Questioning My Loyalty to “The Bachelor” Franchise, One Group Date at a Time

This is how rock steady the Bachelor franchise is: In the just-before-Harvey summer of 2017, the show literally brought itself back from the dead.

After the first night of production on Bachelor in Paradise, a seedy spinoff of the core Bachelor franchise in which all the fan favorites come back for a “second chance at love” somewhere in Mexico, a female producer filed a claim that a female contestant was too drunk to give consent to a sexual encounter. The entire production was shut down for an investigation and the contestants were all flown home indefinitely.

Two weeks later, Warner announced it had completed its internal investigation, and production would be allowed to resume because as they found no cause to keep the show from continuing. Odds are the end of the investigation may have timed out well with a few NDA-attached settlements to various parties, but nobody knows for sure.

Once back in production, the producers simply reduced the timeline for which the contestants had to fall in love, wrapped on schedule, and pulled off a hit season, all while arguably incorporating the “sex scandal” into that season’s narrative far too often.

What I’m saying is, The Bachelor is not going anywhere.

And look, even if you don’t take the show seriously as a creative concept, strictly as a revenue-generating business model, you have to acknowledge that The Bachelor sits among the upper echelons of horizontally expanding television franchises. From Paradise to the upcoming Bachelor Winter Games, it sits right up there next to Law & Order, CSI and The Real World. It’s also arguably more relevant than all those shows combined.

Bachelor” franchise ad revenue (AdAge)

The Bachelor is consistently the #1 reality show among women 18–49 in households earning over 100K per year. Hundreds of thousands of #TheBachelor tweets are fired off every Monday night, yielding millions of impressions.

So here’s my problem, and it’s not a new one.

I sit in a part of society that is late to get there, but has become quite a bit more “woke” since the fall of 2016. (“Woke” in a way that I acknowledge I’m a white woman culturally appropriating a term initially coined for black activism to now be used in a a feminist-focused context.)

For years I’ve been able to filter out The Bachelor’s strict adherence to traditional gender norms as annoying and ridiculous. I was happy to settle into the manufactured drama of it all because, hey, these girls signed up for this. But, the creative decisions being made this season, tempered by the fact that it is in fact 2018, are slowly driving me to madness. Or, possibly, one day away from the show.

Bachelor producers have publicly commented that they have zero interest in touching the format of the core series. Which means, so long there is The Bachelor, there will be group dates. Humiliating, sympathy-for-this-poor-girl, and-yet-I-can’t-not-look-away group dates.

It’s every year, during these early episode group dates where The Bachelor almost loses me for good. And this week’s episode might have been a franchise-high for misogyny, at least for a non-Paradise installment.

This Monday night, on the third episode of the season, Arie brought the women to meet two real life, original stars of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) — not the Netflix series, the original 80’s show.

This setup of bringing the girls to meet someone pseudo-famous and having them “do a skill” with them is pretty standard early episode Bachelor fare. But the business behind these appearances is fascinating to me. They’ve pulled in some major names. Amy Schumer has been on, and Mila & Ashton. And in both of those cases, they seemed like genuine fans of the show. Fans to the degree where it was unclear if they were plugging anything specific, beyond just their own celebrity.

© ABC

But, it’s also common to see Kevin Hart and Ice Cube pop confusedly into a Bachelor date, seemingly unsure why they are there, and presumably trying to make Ride Along seem appealing to women.

So, with the above as the standard caliber of celebrities, it was confusing when two 80’s stars from GLOW ended up starring in Monday night’s group date segment. They didn’t seem to be actively plugging anything. And the gym interior made it fairly clear that league is not in a position to afford a Ride Along-level sponsorship.

So that means it’s more likely than not that some writer / producer was inspired by Netflix’s Glow and actively pitched a group date wrestling segment. I’ll choose to believe that producer regretted this idea as soon as one of the Gorgeous Ladies verbally attacked contestant Bibiana, the only non-white woman in view.

