‘The Bachelor’ Hinges On One Ugly Stereotype, Even 20 Seasons Later

‘The Bachelor’ Hinges On One Ugly Stereotype, Even 20 Seasons Later

Top: Bachelor casts from Seasons 1, 6 and 11; Bottom: Bachelorette casts from Seasons 1 and 4 / image credit: ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’

Turn on ABC’s mega-hits “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” and you literally could be in any year since its premiere in 2002.

Sometimes the suitor is a man. Sometimes she’s a woman. The women wear sparkly low-cut dresses and the men avail themselves of buckets of hair gel. There are roses, sexcapades (er, I mean Fantasy Suites), and at the end: a ring.

This has been the same for 14 years, over 300 episodes, and 20 seasons of “the most dramatic season yet” (Chris Harrison’s words, not mine).

The Bachelor’s steadfast adherence to this model has made it an outlier in long-running reality TV shows. “American Idol” (15 seasons) changed its judging lineup and introduced mentors in an obvious play to emulate “The Voice.” “America’s Next Top Model” (22 seasons) started cultivating glamazons, but later included contestants who were male, disabled, plus-size and transgender. “Survivor” (32 seasons) has played with its format, dividing tribes by age, gender and even race.

Bachelors and Bachelorettes crying. Clockwise from top left: Desiree Hartsock, JoJo Fletcher, Ben Higgins, Jason Mesnick / image credit: ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’

Unless you count canceling cocktail parties or eliminating contestants outside the rose ceremony as innovation, “The Bachelor” has remained stuck in the same mold as its first episode. The most glaring example is its choice of Bachelor and Bachelorette: white, white, white.

Contestants are also overwhelmingly monotone. Jubilee Sharpe, a black Haitian-born contestant, repeatedly said she felt out of place—and with good reason. Contestants were not-so-subtly questioning her suitability with the white Bachelor saying, “Ben wants a wife that can be friends with all the other soccer moms.”

And yet, the network and producers might ask, why change? “The Bachelor” receives the most social media buzz of any network show. Extra Bachelor content is in abundance: “Women Tell All,” “Men Women Tell All,” “After The Final Rose,” “Bachelor Live,” and even in the off-season, two nights a week “Bachelor in Paradise.”

The show has barely evolved and has major diversity issues, yet we still watch it. Here are some theories why.

America loves a love story (and a train wreck).

The Bachelor mansion, where fairy tales and unlimited white wine come true / image credit: ‘The Bachelor’

Literary convention says that comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with a funeral. With “The Bachelor,” we have a melding of the two: a fairy tale- meets a whole lotta train wrecks. For this reason, you can watch the show on two different frequencies. You can fall into the romance, the glamour, the professions of love, and once that starts to feel a bit icky, you can switch to watching the show ironically. You are at once cheering for happiness and destruction, all in one neat hour.

Other shows have moved on.

Competition breeds innovation. But where are the shows similar to “The Bachelor?” “American Idol” was followed by “The Voice,” “The X-Factor” and “America’s Got Talent,” forcing it to evolve and eventually end. “The Bachelor” has no real equivalents, meaning it can survive without having to adapt. For other shows, it’s survival of the fittest. But “The Bachelor” is like the kiwi, a strange silly creature that can only exist on its isolated island.

The show hasn’t evolved. We have.

Perhaps the biggest change in “The Bachelor” hasn’t occurred on-screen, but on the other side: us, in our living rooms, in viewing parties, tuned into Twitter and #BachelorNation, seeing what our favorite celebs and parody accounts and former contestants have to say about the episode in real-time.

Social media has made “The Bachelor” omnipresent. I follow multiple former contestants and Bachelor/ettes on Instagram and was overjoyed when I saw my wedding makeup artist did the makeup for Olivia Caridi of Ben Higgins’ season. Why???

Because #BachelorNation is oftentimes very smart and very funny—perhaps more than the show deserves. “The Bachelor” is bursting with potential memes and think pieces and spoiler “don’t-wanna-look-but-will-most-def-look” moments. Men watch it. Feminists watch it. Celebrities watch it. We’re all addicted and the internet allows us to enable each other.

… And they lived happily ever after.

So maybe we shouldn’t be comparing “The Bachelor” to other reality TV shows. Maybe it has more in common with “Game of Thrones,” a complex universe of shifting alliances, elaborate costumes, gratuitous skin, and fiery characters of dubious intentions. In any case, I and millions more will still be watching.