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Can I Borrow Your Oxygen for a Sec?

The Bachelor as Cult

Photo: Unsplash

The man sits on a yacht in the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by three bikini-clad women who are vying for his attention. Pillows with green and blue diamond patterns line the back row of the boat where the man sits, watching the blonde woman strip for him. He holds a drink in his hands and wears short swimming trunks with flowers on them, a winking nod to femininity that serves to gently offset the uber masculinity of the rest of him. He is toned, tanned, muscular. The mic pack attached to the back of the stripping blonde woman’s hot pink bikini is the tell — this is not a normal luxury yacht, and these are not normal toned, tanned, attractive people.

The women are fishing, and this man is the catch.

“I am one lucky guy right now,” the man says, before proceeding to rub sunscreen on the back and thighs of the brunette. She sips her cocktail contentedly and the other two women watch with narrowed eyes while they rub sunscreen on their own backs and thighs.

Of course, there is more to this afternoon than alcohol, physical perfection, and luxury that oozes and bubbles like sunscreen squeezed from a tube. There are sharks lurking in the water beneath the yacht, and the three women and one man are going to swim with them. Not everyone on the yacht is thrilled to learn this.

“I know they can bite, and they can smell blood. We can die,” the brunette says to the camera, a slight smile belying her words. But she is not destined to die in the ocean somewhere off the Bimini islands, mere feet away from a luxury yacht. Not because of the camera crews, or the liability issues this would present for ABC, or the fact that these sharks can’t really be the bite-y kind, because of said liability issues. This woman has nothing to fear, because the man is there to protect her.

“You’ll be fine. I got you,” the man assures her. Apparently, he is a skilled shark wrangler, well-versed in the ancient art of wrestling writhing women out of the jaws of predators, hauling their bleeding bodies onto yachts, and performing emergency surgery, using the alcohol from his cocktail as an antiseptic. Or maybe not. But he’s got at least one thing going for him — he’s a man.

One of the other women claims she is ready to punch a shark in the face if it broaches her personal space. She, at least, is not looking to the man to save her.

“If the other two girls get eaten today,” she says, her long, dyed-black hair blowing in the ocean breeze, “I will definitely be in the running to get the rose.” This sounds harsh, but it’s also reminiscent of a sentiment that would surely resonate with our earlier, more primitive ancestors. Eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest. Get that rose.

The man and his three women step off the back of the yacht, decked out in snorkeling gear and fins, while Jaws-esque music reminds the viewer that this quartet might not make it out of the water alive. And suddenly, there it is — at least, according to the magic of editing. The shark looks large in comparison to the very small fish swimming above it, and while its teeth are not clearly visible, their existence and sharpness are implied. It’s unclear how close the shark gets to the snorkelers, but however close it gets is too close for the brunette, the one worried about the biting and blood. She hightails it back to the yacht. The man follows to comfort her, pulling her into a hug. You could almost say he had saved the day.

He is fishing, and all of the women are the catch.

I watched my second-ever episode of The Bachelor this spring. The first episode I watched, two years ago, was a matter of involuntary exposure — I was crashing on a friend’s couch. The reason I dove back into its fraught waters is some combination of long and uninteresting, but suffice it to say that I was looking for plans one Monday night when I was invited to watch The Bachelor with two friends, a semi-regular gathering of theirs to which I hadn’t previously been invited. I was grateful to be included and determined to be a good sport, while still poking fun at the central conceit of the show, its overall corniness, the behavior it elicits, and the gender stereotypes it reinforces (I know, I can’t figure out why I wasn’t invited earlier, either).

A brief summary of the show, for the uninitiated: a season of The Bachelor begins with roughly thirty women and one man. Over the course of the season, which is filmed in its entirety before it premieres on television, the man meets and greets these women, who have all agreed to temporarily reside in the same estrogen-drenched mansion. Over the course of the next few weeks, this man indicates his willingness to bed/marry/procreate with each woman by handing out long-stemmed roses. Roses are gifted to date “winners” or during the dreaded elimination ceremony, and they have roughly the same importance as life rafts on the Titanic.

The women are often very dressed up, cruising around in limos, and drinking alcohol — all the better to flirt and fall in love (or to make fools of themselves). When there are three contestants remaining, the man spends a camera-free night with each of them in the “fantasy suite.” We aren’t meant to assume he sleeps with any or all of them — his nights in the fantasy suite could consist of nothing more than a joint Lord of the Rings bingeing, maybe even a dip into the dystopian with The Hunger Games — but sex is implied. At the end of a season, the bachelor often, but not always, proposes to the contestant who has killed all the other children (sorry, wrong franchise). The contestant who has won his heart.