But where Netflix’s Glow told a full story of the complex women choosing this career or hobby, by contrast The Bachelor was apparently only inspired by the parts that meant the girls would be dressing in skin tight bodysuits, each with different sexy Halloween costume personas, like sexy kitten or sexy cheetah.

Let’s take a moment now, with the help of Wikipedia, to re-familiarize ourselves with recent Bachelor group date canon. It’s bleak:

2016 — Ben Higgins’ Season

1. The girls go to a high school, where they participated in a series of challenges to ultimately win “Homecoming Queen” and more time with Ben. Point of order: Any time there is something to be won, the prize is more time with the Bachelor.

2. The females go to a LoveLab facility where they are hooked up to ECG and EEG sensors which claim to be able to confirm who is compatible with Ben.

3. The childbearers play soccer with two women from the U.S National Team.

4. The dames put on a talent show for Ben with the “talent” of their choice. There are twins that tapdance, there is a whole thing with a baton, and possibly one of them tries to do a Burlesque dance.

5. The maids learn Spanish and so they can go shopping and cook a meal. Ben and his future recurring co-star Lauren B turn it into their own little one-on-one date, to distaste of the other girls.

6. The hotties he hasn’t eliminated yet swim in the ocean with actual pigs!!!

© ABC

2017 — Nick Viall’s Season

1. The young girls show Nick what they look like in wedding dresses and/or bikinis and/or naked for a “professional” photo shoot.

2. The young girls act out a breakup scene with Nick.

3. The young girls do backup choreography for The Backstreet Boys.

4. The young girls run track and field events

5. The young girls work on a farm.

6. The young girls stay at a ghost house and get maybe really really scared..

7. The young hotties he hasn’t eliminated yet play beach volleyball!!!

© ABC

Ok, fine. I shouldn’t be surprised at this week’s wrestling segment. And maybe I shouldn’t even be surprised that later in the episode they put another gaggle of group date girls into “cute dog show outfits” which made them look more like a St. Pauli Girl than a Westminster handler.

Actual 2017 Westminster Dog Show handlers vs. Arie’s group date costumes (© ABC)

And I definitely am not allowed to feign shock that some Bachelor producer somewhere said “hey, let’s get the guy who frequented adult movie theaters as recently as 2012 to come and judge the girls at this dog show.” Yes, that’s right, Fred Willard made his Bachelor debut this week, as a horny color commentator to offset the so-damn-likable Chris Harrison.

© ABC

(I have SO many questions about the Fred Willard appearance. Was he hard up for work, and The Bachelor threw him some? And if so, was that decision made by sets of white men? Yes? Probably?)

Instead of being outraged, I should be, and I am, embarrassed with myself for sticking with this show for so very long. And yet, I’m not ready to leave it. I’m not done with this show, at least not this season. And here’s why:

Married as the executives may be to the traditional format of the show, The Bachelor has demonstrated very tiny shifts thus far this season toward showing these girls as ever-so-slightly more than one dimensional women, who fit the traditional notions of “ladytestant”. (Nickname credit to Ali Barthwell. Read her delightful Bachelor recaps on Vulture.)

1) For a second episode in a row, we’ve seen a contestant swear in a seemingly unguarded moment. Historically, a girl who swears on The Bachelor is likely the top villain. This year, in a coincidentally post-shithole era, the women using profanity are fan favorites.

2) For the first time in my faithful Bachelor memory, two women straight up ejected themselves from the spectacle of the wrestling group date — one after verbal insults, and the other after her hair was pulled. Historically, there is always one woman who has a “bad experience” with said sport or skill, so she sits out, and gets a little extra camera time for it. But these girls weren’t grappling with memories. They felt disrespected, and they walked away.

Right now The Bachelor is like a shitty man giving the tiniest of signs, in the form of the above, that he wants to be and do just a little bit better.

And, fuck it, I’m here for it. I’m sticking around. I genuinely want to see if or how they continue to try to adapt to a more empowered female audience.

Yes, I will probably be let down.

But, even if (when) they fail me this season, I know that in four months I’ll get to have The Bachelorette, an entire season of watching men make fools of themselves in pursuit of a modern (social-media) queen.