I am fascinated by The Bachelorette and The Bachelor – long-running shows on ABC wherein a pool of eligible single people compete with one another for the attention, and ultimately, “the hand in marriage” of a desirable, always hetero, partner.
When I (rarely) admit that I find these shows fascinating, I always end up struggling to justify it. What is the appeal of The Bachelor/ette? Both are tremendously popular shows, which have been going strong for a dozen seasons at least, with no sign of flagging. They present an intensely conservative vision of Romantic Love, in the classical, western, monogamous, heterosexual sense of the word.
Objectively speaking, both shows are extremely boring. Not much happens for hours upon hours, and most of the meaningful conversations are pretty rote – talk about finding “the one,” falling in love, being here for “the right reasons” (to find love), spending the rest of our lives together – and the people themselves are pretty interchangeable. They could easily swap out one cast member for another mid-season without me noticing.
How can such a boring, processed, and repetitive show hold my attention? I recently discovered a clue, in a live performance of The Odyssey by a brilliant performer named Charlie Bethel in Minneapolis.
The whole thing was amazing – but the scenes that particularly caught my attention were the ones toward the end of the epic which feature The Suitors – men who are hanging around Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who has been waiting hopefully for her husband’s return from war for (by the end of the story) twenty years.
The Suitors are described as foul, lazy characters, who lay about the estate of Odysseus, eat his food, drink his wine, and wait for Penelope to choose one of them to marry. Watching The Bachelorette, one witnesses a group of essentially well-meaning, young attractive, successful people devolve into a bunch of vicious, calculating, douchey jerks. One might argue that the doucheyness was there from the beginning, merely disguised by normative social graces, but there’s a more interesting interpretation, I think.
Just as we all (arguably) have the capacity to be murderers under the right circumstances, I think that, consciously or unconsciously, the producers of The Bachelor/ette have created an environment that draws out the Archetype of the Suitor, which is latent in all of us since the time of the Greeks at least.
At the beginning of each season, the contestants insistently describe themselves as the Hero of the story – this is what we’ve been trained to do in western culture, for hundreds of years. “I am Prince Charming and I’m here to find true love with this Princess.”
Only, of course, they all say the same thing. Because they’re supposed to, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do: the only scenario that makes sense to them, from the worldview of the Hero, is one in which they struggle and prevail, which means winning, which means marrying the Bachelorette.
And, it would probably be easier on them psychologically if they were allowed to directly compete with one another for points or something – it would be more natural to frame things in terms of winning and losing, and defeat could be assimilated by their egos. But instead, maddeningly, they’re forced to just hang out with each other, day after day, while one after another goes off for a dream date with the woman they’re all pursuing in parallel.
The fascinating thing about the show, then, is the growing cognitive dissonance between the narrative of the Hero and the reality of the Suitor. The men who are discarded are the lucky ones. They cry because a pretty girl broke up with them, they cry because they lost, but at least they’re allowed to form a theory at that point – “life is unfair,” or “I learned something,” or “I’ll be alone forever” – whatever it is, they blissfully get to go back to being the protagonist of their own story, rather than a supporting player in someone else’s. The relief is tangible, as they wipe the tears away in the back of the limo, on their way home.
The Suitors who make it almost to the end suffer tremendously – their behavior grows erratic, they confess to obsessing endlessly about imagined life with the Princess, or the hidden motivations of their rivals – it’s a universally horrible psychological space to be in, and horrifying to watch – though, for many of us who have our own scars from relationship drama, familiar enough.
And of course, they’re not alone in suffering – I’m sure it takes a tremendous psychic toll to be the pursued party as well, to be the center of that much focused attention for that long, television cameras and all. And, winning the competition, having your Hero status finally confirmed, probably warps and distorts the ego of the heartiest contestant for years to come. It’s a trainwreck all around, no doubt, and watching it doesn’t feel great, to be honest.
And yet, the fascination holds, I think primarily because the producers of the show have, wittingly or unwittingly, tapped into this rich archetypal vein.
We (I) on some level distrust the Hero’s Journey, satisfying though it may be – because we know that we don’t always persevere in the face of challenges and succeed in life. Sometimes we just lose. We need the Hero stories, and they make us feel good, but we KNOW that they’re not the whole story. We get to be the Hero sometimes, but the rest of the time we’re not, we’re somebody else – we need a character, reflected by the culture, who feels crazy and jealous and erratic and makes a fool of themselves because they can’t stand the stress of trying to keep it together in the frustratingly amorphous competition of modern life, and knowing that (by at least some measures) they’ll probably wind up losers.
We may not LIKE the Archetype of the Suitor, but we need it, because some days, it’s us.