Saturday, July 30, 2016

What "The Bachelor" Tells Us About Ourselves

I admit it. I watch The Bachelor (and The Bachelorette). While I’m not a reality TV connoisseur, I’m also not completely down on the concept. For those too young to remember, “Reality TV” was a product of writer’s strikes in the entertainment industry. Part of what arose out of the lack of writers was the concept of pervasive “Reality TV”--shows requiring limited scripting. So, yes, not the most honorable past--inspired by a lack of talent. But that does not mean that it must be utterly without merit.

Having studied Pop Culture and communication, I see value in this program when it comes to speaking to us and about us with regard to our popular beliefs and understanding of relationships versus the reality of human nature. I had a brief exchange with a friend who is an activist in the poly community, who supported my views on a thread about the program and the value I believe it has in the potential to add to the current cultural dialog that is trending toward a break from traditional conservative Christian models of purely monogamous, life-time, intimate/romantic relationships.

This is not a defense of the program as great art. It’s not a promotion of the show generally or a call for everyone (or anyone, for that matter) to watch it. I know people who loathe it, for reasons of their own, and that’s not surprising, as we all subscribe to our own sense of aesthetics. But does it speak to us, and about us? It does.

The premise of the program is one cishet person is put together with a few dozen cishet people of the opposite sex. There are a series of dating strategies used on the program that put these people into different situations at different times. And the goal is to be the last man or woman standing at the end, if you began the program as one of the group. It's not uncommon for the end of the show to result in a proposal, and some couples have actually married, or gone on to have tabloid relationships that ended more or less well. But despite the fact some of the program is surely staged and scripted, the people are real and the feelings are real.

Some people have told me they don't care for the program because it's too distant from real life. Oddly, the reason I like the show is because of its similarities to real life. The staging is not what most people are going to encounter in a dating reality and represents extravagant settings and opportunities that most people may experience once in a lifetime. The shows groups, however, are put into these dream date or wacky date scenarios non-stop, which heightens their emotions and leads to jealousy, drama, and fast feelings of affection for people you're sharing "once in a life-time experiences" with repeatedly within a very short time span.

So, the setting of the program creates competition and emotional experiences in a very brief span of time. This, combined with the one to 20-something ratio of the dating pool, is what makes most folks denounce the program as too unrealistic. But to me, it's simply taking what happens to a great many people in real life, and turning up the heat--making a pressure cooker situation in order to speed things up for everyone. When I watch the show, I see people behaving very much like people I have met and observed in my own life with regard to intimate/romantic relationships:

  1. Jealousy? Check.
  2. Competition? Check.
  3. Distrust? Check.
  4. Building trust? Check.
  5. Handful of dramatic personalities? Check.
  6. Insecurities? Check. Check. CHECK!
Yes, the way the situation is squeezed brings out these issues quickly and intensely, but they aren't actually reactions that are extraordinary when it comes to human romantic or sexual relationships.

In the end the thing that strikes me most is how surprised the bachelors/bachelorettes are toward the end of the program when they express confusion and distress about the fact they have feelings for more than one contestant--sometimes two or three--with whom they can envision a clear future. The surprise they express seems to bring to light their expectation of the experience versus the reality. They appear to expect that during this process one clear contender will easily emerge and this will be "The One" with whom they will spend the rest of their lives. They seem to believe this will be the case for them, despite having seen every other bachelor and bachelorette experience the disillusionment of this same expectation on nearly every episode to date. When they are confronted with a reality that demonstrates they are, in fact, capable of loving more than one person at one time in highly passionate ways, they simply are not equipped to deal with this fact, and it results in confusion.

This confusion is compounded by the anxiety they experience in a situation where they know the clock is ticking and they are required to choose one or none of the contestants by the end of the show. To me, this is simply a short form of the normal social experience, but with more abundant competition and a lot less time. We are taught and expected to love one person at a time, and to ultimately seek out the one person with whom we will spend the rest of our lives. And we place a great deal of pressure upon ourselves, combined with pressure from families, friends, and society generally, to make sure this outcome occurs.

In some surveys, three-fourths of men and nearly as many women say they would have lovers in addition to their spouses if they could. Bear in mind that when self-reporting negatively viewed behaviors, some folks lie to save face even when they are reporting anonymously. But even accepting this figure at face value, it speaks to a similar divide in society that we see on The Bachelor: People expect monogamous unions, but experience something very different as human beings.

Imagine that we surveyed the Bachelors and Bachelorettes before they began the show. I would expect unanimous agreement that they view themselves as monogamous people, based on what they express at the outset and throughout the season until the final few episodes, when their experience diverges. By the end of the program we have clear expressions of their capacity for nonmonogamy. And as most of the main contestants are unsuccessful suitors from past seasons, we see again and again, as well, that they are baffled at the idea the person they were previously vying for could possibly have expressed love or strong feelings for them, but ultimately selected another contestant. That is, the same people who say on the prior seasons they don't understand how they could have honestly been loved since the Bachelor/Bachelorette selected another contestant, will then go on to find themselves in the same predicament the next season after they are selected as the Bachelor/Bachelorette. Not only can they not imagine loving more than one person, they can't understand how anyone else could possibly do so. Then they find, when it's their turn, and they're near the end of the season, they are deeply in love with multiple people.

It makes me wonder how many people self-report or identify as "monogamous," who, in fact are capable of loving multiple people at once, but who have simply never been in a situation to discover this, because society places glass restrictions on such goals or behaviors, marginalizing people who fail to subscribe to the one-size-fits-all model of a life-time monogamous goal. In other words: How many nonmonogamous people are running around in society thinking there is no way they could possibly be nonmonogamous? I only wish there were a way everyone could be put through The Bachelor/Bachelorette experience in order to honestly find out. But we can see from the impact on the players that self-reporting in this area isn't trustworthy.

The show also raises the question of jealousy as a byproduct of competition. That is, people on the show experience jealousy when they consider or see the main player with other contenders. But how would this change if we lived in a society where the object of our affection didn't have to choose between us and someone else? What if we, as a society, actually came to grips with the fact that more of us than we're comfortable believing, honestly can love more than one person, and we did not feel threat of loss at the idea of our partners having intimate, romantic relationships with other people? What role would jealousy then serve, once we stopped viewing human beings as property with an owner, rather than a human being who can have more than one relationship at a time?

I once suggested to someone that I don't get jealous when my friends spend time with other friends. I don't think it means they prefer them to me. I don't think it means our friendship is in jeopardy. And I don't become insecure. I don't think the fact they enjoy the company of others indicates any sort of diminished enjoyment of my company. Somehow, as a society, we accept this with our friends (and would raise an eyebrow if someone were jealous in this situation), but not our lovers. I'd suggest this may be a matter of simply not having awareness or opportunity to experience our own capacity to actually love multiple people at once. And I'd love to be able to test this idea.


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