What struck me most about the episode I watched with my friends, and subsequent episodes, were the ways in which Nick Viall manipulates the female contestants. Nick is this past season’s bachelor, and a four-time star of the franchise (twice the runner-up on The Bachelorette and once the heartbreaker on Bachelor in Paradise). Nick is both receptive and solicitous of the attention heaped upon him. For the most part, he accepts the physical advances of the women without resistance or complaints and often initiates his own public displays of affection. He not only accepts, but actively seeks, declarations of love from multiple women, while perpetually hedging when it comes to his own feelings. He can’t choose a woman before the finale, but he does his darndest to tell each of them what she wants to hear — that she has a shot at his heart, that she may make it out of this whole thing with the One Ring (sorry, wrong franchise again).

Nick is the sun around which the women revolve, the clock by which they measure their days, their sole purpose in life. This is true in a pretty literal sense while the show is being filmed, given that these women are cut off from the outside world, prevented from bringing their phones to the mansion or communicating with friends and family. Even when they are not actively rooting for other contestants to be eaten by sharks, they are constantly declaring how much this competition means to them, how much he means to them. They declare this to Nick, to one another, to the camera. They declare this while crying and scheming and sipping cocktails and flashing “come hither” eyes and taking their tops off and downing wine. Even the more reserved and composed contestants often find themselves reduced to tears at the prospect of winning Nick’s love, and at the nightmarish possibility of not being chosen.

Recently, a professor and I were discussing the reasons people join communes and cults. The conversation veered into the rarity of female cult leaders. “Women will follow men,” my professor said. “And men will follow men. But you won’t find men following women like that.”

Women make up a greater percentage of cult followers globally than men do — up to 70 percent, according to one estimate. Conditioned to follow, not to lead: this is hardly a new story, whether we’re talking about reality television or religious cults. But I’m convinced that there must be some examples of men offering up their life savings and past ideologies and even their bodies at the altar of a female cult leader.

A 2016 piece in The Guardian introduces me to Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a cult leader whose “ultimate tool of enslavement” was love. Hamilton-Byrne led a cult called The Family outside Melbourne, Australia in the 1970s. She collected children through false adoptions and other means, and then dressed them identically, dyed their hair blond, and emotionally manipulated them through starvation, beatings, and emotional abuse.

Before she founded The Family, Hamilton-Byrne was a young widow whose yoga practice attracted devoted followers, including unhappily married women and gay men. The turning point for Hamilton-Byrne was recruiting a physicist, Dr. Raynor Johnson, who believed she was the new Messiah. “The intellectual respectability Johnson brought to the mission enabled him and his high priestess to recruit many more wealthy, new age-seeking professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, nurses and social workers,” writes Abigail Haworth in The Guardian. As a straight, married man, Johnson legitimized Hamilton-Byrne, paving the way for other men to follow in his footsteps.

In the article, Haworth notes the relative rarity of female cult leaders, acknowledging that among those that do exist, “none rival the destructive notoriety” of their more infamous male counterparts. Another female cult leader Haworth mentions is Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Foursquare religion in LA in the 1920s. McPherson, a dedicated cultivator of celebrity during her lifetime, possesses an extensive and impressive Wikipedia page, which notably does not use the word “cult” (at least as of the writing of this piece) except in the title of a linked source.

The author or authors of the page are aggressively defensive of and sympathetic toward the twice-divorced McPherson, noting: “Numerous allegations of illicit love affairs were often directed against McPherson. Suspected lovers generally denied involvement. For example, Kenneth Ormiston, a married man with a small son, could have profited immensely from an exposé about himself and McPherson.” This rose-tinted digital biography does its best to emphasize that McPherson’s virtue remained intact, while also reminding us that one person’s cult leader is another person’s paragon of moral virtue. Which isn’t surprising when you think about it — after all, isn’t this how every devotee is meant to see the cult leader?

At one point, one of the women from the boat, the one who was ready and eager to punch sharks, tells the camera: “I’m trying to stay focused on my time with Nick because that’s literally all we have.” What I think she means is that time with Nick is all the contestants have in order to win, to edge out the other competitive, beautiful women, and convince Nick of their soul-matedness. But the phrasing also suggests a dependence that is emblematic of the show, an almost parasitic relationship that Nick encourages. Nick stuffs these women full of flattery and empty promises until it’s trash day — time to choose someone to roll to the curb.

“This is more than I could have ever asked for,” the blonde from the yacht declares at one point. If she means this, and it’s not hyperbole for the camera’s sake, her expectations of men must be subterranean, for her to be swept off her feet by a man with six other girlfriends. Of course, she’s also talking about the show itself: the fame, the glamour, the wealth porn, the romance porn, all the porns of escapism and aspirational television (except for porn porn).

