“The Bachelor” – maybe you’ve heard of it? – is part-pageant, part-extended first date in which love reigns supreme and a contestant’s fate is determined by a man (or woman, in “The Bachelorette”) with a rose.
You don’t need to have seen every episode to know the drill: Hot young singles vie against each other over the course of a few breathless weeks. There are competitive group dates, opportunities for physical intimacy in the “fantasy suite” and contrived meetings with extended family. The prize is, hopefully, everlasting love and a Neil Lane engagement ring.
It’s all very fantastical and fizzily romantic. But some elements of the series – namely, the emphasis put on falling in love and getting engaged – aren’t too far off from our reality and what we prize in a relationship, one expert on love and another on reality TV told CNN.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who researches romantic love, called the franchise an “accelerated, exaggerated version of humanity’s great drive to win at love.”
Of course, life isn’t all rose ceremonies and hot air balloon rides. Danielle Lindemann, a sociologist who recently published a book on reality TV called “True Story,” pointed out that the series’ themes are often old-fashioned and out of step with contemporary society. And yet, it endures – and spawned spinoffs (“The Bachelor Winter Games,” anyone?).
Here’s what “The Bachelor,” which premiered 20 years ago, gets right and wrong about modern dating.
We care more about long-term relationships than we care to admit
Regular “Bachelor” viewers may scoff at the 20-somethings who enter the mansion “looking for love” before they even meet the man they’re competing to marry. But that desire for stability – and, somewhat surprisingly, marriage – is more common than we may think, Fisher said.
It’s true that millennials and Gen Z-ers are putting off marriage to focus on careers and tend to their long-term relationships, she said. But they do want to eventually marry. Fisher for years has conducted a survey of singles in America with Match.com, and the most recent study from November found that 76% of respondents said they wanted to find a partner who wanted to marry them, compared to 58% in 2019.
“To me it’s a historic change in what singles want in a partnership,” she told CNN. “The idea that we don’t want to settle down is absolutely not true.”
Fisher attributes that surge in singles seeking wedded bliss to the pandemic lockdowns. Contestants on the “Bachelor” franchises are locked down in a way, too, spending all their time with other contestants or the presumptive love of their life.
The love at first sight that contestants sometimes claim to feel can be legit, Fisher said. That love might not always last, hence the frequent breakups that occur after “Bachelor” seasons conclude, but it’s “certainly possible to fall in love with someone very rapidly” if the chemistry is strong, she said.
And yes, there are inevitably cast members who are “there for the wrong reasons.” But assuming that most contestants are in fact looking for love, they really might find it, Fisher said.
“Love can overcome” the pressure of facing their rivals while the whole world is watching, Fisher said.
“It’s not entirely artificial that people on these programs can really fall in love with somebody,” she said.
It can teach viewers what they want out of a relationship
Watching “The Bachelor” is often a communal experience. Fisher, ever the anthropologist, said the urge to sit around the proverbial campfire and trade stories with those closest to us is a primitive one as old as humankind is. The show is edited with enough cliffhangers and bombshells that viewers feel compelled to dissect each moment and decision online (and on countless podcasts), while contemplating what they would or wouldn’t do in the immaculately groomed protagonist’s shoes.
On top of that, competing to win “the finest of the opposite sex,” also ties into human beings’ primitive instincts, Fisher said.
Series like “The Bachelor” can also nudge viewers to consider the more performative elements of courting in which they partake, Lindemann said, from the heavy makeup and tight gowns to the trivial conversations and make-out sessions.
“It may seem absurd to us that these women are wearing sequined evening gowns, with faces full of makeup at 10 a.m., eyelashes stretching out to infinity,” Lindemann said. “But we’re doing what they’re doing in a more muted way every day.”
Dating IRL isn’t all rose ceremonies and games
It’s a reality series, and the love can be real, but “The Bachelor” often plays out like a fantasy: For one, it’s far more common to meet someone on a dating app than out in public. Online dating has been the most popular way for singles to meet their future partner in recent years, according to a 2019 Stanford University study, and Fisher said that number has risen during the pandemic.
While “The Bachelor” primarily casts young, conventionally attractive romantics with excellent teeth, real singles say they’re more interested in the emotional maturity of a potential partner than their physical attractiveness, according to Fisher’s Singles in America study with Match.com, though looks were important, too.
Then there’s the pageantry of it all. The show’s narrow norms of beauty, gender and love, Lindemann said, aren’t always inclusive or representative.
“The Old School courtship, the extreme gender roles, the competition aspect, and the fact that nobody ever eats on dates – the show doesn’t really reflect a version of dating that’s recognizable to very many of us,” she said.
Another unrealistic element of the “The Bachelor”: The homogeneity of its contestants. For most of the last two decades, they’ve primarily been White and heterosexual. The show has made some efforts to rectify that, casting some Asian and Latino contestants, including “Bachelor” winner Catherine Lowe and recent “Bachelorette” Tayshia Adams.
No Black men or women who competed won their season – until the most recent season of “The Bachelorette” – and only a handful of Black contestants have made it to the ever-important “hometown dates” stage in the final weeks of the series. It wasn’t until 2017 that the franchise cast its first Black “Bachelorette” in Rachel Lindsay, who has discussed the racism she faced on and off the show at length. Matt James became the first Black “Bachelor” in 2021 (and his season ended in controversy when photos resurfaced of the eventual winner attending an antebellum South-themed fraternity event).
That the series has so often ignored or failed to cast contestants of color is more indicative of systemic racism across the country, Lindemann said: Schools, neighborhoods and workplaces are often still segregated, so the potential partners people meet often look like themselves.
“The fact that, historically, the show has mostly featured White, conventionally hot, middle class, heterosexual people linking up with other people who are ‘like them’ in those respect reflects broader dating trends but also broader inequalities in the United States,” she said.
‘The Bachelor’ lives on
After 20 years, only a few “Bachelor” couples have gotten married (and more of them met after they appeared on separate seasons), like Trista and Ryan Sutter, who found love on the very first season of “The Bachelorette.” Viewers likely know the relationship they’re watching blossom may not end in matrimony. But it doesn’t stop them from watching – the franchise just tapped two more “Bachelorettes” who lost their most recent season.
Reality TV, Lindemann says, “presents ‘hyper’ versions of ourselves,” and we inevitably gravitate toward people we see ourselves in – that way, we can stick ourselves into those fantastical scenarios, like spending the night in a windmill. When it comes to living (and loving) vicariously, viewers can’t get much more romantic than “The Bachelor.”
Correction: This article has been updated to note that the most recent season of “The Bachelorette” did result in a Black contestant winning the competition.