$71.That’s the average cost of a spray tan in Hollywood, California. Once we add teeth whitening, Botox, swimwear, extravagant dresses, and copious amounts of alcohol, we have to admit that at its worst, each season of The Bachelor does provide a strong economic stimulus for Agoura Hills, where the Bachelor mansion is located.
Some would say that this surge of resources is one of only a few benefits of the longstanding show, now on its twentieth season with software salesman Ben Higgins. Countless criticisms of the series exist, especially in Christian circles, and the Tuesday morning recaps at work are usually done in hushed tones as women, specifically working professionals, seem more hesitant than ever to admit their love of the show.Perhaps, as long as we’re able to understand that reality TV very rarely depicts actual reality and that the glory of the finale is best seen as a parallel to the glory to come, it’s not such a bad way to spend a Monday night.
Yet people keep watching. The Bachelor and its two spin-off series consistently rank as ABC’s highest shows. And that’s what most women I know say—sure, we watch it even though we know it’s awful. We talk about in the same way we’d gush about the two slices of cheesecake we ate at that wedding. It’s a Monday night indulgence, a guilty pleasure.
But does it have to be?
Redeeming the Seemingly Irredeemable
As a lifelong single girl and longtime viewer of the show, I remember even as an undergrad student rushing through my small group so I could get back in time to watch. But I appreciate all kinds of things that seem a tick or two outside of acceptable—I’ve got a longstanding love affair with Twilight, Save the Last Dance, and inflatable Christmas decorations for your lawn. Typically I’ve just grouped my love of The Bachelor in with all of my other kitschy vices, but after reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” I realized there might be more redemption to The Bachelor than just an economic hot spring for Hollywood Hills.
Tolkien delivered his lecture “On Fairy Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939. It later appeared in a compilation of essays in 1947. What Tolkien attempts in “On Fairy Stories” was unprecedented—he explains (and defends) the genre of fairy tales, and in doing so he sets a standard of criteria we can use to examine The Bachelor for more than its ratings or revenue.
A primary defense of fairy tales, and accordingly The Bachelor, comes in their position against reality. As Tolkien says, the purpose of a fairy tale is to believably present reality—to a certain extent. By their very nature, he argues, fairy tales must be a depiction of reality: “It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story. . . that it should be presented as ‘true.’. . . [I]t cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion.”
This process of allowing, or rather forcing, readers and viewers alike to view a product as a depiction of reality without it actually being reality is what Tolkien terms Secondary Belief, and it’s a cornerstone of what constitutes art: “Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief.”
Where is this Secondary Belief more evident than in The Bachelor? Though bitter exposés and dramatized retellings like Lifetime’s UnReal attempt to shatter the illusion of reality, week to week the series is able to retain the ruse, using it, exploiting it, and ultimately spinning it into the successful franchise we know today. We don’t see the producer’s leading questions, but we resonate with the girls’ weepy responses. We aren’t privy to the glut of scenes left on the cutting room floor, but the final product is one that is realistic enough if we close our eyes and indulge our romantic sensibilities just for a moment.
Should the whole thing be completely unbelievable, it would fail to serve its own purposes. As Tolkien writes: “The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” So the spell must be spun—by whatever means necessary.
But despite this defense, many find the series ridiculous—sitting contrary to reason and rationale and therefore serving little purpose. But Tolkien argues this indulging of the ridiculous is a necessary part of fantasy as well, serving as a knife sharpening reason: “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.” This Bachelor world which carefully weaves together the dramatic, the romantic, and the ridiculous does not delude the masses—it educates them, balances them, and ultimately transports them through the means of Secondary Belief.
Many demean The Bachelor, calling it vapid and vacuous at worst and escapism at best, but what’s so wrong with escapism? Is a show that allows us to forget ourselves and transports us to a world of Jamaican resorts, chartered helicopters, and personal concerts so destructive? Tolkien writes, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” So are we limiting—imprisoning—ourselves because we feel shamed into doing little more than making observations about the crumbling walls around us?
The Inevitable, Questionable Future
And perhaps what I love most about The Bachelor (and what many criticize most) are the fairy-tale endings that seem to come about only after many tears, tantrums, and hot tubs. Of course critics noted this “fault” in fairy tales as well, and Tolkien was not without response:
“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
I’ve never read a more fitting description for a finale of The Bachelor. After watching the unpredictable unfold episode after episode, finally, a proposal given in the midst of sweaty palms and, yes, a few tears (the sweat and tears are mine, but I assume the participants have them as well). “The most dramatic season finale ever,” indeed. And I love every minute.
