Reality TV and the Selling of Love

By Colin McGowan


Photo via Flickr user Marco Bellucci

Mistakes and embarrassment are the raison d’être of most reality programs. We watch these shows to see someone’s sense of self unravel in HD until they’re hunched over crying on a staircase or drunk at 10 AM or screaming into a phone all Mel Gibson-like. There's enough melodramatic misery caught on camera for you to make your DVR a graveyard of tragedy that doesn’t register as such for the same reason Seattleites don’t fret about rain. You can voyeuristically gaze into the lives of the saddest, angriest, loneliest people imaginable, shrug, and think, Huh, I guess that’s what that’s like.

The Bachelorette is one of the few reality programs where the main draw isn’t that you get to laugh at dumb people or gawk at Dorito-skinned twentysomethings cussing at each other. It’s sweet and romantic—which is to say it’s been tweaked by producers to be as inoffensive and unremarkable as possible without ever becoming boring. On a show that supposedly portrays the human drama of people building meaningful relationships, the protagonists are all washed-out archetypes—hair-gelled mortgage adjuster, hair-gelled bar owner, hair-gelled pile of meatballs in a person costume, girl—who have the emotional range of those Do you like me? Y/N/M”cards that get passed around sixth-grade classrooms. The show’s weightiest moments are mundane conversations about falling in love smothered in romantic signifiers—helicopter shots! candlelit dinners! sparkly attire!—cribbed from the same 12 books and movies that Reader’s Digest subscribers have been told depict ideal courtship.

Host Chris Harrison occasionally shows up to remind the pack of domesticated bros that this is not a game, gentlemen: this is one woman looking for happiness. Harrison and the contestants tend to conflate love and happiness to the point that they imply one cannot exist without the other. This is the show’s dogma, which reveals an agenda it would like you to think it doesn’t have—it assumes that everyone wants and needs a monogamous relationship, that all audience members will empathize with contestants who will degrade themselves in front of America for the chance at “true love” and are literally reduced to tears talking about how badly they want to find someone to have children with.  

By being squeaky clean to the point of near featurelessness, The Bachelorette has a broad appeal—12 million viewers, at its peak—and the yogurt and soap and clothing companies that advertise on it are confident their vaguely feminist marketing campaigns will mesh perfectly with the show’s themes. Learn to love yourself by abetting the capitalists. The insipidness of the show’s contestants—specifically the bachelorette herself, who always seems like she was developed in a lab to be slightly above average in every way—allows mom and daughter to imagine themselves in Desiree or Ashley or Emily’s gaudy stilettos. The protagonist of The Bachelorette isn’t any of the people you see on the screen, but you and your desire. Or, put another way: you and your insecurities.

The problem with this desire-hawking is that the desire has no real object. The love The Bachelorette constantly references isn’t recognizable because it’s love as panacea—the idea is that love itself, not the thing you love, not the goodness love inspires in you, will set you free and save you from your shit job and shit relationships. The Bachelorette is every bit as much of a freak show as whatever airs on A&E’s Friday Night Personality Disorders lineup, but it flips the relationship between you and the people living in your TV: you’re the freak and the desperate idiots trying to find an impossible thing on a Disneyfied speed date are the normal ones.

This perhaps explains why contestants—who apparently buy into this bullshit just as much as anyone—sometimes have meltdowns as they leave the show. On last season’s Bachelor, Sarah Herron got sent home by Adonis-statue-made-out-of-corn Sean Lowe and looked like her face might cave in on itself as she sobbed, “This always happens to me. I wanted to stop him before he started because I knew what he was going to say... ‘You’re an amazing girl. I know how special you are. I want to connect with you so bad, but I don’t.’” The acid in her tone betrays that she can’t possibly be this devastated about getting dumped by Lowe, who she knew for all of six weeks while competing with 19 other women for his attention. Her experience on The Bachelor is emblematic of her experience with men in general. Yet she keeps striking out, perhaps quixotically, in pursuit of someone who will love her, because that’s just a thing you do, even if it’s hurts. If you can’t identify with that, what the hell is wrong with you?

One uninsiduous-seeming way to make someone feel self-conscious about something they do or the way they live is to imply that it’s abnormal. When I started living with my girlfriend, we observed each other during those mundane around-the-apartment moments you spend alone when you’re single—brushing your teeth, scrambling an egg, sweeping up the living room—and I realized we perform some of these tasks differently. A brief but noticeable pang of concern shoots through you when you think, Wait, does everyone else shampoo their hair first, then scrub their body with soap? Do I bathe in the wrong order? Hopefully you realize you’re being ridiculous. But it’s a powerful feeling, to worry for a moment that your normal might be weird.

If you’re single or even just not particularly infatuated with the idea of being madly in love, The Bachelorette would like you to know that your normal is weird. It does this by aggressively asserting that it’s an extraordinary show about normative desires—check out how many times the phrase fairy tale comes up. The couple formed at the end of the show is living the dream and you, well, you’re just sitting on that couch, tragically untouched by a great, life-defining love.  

The Bachelorette is just one of the many television shows, movies, and books that comprise the entertainment arm of the monogamy-industrial complex. It's essentially just one long prelude to a Match.com ad where a couple talk about how they found that special someone while trying to suppress glee-giggles the entire goddamn time. Once you buy the idea of monogamous love as a thing worth worshipping, they attempt to sell you dating services, the right kind of razor, diamonds and jewelry to “symbolize your love”... Eventually, you have photogenic older couples winking at you in ads for dick-hardening pills, because what’s ideal romantic love without ideal romantic fucking at 70 years old?  

Nearly every Bachelor and Bachelorette ends with a breakup on the front page of People some six months after the show ends, and everyone knows that, but for a moment, when two attractive people are falling in love—and talking, endlessly, about how they are falling in love, and they’re nuzzled against one another on a candlelit Tahitian beach—the love that The Bachelorette and dating sites and romantic comedies and makeup companies are telling you exists seems like it might not exactly be a lie. It seems nice. That’s how they get you.

@cs_mcgowan

More on reality TV:

Alexis Neiers’s Pretty Wild Road to Recovery

South Boston Is too Ugly for Reality TV

Amy’s Baking Company’s Grand Reopening Nearly Bored Me to Death

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