Platitude tells us that expectation is the father of disappointment. This is what crosses my mind each season of “The Bachelor” as I approach the inevitable crying-contestant-thrashing-in-the-hallway scene as if she were the ghost of a Victorian governess haunting a manor, except the manor is a bungalow in Bali and instead of a prudish nightgown, she wears a cropped off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and the most sculpting athleisure pants that money can buy. “I just didn’t expect to fall in love!” she laments. Well, my poor girl, of course you didn’t! No one expects to be duped en masse with a makeshift sorority by Arie, this season’s embarrassment of a bachelor and American race car driver-cum-underperforming real estate agent. (I specify American racecar driver because the Europhile in me would probably audition for the show were there an Italian edition of “Il Bacceliere” featuring a Formula 1 race car driver-cum-skincare kiosk peddler — what can I say? We all have our weaknesses and mine is a Mediterranean with an airtight sales pitch.)
But back to the matter at hand — did you, contestant X, really think you would emerge unscathed from this stepping stone to Dancing with the Stars, without paying the price in tears? You came looking for fame, forgetting that your mortal cage is defenseless against the time-honored ploys of attachment theory and abuse tactics — yes, abuse tactics! Like all reality shows, The Bachelor requires that its contestants forfeit all communication with and live in complete isolation from the outside world during filming (no phones! no emails! no Reddit!), which, as any sociopath knows, is step two of exploitation (step one being “love-bombing”). Unlike all reality shows, however, producers also track contestants’ menstrual cycles, arranging for their one-on-one dates with the Bachelor (or two-on-one dates, the most torturous configuration of all) to coincide with their PMS weeks. Make no mistake, this show orchestrates and deploys situations guaranteed to destabilize its contestants, making them vulnerable to states of infatuation and — I’ll say it — hysteria. What manipulative … genius!
Here’s the thing — “The Bachelor” is ultimately a study on the human psyche in distress, delivered under the sinister gloss of a primetime reality show. I say sinister because despite the premise of love and target audience of chick-lit consumers, we’re essentially watching real people being emotionally poked and prodded like gladiators in the Colosseum, that spectacle we now call TV. Here, under conditions engineered to wreak the most capitalizable amount of emotional havoc (and this is distinct from simply the greatest amount — that would be ugly and ugly has no mass appeal; but if you’re into that, I highly recommend A&E’s Intervention), contestants act out those primordial questions of the self in the world: What happens when you don’t get what you want? What happens when you’re confronted with the ugly mirror that is the self? What happens when you break? What is Dasein?!
The Bachelor shows us that these women — for all their princess curls, and vocal fry and inexplicable ambition to be on “Dancing with the Stars” — are human after all, just like you (but not me — I’m a Cylon, a number eight). No matter how Machiavellian their desire for D-list fame, they eventually buckle under the weight of the human condition: our vulnerability and desire for love, that universal Achilles’ heel. There are exceptions, of course — even The Bachelor has its casualties. Over the years, more than one woman has left the show of her own volition after realizing that she can no longer even pretend to be attracted to an idiot, but this is rare. The typical contestant is someone who has faith in the idea that a reality show is a viable break into show business. She’s blonde in a way that’s most appealing to the Midwestern palate and works as a yoga instructor, kindergarten teacher, corporate recruiter or nurse. She probably expects little more than some media coverage when the show airs, followed by, hopefully, some doors opening in Hollywood. She’s a real person with real, if misdirected, ambitions and a seemingly sensible plan of action. What she doesn’t expect, however, is to fall victim to the goading of Bachelor psychology, perfected over 22 seasons, and to find herself cry-thrashing in a hallway at midnight before sinking into a puddle on the floor, wiping away real tears that melt her bedtime makeup as cameras surround her, alone and PMS-ing in Bali. Now this is the heart of “The Bachelor.” Thoughts? Tweet me @roymorbidson.
Contact Adrienne Chung at akchung ‘at’ stanford.edu.