Toxic Femininity?: The Difficulty of Loving to Watch The Bachelor

It’s one of TV’s most popular guilty pleasures. But at what point does the guilt outweigh the pleasure?

Image courtesy of Network Ten

If you, too, have been tuning in to The Bachelor every Wednesday and Thursday evening, then you don’t need to be told that the show is an endless source of entertainment. Maybe you’re unashamed of it. Or maybe you’re like me, and you watch it greedily, obsessively, but always a little bit guiltily. Everyone knows that it’s a trashy TV show, that the contestants are more likely on there for social media fame and money rather than love, and that all the romantic gestures are curated by faceless producers. It’s designed to be a guilty pleasure. But at what point should the guilt overtake the pleasure?

The formula has been the same since its conception: a handsome, buff dude spends six weeks being fawned over by a bevy of 25 young, conventionally beautiful women. We see the same characters every year: the Bitch, the Innocent, the Girl Next Door, the Weirdo (to put it into context for this season: Cat, Cass, Brooke, Cayla).

They always do the same thing: get dolled up for a cocktail party, wait for the Bachelor to arrive, then promptly start fighting for his attention. They then sit around a fancy house for the rest of the week, hoping to be chosen for a single date so they can convince the Bachie that they are The One for him, even if they aren’t. For the women who are not rewarded with a single date, they have to get more creative: reading him love letters from a blank diary, awkwardly attempting to score a kiss, or jumping in the pool. Each cringeworthy plea for attention invites the audience to cast judgement upon these girls for doing nothing more than what we expect them to do.

Now, no one is arguing that The Bachelor is trying to champion feminist change in our society, because, duh, it isn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the nation’s most popular TV franchises, with a weekly audience of over 800,000 people, and this platform is hugely influential. The Bachelor is problematic for the same reasons it is successful: it reinforces negative female images and places men and women back into their traditional gender roles. By pitting women against each other for the sake of winning the ‘love’ of a man who, frankly, is not always worthy of the women throwing themselves at him (need I remind you of Richie?), we are placed back into a bizarre 1950’s mindset that allows those women to be objectified and vilified. Unconventional girls are presented as ‘freaks’, emotional girls are ‘crazy’, girls who try hard are ‘tragic’.

The first two weeks of this season has seen Cayla the crystal healer being unfairly mocked and bullied by the mean-girl clique of Cat, Romy and whats-her-face. Since Cayla’s departure, the trio have placed Vanessa Sunshine in their vindictive sights. Neither girl has done anything to invite their cruelty than be a little more out-there than the sunny, girl-next-door types that are usually the favoured contestants. When nice girl Shannon spoke up against the negative behaviour of her competitors, she not only went unsupported by her friends in the house, but was criticised and attacked for even getting involved.

As a regular watcher, I frequently find myself defending my viewing choice as ‘just a social thing’ to friends and family who do not deign to watch the show. Which is true: for my friends and I, Bachie Wednesday is a scheduled social event. I go to their place with a bottle of wine, we make dinner, and we bitch about everyone and everything on the show. The fact is, the show is an easy way to connect with other people. In the two weeks since the 2018 season started airing, I have discussed it with coworkers and classmates to whom I’ve never really spoken to before. Since my aunt confided to me that she watches it, we regularly dissect the contestants’ dress choices and poor old Cass’s unrequited love. Can a show that forges and strengthen female bonds really be such a bad thing for women? Well… yes, it can.

Courtesy of Channel 10

“She’s got no tits at all,” commented a friend about one contestant, and a few moments later, “But where’s her arse?”. Everything is up for criticism: body shape, outfits, hair extensions, makeup, how they speak, what they say, how ‘desperate’ or ‘bitchy’ they seem. There we sat, me and my feminist-identifying friends who regularly lament the objectification of women in every other aspect of our lives, doing the same damn thing. In the world of #MeToo, where professionals are boycotted for inappropriate treatment of women, why is this behaviour accepted, and even encouraged, when placed in the format of a TV show? And why do I subscribe to this regressive enterprise? It just feels so good to open a bottle of chardonnay with your best mates and forget about the struggles of everyday life, where dating is difficult and passing judgement openly about other people is discouraged. It’s oddly satisfying to have the freedom to judge other people from the comfort of our couches.

The fact is, none of this would bother me so much if it was the same shoe on the other foot. Yes, I love The Bachelor, but I am also a huge fan of The Bachelorette, albeit for entirely different reasons. Where The Bachelor conforms to stereotypes of thin, blonde women tearing each other down for the love of a not-that-great man, The Bachelorette is a show which typically casts a funny, intelligent and successful woman as the main star, who gets to choose from a pool of funny, intelligent and successful men.

Yes, the contestants are all still conventionally attractive; yes, they’re still stunningly lacking in diversity. But where The Bachelor feeds off an agenda of competitive feuding, the contestants on The Bachelorette are often shown to be laughing and joking with one another, reinforcing the Aussie-bloke ideals of mateship and being good sports. Their eyes are all on the same prize, but we are not required to criticise and devalue these men: instead, they have to prove themselves worthy of the Bachelorette’s love by being upstanding, good-humoured people. If we can have great men competing for the affection of great women and make it into a successful TV show, then why can’t it work the other way around?

Love or hate The Bachelor? Let us know in the comments.