Lindsay and her fiance Brian

...and what [Rachel Lindsay] wanted from the show was exactly what it provided: the chance to wear sparkles and diamonds and scream out her engagement from the top of a mountain. Of course she did. We wanted Rachel to be perfect; what we owe her is the right to choose mediocrity. Just like everyone. Just like all of us.

But my favourite part of the book (we're almost done, promise) is Showler's ability to analyze the line between reality and the show. This line has always been here, but until almost just recently us fans have been able to compartmentalize the two 'spheres' nicely, thanks in large part to the show's ability to do so. Lately however, it's becoming more apparent that what happens in the 'real world' plays largely into the plot line of the show(s), which is disappointing since we don't have the luxuries of watching film roll of everyone's day to day lives, but also to be expected. Showler points out that this is the birth of the spinoffs- Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor Winter Games. The network was frustrated that there were "hundreds of audience-tested, single, ready-to-mingle-on-camera hotties getting it on with no one watching". 

The most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise was the most insane 'merging of the spheres' (I'm making up sci fi terms) I've ever seen in the history of the show, with events like Stagecoach causing all sorts of drama that the contestants brought with them to the beach. The networks now have the added luxury of all the contestants being heavy social media users, and colouring the storyline week to week with their own commentary, photos, and even screenshots.

Blake and Kristina from the 2019 season of Bachelor in Paradise, arguing over their hookup at Stagecoach

With the line between reality and the show so blurred, Showler explores what it means for the feelings and relationships on the show to be real. Who has to believe in it? Can the show reasonably ask contestants and fans alike to buy into the feelings that exist in the confines of the show, and will we? 

The question isn't Will you accept this rose? It's more like Will you accept this - More like: Will you accept this?

I like to think I can tell the difference. I've watched the show long enough to know that those Taylor Swift twins are never going to find love in this environment, and that Tayshia and John Paul Jones are never going to work. I could see the difference in Cassie's feelings right away when they came on stage in the live after the rose for Colton's season. I'm willing to buy into it if it seems real, but that's the same way it works in real life. However, I have an elevated sense of my own judge of character, so who really knows.

The Bachelor is also the only place nowadays where it's acceptable to just throw all your feelings on the table. In a world of 'ghosting' and 'seeing each other', it's weirdly refreshing to watch actual people ask each other on the ~second date if they are 'here for the right reasons' or 'all in' for the relationship. The linguistics nerd in me appreciated Showler's take on this:

The Bachelor vernacular speaks directly to what we have grown into the dominant anxieties of contemporary social life in general, and romance in particular: the fear that our connections are inauthentic, our gestures empty, our socially mediated lives at once overcrowded and isolated.

SO. While this review reads like a persuasive essay, the book itself is pretty objective. Showler is a fan but she acknowledges all of the hypocrisies and flaws of the show. WE JUST DON'T CARE. And... if you're still not convinced that the show is worth your time, still not convinced the authenticity is there, or the intelligence, or the success rate, at least you can always count on the production value. 

Anyone who is interested in television would enjoy this. You don't have to watch the show or even think it's cool (although that does make it more enjoyable). It's a great cultural analysis about the show's success, both because it's ridiculous and in spite of it. Clearly, I loved it. I would love to hang out with Showler and chat about the franchise with her, and I can't wait for more of these Pop Classic books on other topics I love. 

1 comment:

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