When Nick (supposedly) considers leaving the show because he feels crushed by the weight of the hearts he’s breaking (oh sure, I’m thinking. What about his contract? Not to mention the fact that this man LOVES reality TV — his stint on Dancing with the Stars, which also airs on ABC, began a week after he finished his fourth go-round with The Bachelor franchise), the women are in utter agony. When he shows up at their house, in tears, to tell them he has decided to remain on the show (and this man is ALWAYS crying, I could water my plants with Nick Viall’s tears) he says to them: “It’s you women that I’m excited about. I see what I want in this room.”

Cue the lit-up eyes, sighs of relief. “I’m so relieved,” says one woman. “I can breathe,” says another.

The Girls, Emma Cline’s recent debut novel, explores the pull of a male cult leader and the young women who orbit around him. It’s a lightly fictionalized tale of the Manson family, with the lens focused not on the cult leader, but on the girls he sleeps with and controls. Evie, the novel’s protagonist, is unique in that she is less absorbed by Russell as she is by Susanna, one of his followers. This leaves Evie unencumbered, if not objective, enough to comment on the behavior she observes, the way these young runaways on the dilapidated ranch devote themselves to and measure themselves against Russell. One of the girls goes so far as to compare Russell to the sun while describing him to Evie: “It’s like a natural high, being around him. Like the sun or something. That big and right.”

The parallels between Russell (or insert-cult-leader here) and Nick (or insert-Bachelor-here) are evident, if not comprehensive. No, the women on The Bachelor are not underage, and no, he is not inciting them to murder (I will operate under the assumption that we are not meant to take the shark food comment literally), nor is he urging them to steal money for his personal gain (though come to think of it, he does accept many lavish gifts from an ultra-wealthy contestant). And yet.

Russell uses the girls to whet his sexual appetite, flattering them and stringing them along so that each one feels special. They are convinced that he is embodying a purer, freer way of life, fueled by drugs, and that his supreme talent as a musician is about to catapult him into celebrity. They, too, want celebrity, and all its empty promises. They want to belong. They want to settle into a type of domesticity with Russell, however unconventional.

In order to remain in Russell’s orbit — or more accurately, to remain in Susanna’s orbit — Evie starts stealing money to give to the cult, both from her mother and from a neighboring boy two years younger than her fourteen. In the process, she learns how far her body and sexuality can take her: “You could be pretty, you could be wanted, and that could make you valuable. I appreciated the tidy commerce.” Isn’t this the lesson, or one of the lessons, of The Bachelor? Beauty is money; desire is valuable. If you can market your desirability to a reality TV franchise, you might be able to achieve everything you desire: belonging. Celebrity. Domesticity. And belonging is a powerful drug. It was the desire to belong that drove me to watch The Bachelor, a show I never would have watched of my own accord.

Years after her experience on the ranch, after the murders which she was very nearly privy to made headlines, Evie watches a young, lovesick teenage girl calibrate her movements according to those of her callous boyfriend. The girl, Sasha, wilts when he leaves, and is rejuvenated when he returns. He is her oxygen.

Poor Sasha,” an adult Evie thinks. “Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get.”

In the “After the Final Rose” special for this season of The Bachelor, the show’s host, Chris Harrison, had a surprise for Rachel: a fan favorite from Nick’s season and next season’s Bachelorette (she’s also the first non-white Bachelorette in the show’s 14 years). In a “Bachelor first,” he tells her, she’ll meet a handful of her suitors before the season begins — in fact, she’ll meet them right now, on live television. One by one, the male contestants are trotted out for her/our approval, Chris reminding her approximately 483 times that she might have just met her husband. (Harrison neglects to mention that only seven of the 32 couples spawned from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are still together, and most are from the more recent seasons).

Harrison kept saying this word — husband, husband, husband — because he assumed this was the primary goal of the attorney who stood before him: domesticity. Settling down with a husband, maybe a few kids, all the while performing this demonstration of domestic bliss for the adoring fans following along on Instagram. Contestants on The Bachelor are often young women in their early or mid-twenties, many of whom seem to feel that their window of time to commit to one person for the rest of their lives is running out. I watched more than one such woman worry, upon getting sent home, that she would never find lasting love. Clearly she hadn’t learned the lesson the show was imparting — if at first you don’t succeed, might as well show up for three more seasons.

If domesticity is a central tenant of The Bachelor franchise, the lure of celebrity, with its attendant promises of exposure and money, offers clearer insight into why contestants join the show. After all, what is The Bachelor without the cameras? A pretty crappy dating service. Even competing is expensive — as with much else in America, you need to spend money to make money: After speaking to a number of contestants, E! Online estimated that women spend somewhere in the range of $1,800 to $8,000 on primping and attire before the cameras start rolling. Male contestants get off a little easier: E! estimated that they spend between $300 and $5,300.

