Reality Showdown

07.01.14

People Prefer ‘The Bachelor’ to ‘The Bachelorette.’ Why? It’s Science.

One ABC reality series is dipping in the ratings while the other has stayed pat, and the reasons may surprise you.

A bunch of dudes sat quietly in their suite’s living room sipping wine, as dudes do, when the perpetually scarved front-runner, salesman Nick V., finally returned from his impromptu one-on-one date with Andi. Brian broke the bronotony. “You know what, I’m not going to beat around the bush…” Then the five men laid in to him. Nick is, according to the brollective, “not here for the right reasons.” He’s a snake; a gamer who “cares more about strategy than Andi.” To which Nick replied: “We’re good friends, but we’re different people in how we handle our feelings. So…”

Thus ended the most explosive scene of this season’s intolerably tedious Bachelorette. As for why The Bachelorette is so dull, especially compared to its Bachelor counterpart, it’s complicated. But as the Bachelor’s creator, Mike Fleiss, has said, the real star of the show isn't the one handing out roses—they’re the lonely hearts competing for them. Sadly, the parade of anemic fellas just can’t compete with the ladies. 

For perspective, let’s remember what happened in The Bachelor in the episode before hometowns.

By this time in Juan Pablo’s season, opera singer Sharleen was rejecting JP, and the leftover women were raging against both slut-shamed Clare and pediatric nurse/good-girl Nikki, who in turn were both screaming at each other one moment and involved in a marathon silent treatment the next. In the previous iteration of The Bachelor, born-again virgin Sean Lowe’s season, the women were in St. Croix, which set the stage for the most epic fight in the show’s history (the one where Tierra valiantly declared, “I can’t control my eyebrow!”)

Back in 2002, while toasting the first season of their ratings horse The Bachelor, ABC producers kicked around the idea of turning the format on its head. Instead of 25 lovely ladies cavorting for the attention of a single beau, ABC would find two dozen men ready to lay their hearts (and self-respect) on the line to woo the show’s runner-up.  

Women are just as aggressive as men—just in cleverer, more fascinating ways. In other words: It makes for better TV.

At the time, critics were incredulous that the show would work. Sexism was mostly to blame. A columnist for Canada’s National Post summed up the general skepticism this way: “When our bachelorette can libidinously test drive more than two dozen guys over the course of six weeks, quiz and cajole the devoted pack down to a fierce pair of spitting competitors who’d risk their last smidgen of dignity for the honor of her hand in marriage, then the double standard will officially be dead, and the casting call can begin.”

Fast-forward a decade and 10 seasons of The Bachelorette later. The country has indeed accepted that a woman can make out with, and even bed, more than one suitor at a time on national television. So it should mark a small feminist victory that The Bachelorette exists at all. Still, that doesn’t make me want to watch it. And I’m not alone. 

By the time The Bachelorette first debuted in 2003, 16.7 million tuned in to witness the experiment, according to Nielsen’s ratings, crushing the more conservative boy-and-his-harem narrative on the first season of The Bachelor, which only managed to attract 10.7 million viewers. While it captured the prurient curiosity of a nation, The Bachelorette couldn’t hold on to us. Andi’s season has been the worst in terms of ratings and has so far attracted less than half the viewers Trista Sutter did in that first season, again according to Nielsen. While The Bachelor’s viewership has remained roughly the same over 18 seasons, more than half of The Bachelorette’s fans have switched the dial since the show first started.

The issues are many. There’s the first, most obvious reason: though women might say they want a sensitive man, the type that might, oh, declare their eternal love and propose after a few dates, when that type of man presents himself live and in color, it’s not so appealing (see Kasey’s sad promise—with matching tattoo!—to “guard and protect” bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky’s heart.)

But the bigger issue at play, one that even Nick V.’s unhinged confessional sobbing can’t overcome, is that men competing for love is boring. It’s a scientific fact. 

Psychologist Joyce Benenson has spent 25 years studying the different ways men and women compete. Far from the conventional wisdom that men are more competitive, Benenson argues in her new book, Warriors and Worriers, that women are just as aggressive as men—just in cleverer, more fascinating ways. In other words: It makes for better TV.

With males (human and chimpanzee), Benenson says you see “direct verbal and physical aggression—a big fight and that’s that. Shouting and screaming and it’s very loud and unpleasant, but there’s also a sense of predictability.” But, and this is where the show comes in, “because males do really cooperate very well against other groups, the intra-Community fighting is left hanging, and usually reconciled. Once they figure out the hierarchy, they generally abide by it. [Males] know where they stand and they respect that.”

“Now females do not form a hierarchy easily and there is no basic reason to cooperate,” added Benenson. “Generally they do not cooperate with unrelated individuals. They naturally take care of children, parents, relatives, but when it comes to a best friend, it’s really easy to get rid of her, as sad as that is,” she says.

Take this lack of cooperative instinct and add a competitive situation, and Benenson says you get a real conundrum. A woman, she says, avoids manlier physical altercations in an evolutionary move to protect her reproductive organs, and enable her to care for future children. “So what you get is this very subtle, very severe competition.”

“Women are basically nice,” Benenson claims. “They’re giving the impression that they want to cooperate, that they don’t want to compete. But that’s dumb, because if you want the guy or the job, then you have to compete, because otherwise you will lose. So you disguise it. And then it becomes very complicated and interesting. You smile as you quietly take somebody else’s whatever it is.”

“There are so many levels going on with the girls,” she says.

Where the congeniality all falls apart is with the introduction of a too-confident favorite—a Vienna Girardi, or Courtney Robertson, or Nikki Ferrell (there’s one every season). When this character shows up, all the women turn on her. 

“The ultimate tool they use is social exclusion,” says Benenson. “That is what girls use in place of direct aggression. If someone is prettier or smarter or a better violin player, and not at the same time putting herself down or saying she’s an equal, then she’s out. Compared to men, they are terribly worried about social exclusion, and for good reason. That is what women do, from 4 years old to nursing home residents, if they find they can’t be dead even. And they find it very pleasurable.”

Not only do women exhibit more complex behaviors, but also the stakes for them in a marriage competition are much higher than they are for men, for whom age is less of a factor in reproducing. “Men have more time to figure it out,” Benenson says. “Just mathematically, the amount of time you want to invest in that first choice, it’s much more important for a woman.”

This urgency and desperation fuels the fire for The Bachelor’s contestants. A bunch of men competing for one woman—no matter how fabulous she is—just doesn’t work.