Miranda Davis, Columbia University
It has often struck me that American Idol is the most quintessentially American program in the history of US television. It’s couched in the notion of the rags to riches American Dream and relies on the distinctly American idea of professional success and prominence as the keys to personal happiness. And of course, it also employs both backbones of U.S. political theory: representational democracy and election by popular vote.
I’m assuming that all of you were sentient in the aughts and that I therefore don’t need to explain here just how culturally significant Idol was back in the day. There were a couple of years then where it felt as if – both domestically and internationally – American Idol really was America. Here’s the thing though: as anyone who watched Idol, even at its peak, can tell you, as television, it was never much more than, like, okay. It was deadeningly repetitive and the staging and technical work were perfunctory and uninspired tbh. Which is why, as you might have guessed, we’re not really here to discuss American Idol, but rather, the magic that is The Bachelor.
Approaching its 21st season, and having spawned three (or four, depending on how you count it) spin-off series [The Bachelorette – 12 seasons; Bachelor Pad – canceled after three seasons, truly the dud of the group; Bachelor in Paradise – just finished its 3rd season; Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After – to premiere on ABC’s sister channel, Freeform, formerly ABC Family, this fall], The Bachelor has outlasted American Idol and overtaken shows like Survivor and The Real World (fun fact: both of which are shockingly still on) to take its (rightful) place as the most culturally relevant reality show of this decade (with the exception of maybe Keeping up With the Kardashians, but we’ll leave them for another time).
But unlike American Idol, The Bachelor is distinctly not ideologically American. It completely eschews careerism – contestants take leaves of absence from their jobs to come on the show. Often, the producers choose to not even disclose contestants’ professions, labeling them instead as “dogs lovers,” or “sport fishing enthusiasts.” The show rests on the idea of personal happiness almost explicitly at the expense of professional success. And unlike on Idol, where the stated goal of all the contestants is fame and fortune, The Bachelor vilifies and looks down upon any contestants who are perceived as being there for just the spotlight. Whereas Idol promotes hard work and natural talent, The Bachelor believes most strongly in random chance. There is no voting, and the show is in fact structured so that we identify much more with the powerless contestants than with the Bachelor or Bachelorette who dictatorially makes all the decisions.
And yet, The Bachelor is just as iconically American as Idol. Just in a completely different and infinitely more interesting way.
If American Idol is this picture of the American flag,
Then The Bachelor is this.
What I’m saying is that The Bachelor belongs to that most American of artistic genres [Tocqueville shudders in his grave]: pop art. It’s pure capitalist, mass-produced schlock that knows that it’s schlock and revels in that, while also managing to transcend it with good old U.S. irony. American Idol, for all its gaudiness, was deeply uncreative and painfully earnest. The Bachelor is bold and irreverent.
Every season, Chris Harrison looks us in the eyes and unconvincingly promises us that this is going to be the most dramatic season in Bachelor History. Chris Harrison is intentionally reminding us that The Bachelor is at heart a commercial venture, as well as a repetitive, mass-produced item. Think about why they insist on having the Bachelor/Bachelorette say “will you accept this rose” over and over and over again. They want us to be painfully aware that we are watching a serialized product. The teasers that they put before every commercial break can be read the same way. Anyone who has seen more than, like, one episode knows that anything dramatic in a teaser is complete fiction and will turn out to be barely even worth noting later in the episode. Chad punching Evan in a teaser turns into Chad sitting in his room while Evan gets a nosebleed. They’re 100% ironic, because they know we know exactly what they’re doing. It’s pure, transparent, self-reflexive commercial entertainment. Ditto the (truly inspired) editing, which explicitly draws attention to itself – on a recent episode of Bachelor in Paradise, we got a sequence that was Ashley I intercut with footage of a bird, and then a shot of Ashley I saying to the producers that she knows they’re going to make it look like she’s talking to an animal. Or really, just look at the Bachelor in Paradise theme song (it’s what can only be described as 80’s sitcom theme song pastiche), where everyone looks mildly embarrassed to be participating in something so horribly kitschy. The show puts its scaffolding on full display because its whole intention is to remind us that WE ARE WATCHING CAPITALIST SCHLOCK. We get to feel both degraded and enlightened at the same time. We watch the show genuinely because The Bachelor has welcomed us into the joke.
My mother and I went to the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney a couple of years ago. I was in love, and she pretty much thought that she had just paid an absurd amount of money to see the contents of our local Target on steroids. My mother also refuses to watch The Bachelor with me. It just deeply doesn’t speak to her. My point is, if you don’t like The Bachelor, you’re probably a communist person who’s not into pop art. It’s not for everyone. But if you, like me, spend two, three, four hours a week, seven months out of the year watching this show, don’t relegate it to a guilty pleasure. Hold your head up high. This is our national art. Listen to Lana Del Rey, musical pop art queen, when she tells you to “be young, be dope, be proud, like an American.”