The fact that The Bachelor operates within antiquated notions of romance and love — especially given its exclusion of any sexuality but cis heterosexuality, and its able-bodied and predominantly white contestants — is not new information. Viewership is largely female (74 percent, according to a New York Times piece from 2013), wealthy (in homes making more than $100,000, the show scores 34 percent higher than the TV average) and white (according to Nielsen, between seven and nine percent of the viewers of the two shows are black). But I’m willing to bet that even within these confines of traditionalism — or perhaps because of them — the popularity of The Bachelor outstrips that of The Bachelorette.

The Daily Beast is ready and willing to confirm my hypothesis. “People Prefer ‘The Bachelor’ to ‘The Bachelorette.’ Why? It’s Science,” declares an article from 2014, which, of course, opens with an anecdote about the king of leaky tear ducts, Nick Viall, then a lowly contestant. The article’s author, Brandy Zadrozny, refers to The Bachelorette as “so dull” in comparison to The Bachelor, before blaming sexism for the public’s initial reluctance to embrace a female-centric version of the hit reality show. While The Bachelor held on to fairly steady viewership from its inception in 2002 until 2014, according to Zadrozny, more than half of The Bachelorette’s initial 16 million viewers had jumped ship by 2014. Interestingly, The Bachelorette also went off the air for more than three years, from March 2005 to May 2008. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a Bachelor-free year in America since 2002.

Zadrozny, casting about for science to explain The Bachelorette’s drop in viewership, turns to research about the differences between how men and women compete. In the book Warriors and Worriers, psychologist Joyce Benenson argues that female aggression in competition manifests itself in subtler, more complicated ways than male aggression. Rather than yelling and beating their chests, women use social exclusion to take other women down — which, according to Zadrozny, simply makes for better television. By this logic, the primary reason viewers watch The Bachelor is to see women backhand compliment and side-eye their way to the top.

I’m not convinced that this fully explains the disparity in popularity. As strange and contrived as The Bachelor is, watching women orbit around men is not a new phenomenon, thanks to some combination of evolutionary biology and societal conditioning. It’s more unexpected and more uncomfortable to see a woman manipulating a flock of men, coaxing declarations of devotion from them.

Digging deeper into the ratings reveals a more complicated story. The Bachelor’s 2002 premiere, according to the website Spotted Ratings, received 9.9 million viewers, a viewership which doubled for the season one finale. The series premiere of The Bachelorette, with its 16 million viewers, clearly benefited from the name recognition of the franchise. Yet neither show was destined to maintain these levels of viewership. The audience of both shows has been declining in recent years, though The Bachelor maintains a slight edge: this past season averaged 7.2 million viewers an episode, whereas the most recent season of The Bachelorette averaged 6.8 million.

What to make of this? Perhaps American politics have become enough of a reality show for some long-time viewers. Or maybe the shows, like so many before them, have jumped the proverbial shark. Or maybe the number of both casual and ironic viewers has tapered off over the years, until only the most devoted fans remain. The show rewards perseverance and resilience among its contestants, and it asks the same of its viewers, even after giving both plenty of reasons to walk away.

At one point in The Girls, Evie reflects upon her experiences as a preteen trying to learn performative femininity from magazines: “All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.”

If life is a waiting room, the mansion on The Bachelor is even more so. Women are kept captive, albeit voluntarily, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be handed a rose. It’s not far removed from the princess fantasies inculcated in girls as they grow up. If we are valuable enough, we will be noticed, and saved. Put a bunch of wannabe princesses in a room, and you have a recipe for reality TV success. The Bachelor is a competition for attention, a game of who can be noticed best and most, who can most effectively market her sexuality. A tidy commerce. Yes, personality matters, because when everyone is beautiful, it’s important to find other ways to differentiate yourself. But it matters in a desperate sense, in the sense that is likely to lead to put-downs and cat fights, however scripted, because the harem can only remain a harem for so long before the marriage bells start to chime.

Cult leaders, male or female, alternately give and withhold, and it is this withholding that is key to maintaining power. “Anne wasn’t giving love,” a former devotee of the Family told The Guardian. “She was offering it and then taking it back.” While Hamilton-Byrne used this strategy to her advantage — like Russell from The Girls, like Nick Viall — there is a reason that male cult leaders are both more common and more well-known than female cult leaders. It’s the same reason that The Bachelor preceded, and remains more popular than, The Bachelorette. This manipulation on the part of the leader has greater precedent and is more palatable when a man is doing the manipulating.

It’s harder for us to imagine men turning to a woman for their oxygen. Why would they? They’ve always had their own.