But these fairy-tale endings should not receive our censure, for they offer us just a hint of something more, some substantive effect that redeems the rest: “In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. . . . [This Joy] denies, (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat.”
So as commercials remind us that Ben could fall in love only to be rejected at the end of this season, and I hear my roommate scoff silently from the kitchen, I think back to the beauty of this climax, how it sits nestled between the possibility of catastrophe and the hope, but never surety, of joy: “[I]t is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to reoccur. It does not deny the existence of. . . sorrow and failure, the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.”
The Lure of Lifelikeness
My one primary point of criticism for The Bachelor does not come in their blatant objectification of people (an unfortunate cornerstone of the series), in their startling lack of diversity (an element that has bothered me for quite some time), or in their favoring of girls named Ashley (an impossible casting decision in its own right). Rather, my one hitch that may one day grow into a concern large enough to keep me from watching altogether—though I must admit this is not in the foreseeable future—is the genre.
For a fairy tale, The Bachelor is not that bad. It’s realistic, pulling in a viewer and, rather quickly, engaging with an audience through that Secondary Belief where sumo wrestling on group dates and horseback riding on the beach in a sequin skirt suddenly seem reasonable. They provide a place of escape, a juxtaposition to reason but not a deterrent. And they offer the glorious hope of a happy ending.
But they market all of this as reality TV—and while the very nature of a fairy tale demands that you believe in this world, never once do you actually believe that the world you’re reading is the world around you.
In “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C. S. Lewis enters into the defense of fairy tales, and he offers sobering advice for Bachelor fans: “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than fairy tales of raising false expectations.”
And this is the world in which the The Bachelor exists. If the show was primarily presented as a fairy tale, another Disney movie in PG-13 weekly installments, there would be no hesitation, but it’s precisely because the show insists that it is reality that discontent and denial lurk in the wings.
“The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic,” Lewis writes. “The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance.”
It appears that the creators of The Bachelor ripped their greatest hits right out of Mr. Lewis’s description here. Thousands of men and women apply every year to be on The Bachelor, to enter into this make believe world of champagne and chateaus, if only for a few weeks, and they apply believing, at least with a sliver of themselves, that they could be chosen, they could be the next Ashley, if only the producers would pick them.
But even worse than those crazies who apply for the show (I’m still waiting to hear back about next season—fingers crossed!) are single people who view it, even unknowingly, as a standard for their own relationships. While they may not hold out hope for diamonds and Corvettes on a first date, there’s something that they’re drawn to beneath that—it’s a kind of chemistry between people, an effortlessness in connection, a happy ending that required very little work to get there. And it’s all fantasy, every last bit. When I subconsciously bring that expectation of a pheromone-fueled first meeting into a date, I will be (and have been) let down.
Lewis contends that there are two kinds of longing: “The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.” The only inoculation? Forcibly reminding yourself of reality, and if that fails? Turn the dang thing off.
Enjoy the (Eu)Catastrophe
But there is redemption here. There is something in The Bachelor that resonates with the heart of every believer, and more likely every person.
Tolkien offers his final defense for fairy tales: “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . and among its marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”
The eucatastrophe, a term coined by Tolkien, is simply a sudden turn of events that shifts a story from impending doom to unspeakable joy. The unscripted happily-ever-after that actually occurred. The happily-ever-after that is true—unbound by the pages of fairy tales and children’s nurseries. We have a happily-ever-after scrawled throughout history, a happily-ever-after that changed the course of a depraved and broken world forever.
To be drawn to this “turn of events,” to seek fulfillment from replicating a small sense of this joy, is not foolish, and it’s not to be so easily dismissed. Now that we’re jaded and calloused to the disappointments of the world, now that doom often seems more impending than joy, should we dismiss the happily-ever-afters as juvenile, instead taking up our much more serious, respectable works that reinforce the inevitable destruction of the world?
Lewis offers a bit of hope for us all, readers and non-readers, Bachelor lovers and hater-watchers alike:
“They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?. . . I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed.”
As tempting as it is to dismiss The Bachelor as silly and demand that we cultivate more adult tastes and sensibilities, perhaps Lewis is right. Perhaps, as long as we’re able to understand that reality TV very rarely depicts actual reality and that the glory of the finale is best seen as a parallel to the glory to come, it’s not such a bad way to spend a Monday night.