The Bachelorette: Bentley, Ashley, Chris Harrison and This Appalling Season
Andy Dehnart on why the reality-TV perennial is terrible, from its racist casting to its horrific sexism.
There's no doubt that ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are addictive, soapy fun. The formula works: Each week the star further narrows a group of potential love interests, interacting with them in various contexts, from traditional dates to overnight stays in the "fantasy suite." At least, it works as a TV show; its track record for producing successful relationships is dismal.
But the two series, which have collectively aired 22 seasons since 2002, are regularly the source of appalling behavior—and not from the contestants. While VH1's Flavor of Love and Rock of Love parodied and embraced the trashiness inherent in the format, The Bachelor clings to its image of itself as a traditional, classy, perfectly normal way of finding true love.
Here are eight reasons why it is anything but that.
1) The Bachelor/ette has the worst teasers in the history of television
The "coming up" teasers on The Bachelor are widely mocked because they are so ridiculously over the top and superlative. The! Most! Dramatic! Thing! Yet! What's amazing is how the show consistently underdelivers on those promises, and in fact actually dampens the impact of its footage by teasing it to death.
Villainous Bentley's return to The Bachelorette this week was an excellent example: A few episodes ago, Bentley left the show, telling bachelorette Ashley that he needed to be home with his daughter. But he told the camera things like, "I had the opportunity and I played everyone" and “I’m going to make Ashley cry. I hope my hair looks OK.”
Since his exit, the show has teased his return with dramatic shots of things like Ashley's shocked face and a closed hotel room door. It was time for the bad man to pay, we were told. But the actual confrontation wasn't worth the money producers spent to fly Bentley to Hong Kong, because there was no confrontation, just Ashley suddenly telling us that she moved on. The narrative made as little sense as the producers casting someone who was so forthcoming about doing the show simply for publicity.
Of course, Bentley's horrific behavior has been the most interesting thing this season, and it makes perfect sense why he'd be included. If producers don't intentionally cast troublemakers who are on the show to create good television and not find love, they certainly don't weed out those people. Whether the star of the show has a reasonable expectation that everyone there could be genuinely interested in her or him (and not there to, say, mock them and self-promote the way Bentley was) is a matter of debate. Ashley was warned about Bentley ahead of time and still fell for him. Which either makes her the world’s biggest sucker or perfect for reality TV.
The Bachelor/ette is a television show, naturally, so it needs to cast people who are first and foremost going to be good on television. The perfect life partner for the star isn't going to make it on the show if he or she cannot talk to the camera, and be expressive and outgoing and all of the other things television requires. That's fine—though it doesn't explain why the show is so pathetically white; never has a non-white person fronted a season, and the suitors always lack diversity. This season, there wasn’t a single man of color among the 25 contestants.
3) The crass manipulation
Host Chris Harrison insisted in an interview that he and the show's producers couldn't tell Ashley about Bentley's true motivations because it would "completely affect her journey." He forgot to say how it would completely affect their TV show, too. It's hard to see his presence on the show and the producers' complicity in that as anything more than crass manipulation. It's not unfathomable that a reality-TV show would cast people and create circumstances that maximize drama, but since the show's premise is about falling in love and being emotionally open, the manipulation has greater consequences. That's made even worse by the fact that the show's host says that he cares about the people who are being manipulated.
4) Chris Harrison
All reality-show hosts have their shtick, and Chris Harrison's is that he is the bachelor or bachelorette's best friend. That's an improvement on being the pretty unnecessary presence he was in early seasons, just existing to say obvious things, like when he announces there is only one rose left in case anyone was unable to count.
But disingenuousness drips from his smirk in nearly every conversation, particularly when that season's star is in some kind of emotional turmoil. It's even more disturbing when he name-drops his friendship with current and past Bachelor cast members, which seems simultaneously desperate and pathetic and an abuse of the power differential.
5) The show's general sketchiness
Chris is an excellent hatchet man, though. As the public face of the show, he's the person who has to defend the show against its accusers, and he does a good job, generally dismissing reports as mere gossip or conspiracy theories. To be fair, the Internet and world is full of people who make baseless, conspiratorial claims based on weak logic. But season after season, The Bachelor finds itself with a major controversy, one that tends to break the fourth wall, thus making the show appear reluctant to include it—even though that thing usually generates lots of press. More than once, a cast member has been accused of something dramatic for which no evidence exists and they later vigorously deny.
For example, during the 14th season of the show, a producer was accused of having an affair with Rozlyn Papa, a woman on The Bachelor who was sent home after the show accused her despite having no evidence, she said she felt "betrayed," and called the accusations a "blatant lie." Her fellow castmates also lied about what they saw, changing their stories to become eyewitnesses, and Chris Harrison became her judge, jury, and executioner. The male producer was nowhere to be found, of course, further contributing to…
6) The show's horrific sexism
A show about romance is bound to play into gender stereotypes and the crass expectations of a society that still has very clearly defined roles for men and women. But The Bachelor does everything in its power to maintain and reinforce those roles and stereotypes. Men and women are constantly boxed into their corners, like the way the women are defined by their appearance (you look beautiful, et cetera).
The Bachelorette is somewhat progressive in terms of its format, giving a woman a group of suitors from which to pick and choose. But the show chisels away at that vaguest bit of empowerment, never challenging the men's obvious discomfort at the power differential.
The absolute worst part comes during the finale, when the men that the season's star has selected are the ones who are expected to propose, immediately giving men all the power in the relationship. While the bachelorette does reject or say no to the person she hasn't chosen, the finale and climax of each Bachelorette season plays out as if the man has made the choice, and it's every woman's fantasy to be proposed to in the most traditional way possible.
7) The increasing reliance on people who've appeared on previous seasons
Two words: Ashley Hebert. She's possibly a lovely person, but she should not be fronting her own season of a network reality show. She makes her predecessor (and jilter) Brad Womack, who's not very expressive, seem like Ryan Seacrest by comparison. Every reality show lives and dies by its casting, and while it can sometimes make sense to bring back people who audiences already know and have an emotional investment in, producers need to bring back people who audiences actually have an emotional investment in.
8) The continued insistence that it's a good way to meet a mate
Three couples have survived out of 22. Two are married. That's it.
Meeting a life partner on television is not the best way to go about that process, duh, but the show keeps up the pretense. Sure, the fairytale romance is part of the fun, but the show crosses the line into lying about it. At the start of the contentious reunion between Jake and Vienna, Chris said, "many people have found love on our show," but of course, most have actually found relationships that crumble instantaneously.
Not all relationships survive, especially ones forged under unusual circumstances. Still, it's time for some acknowledgement that The Bachelor's format is like gambling: It usually doesn't result in anything but the investment can be fun, and when it pays out, it's even more exciting.