A grown woman will choose between two contestants Monday night, extending a rose to one future partner and ending a series of contests for affection. This isn’t some tribal ritual or primitive mating process; this is a television show that netted nearly 8 million viewers last week alone.
Monday marks the ninth season finale of The Bachelorette, a spin-off of reality show The Bachelor that began in 2003. The female counterpart has held its own in the weird world of loosely scripted competitive dating, and this summer’s installment will conclude with Desiree Hartstock choosing between final suitors Chris Siegfried and Drew Kenney. Favored contestant Brooks Forester bowed out of competition a week ago after admitting that he didn’t love Hartstock, known affectionately to fans, bloggers and filthy rich studio heads as “Des.”
Can you blame him?
The Bachelorette is without a doubt the most unfathomable show on air today, and that’s saying a lot. Each suitor is expected to woo a woman he’s just met into marriage, and he’s to do it alongside 24 other hopefuls. Even jungle cats scoff at this type of behavior. The show, despite its hackneyed plots and maddening premise, continues to perform well in network ratings, leading us to believe that The Bachelorette is far from over after Monday.
Only two of the eight winning couples (both “winning” and “couples” used very liberally here) have stayed together: inaugural season’s Trisha and Ryan are married with two children, while season seven’s Ashley and J.P. were wed last December in a TV special. The show’s reigning champs, Emily and Arie, broke up in October; that season premiered in May. Of course it’s not unreasonable to expect these couples to have an exceptionally brief shelf life: the way that they get together is unnatural, uncomfortable, and mangled in Hollywood storylines.
Which begs the important question: Why do people still watch this thing? Why is every major entertainment outlet prepping tonight’s finale with some story? Why are almost 10 million people tuning away from their lives and tuning in to watch a woman pick between two contestants she’s not even that into?
“We still watch ... myself included,” says Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D., a writer for Psychology Today. “One explanation could involve an empathy factor ... As beings wired for empathy, are we identifying with and feeling for the heartbroken?”
The empathy factor is convincing, but perhaps the biggest influence lies in The Bachelorette’s sheer ridiculousness. Real relationships can be boring; searching for a relationship can be frustrating. Do viewers take solace in watching the opposing gender become caricatured, with every guy looking two-faced and untrustworthy and every girl looking desperate for attention? Is watching a contestant wear a mask or sifting through soap opera “will they, won’t they” stories a release from the dating world? It beats me, I’ve still seen only two scattered episodes of the show, both of which were heavily against my will.
There has to be a show that is better at articulating and portraying romance while still acting as a release for its audience. Destroying a Bachelorette culture begins with producers admitting to how scripted and unrealistic the show is, and with everything from USA Today to People not covering the show like an event that demands attention. I know it’s not that easy, but even the most forced of dating sites present a healthier romantic reality than The Bachelorette.
For now, nothing can stop Des from picking someone tonight and ending the ninth season (can you even imagine being forced to pick a partner after the person you wanted to be with walked away?). Let’s just hope that the rest of The Bachelorette lasts as long as new Des’ relationship.