On Jan. 2, the 21st season of The Bachelor premiered on ABC. It’s easy to dismiss The Bachelor as merely trashy reality television, and for sure, there’s a valid criticism to be made about yet another show that reinforces primarily white, heteronormative standards of beauty and relationships. I’m not here to argue against those criticisms. What I will argue is that The Bachelor is a complex social experiment, with many elements of an intricate game that explain why the show has had a largely unchanged formula for 21 seasons while maintaining such a captivated audience.
By combining aspects of a competitive game show with the allure of reality television drama and high stake consequences, The Bachelor creates an atmosphere that is highly sensitive to a wide range of contestant strategies and reactions that other shows lack.
The first element of The Bachelor is the titular bachelor’s position of power among the contestants. Unlike a more traditional dating situation where a certain level of equality is assumed between two dating partners, from day one the bachelor is the show’s object of reverence. By both determining who will attend group and individual dates and allocating roses to decide which contestants will continue on to another week at the conclusion of each episode, the bachelor is unarguably the most powerful player in the game. To be fair, producers probably have some influence on these decisions, but for the sake of argument, the contestants’ perception is probably as strong as the reality. Undoubtedly, the high pressures this dynamic brings – along with an unlimited supply of alcohol – does not bring out the best in some contestants, like Season 19’s Kelsey Poe, who followed up a panic attack by telling a paramedic she was definitely going to get a rose.
The most powerful currency in The Bachelor universe is time. Throughout the season, the bachelor receives little exposure to the women, who vie for coveted “one on one” time during group dates and cocktail parties. With such little face time, the show’s formula does not give contestants enough time to humanize the bachelor – flaws and all – until fewer contestants are left on the show, only contributing to his exalted place on a pedestal. Cut to the inevitable quotes of women claiming they have fallen in love with the bachelor within the first week, or night, of the show.
When fighting for time, contestants must weigh the costs and benefits of interrupting another person’s conversation, which could be perceived as aggressive and off-putting, or risk not receiving enough time with the bachelor. Every season has a Corinne, who’s already positioned to be Season 21’s aggressive candidate as being just a little too ruthless for Nick Viall’s precious time. These are not simple decisions; on the bachelor, many different personalities react to the situation in complex ways.
Here’s where the genius of The Bachelor resides: sure, many contestants are going to choose a safer route where they take fewer risks to remain in the other contestant’s good graces, who they also have to live with every day. Many, however, are unconcerned with befriending other contestants in the house, sometimes even outright fighting them (See: Chad, The Bachelorette, Season 12). Almost every season of The Bachelor includes at least one or two contestants who are portrayed as “villains,” often for breaking social rules deemed inappropriate in the real world, but then again – The Bachelor isn’t.
In this social experiment, there are certain strategies that the contestants use to advance to the next week. While the rhetoric of being on the show “for the right reasons” is repeated ad nauseam, the reality is that the majority of the contestants will leave the show without an engagement and a large bump in their number of Instagram followers and attention after the show airs. Out of the 20 complete seasons of The Bachelor, only one couple is married and one couple is still together. Interestingly, The Bachelorette’s stats are much better than The Bachelor’s – out of a 12 completed seasons, 5 couples are still together. (Source: Wikipedia, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette).
So while some people may be truly genuine in their intentions, it’s never explicitly clear to viewers. However, “opening up” and being more emotionally vulnerable, usually by revealing a personal or tragic story at the appropriate time during the show, has shown time and time again to be advantageous for contestants. Reaching this point too late, however, does not pay off on the rapid timeline of The Bachelor.
Furthermore, the contestants on the show are isolated from the real world; although the specific rules aren’t outlined in the episodes, it’s assumed that contestants don’t have phones or Internet access and cannot reach friends or family easily. They don’t have any distractions, thus forcing them to fixate on the situation at hand.
One of the great paradoxes of the show is that it’s an unrealistic environment with real life consequences (Re: marriage). By sending the bachelor on extravagant, luxurious dates, the show doesn’t exactly pretend to be reminiscent of any real life scenario, which should probably seem weirder than it does for a show that’s trying to produce a relationship that can succeed outside of the confines of the show. What it ultimately creates, however, is a kind of isolated environment reliant on individual personalities and the ability to find some normalcy in an abnormal situation.