Dear listener, the truly important news these last several weeks has not been about the Corona virus or the democratic primaries. It has been about that stickiest, trickiest of love triangles between Peter, Madison and Hannah Ann, who recently wrapped up their time on The Bachelor. Leaving behind an unresolved story about the future of Peter and Madison’s relationship, as well as Peter’s angry family who can’t stand Madison, the Bachelor has thrilled and frustrated an estimated 8.1 million viewers, roughly the population of New Jersey.
I sort of stumbled, willingly I admit, onto The Bachelor these last couple of weeks when, after working late at the office, I found it playing on TV in our family room. I wondered, what about this show makes it the object of so many ardently passionate fans? Slumping down in my easy chair to watch it each night, I began to understand its appeal. As a subset of so-called “reality TV,” The Bachelor is, in fact, not about reality or real people; it is simply content-driven drivel. Like the iconic Jerry Seinfeld Show, The Bachelor purports to be about everything meaningful in the world, and the moon besides, while simultaneously and famously being about nothing. At the end of a long, frustrating and difficult work-day dealing with real reality, what could be more relaxing and even redemptive than escaping into someone else’s two-dimensional, celluloid distortion of reality: a fantasy about nothing?
The Bachelor is not my first rodeo in the romance part of the reality TV ring. Years ago, I was fixated on Say Yes To The Dress. I like dipping into this world of fantastical pseudo-reality. I find myself, despite myself, awash in stories in which the petty is primary and somehow everyone is svelt, has Barbie Doll names like Brent and Skye, and evil and suffering have been extirpated from the human condition. It’s all nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense that upends – or at least sort of suspends – the Big Ugly awaiting me (and you) the next morning.
And yet, is it all fun nonsense? All entertainment is tightly intertwined with its cultural and political contexts. Watching a show like The Bachelor, I can’t help noticing what has been expunged from this love boat style fantasy, presumably in the interests of holding viewer interest. Brent and Skye are almost always White, they are always skinny and built like gods and goddesses. The contestants seem to hold only the following professions: model, engineer of some sort, or marketing manager, and they are all wildly successful. No one seems to lack the funds, the health insurance, or the time to hang out on some island mooning like a bunch of stupid, love-sick teenagers in high school. Notwithstanding the healthy escapist potential of The Bachelor, its more toxic escapist subtext is that of erasure. We the viewers retreat into TV fantasies that project normative fun and romance, in which people who are not white, who are not wealthy, who are not straight, or who are not platinum blonde gorgeous, simply are not. The deeper Americans retreat into broader, polarizing fantasies about who is legitimate, worthy, and loveable, the less our society can count on being able to detect this kind of erasure and speak against it. Contrary to being fun fantasy news, shows like The Bachelor create new echo chambers of fake news in which people who are desirable look and live how we want them to look and live, utterly blanched of anything we fear or don’t understand.
I am not asserting that the brahmins of reality TV culture are purposely trying to erase American diversity and human complexity. Perhaps more insidiously, it doesn’t even occur to them that this is what they’re doing. However, the more America stays home, driven into seclusion by viruses and glued to its TVs by boredom and anxiety, the more we will watch shows like the ones they produce. Increasingly smug and isolated in our cultural and perceptual bubbles, we will be even more in need of real reality TV, raw and respectful presentations of each other as we actually are. I suggest that the FCC set two new rules for all reality TV shows, especially those in the romance industry, in this new decade. First, they must work toward greater diversity in their story lines and among their contestants. Second, in the meantime, they must come with warning labels: “Over-exposure to this program might result in blunted sensitivity to your fellow humans.”
I honestly wish Peter and Madison the best of luck in their off-camera future. For the rest of us, I wish that the only thing going viral will be our ability to love and appreciate each other who for who we truly are.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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