The Bachelor (and Bachelorette) are two long-running series where white people and approved minorities romance each other in a highly scripted environment in order to appease the unfulfilled voids (no pun intended) in women everywhere while simultaneously scratching society's voyeuristic itches. My fiancee watches the show every damn season, so I know it pretty well. As an observer detached from the result, I like to think I see it for what it is: terrifying, Orwellian brainwashing.
I am dead serious. Dating reality shows have gradually numbed us to what actual human relationships should consist of.
The Real World (Not the show, the other one)
In normal life, we select mates through a tried and true process. Everyone we meet is quickly sorted into piles. Generally speaking, one of these piles consist of people we're wiling to have sex with. From this deck, we find someone we enjoy spending time with. Then, through natural interaction over a relatively long period of time, feelings develop (or not), eventually (or not) developing into love. This system, while hardly perfect, is a reasonable approach to a complex issue.
ABC's Version: Winners and Trophies
Let's look at the problems with a typical season of The Bachelor:
Incredible lack of parity. Twenty people are going for one person. There's a de facto "winner" and "trophy" model, in which the contestants are, well, competitors fighting over a single human trophy. For the participants, the competition actually seems to block out the larger issue of whether they like the person they've been assigned to romance. All that matters is winning. Just in case this message is too subtle for the average viewer, reality show producers go so far as to create actual competitions, where the competitors (I won't call them suitors) literally fight it out for the affections of the trophy. It's like the Stanford Prison Experiment. Brutal.
The lack of parity between competitors and trophy person is constantly reinforced. For example, the trophy person always acts as though they are personally paying to schlep around 20 people to exotic destinations. What better way to reinforce feelings of indebtedness among the competitors? Also, all the participants live in the same house. While I respect the need to create insane amounts of Machiavellian drama to keep things interesting, sharing a bedroom with one's romantic rivals is bizarre. To win the ultimate prize, one must rise from the barracks like a gladiator of ancient times.
In portraying the protagonists, there is a rigid code of conduct that must be followed throughout the show. Watching The Bachelor, I suspect there is a PA pointing a gun at the dudes in the interview room as men and women confess their undying love for someone they've known for maybe 45 minutes. In the real world, this would be creepy as fuck. Meanwhile, the trophy person is forbidden from publicly displaying any overt feelings, creating another inherent asymmetry and another healthy cornerstone of any relationship.
There are also crazy, beyond-ridiculous double standards when it comes to physical intimacy. The final script of The Bachelo/rette is invariant: The final two competitors have all-day dates, capped by a night of sexual intercourse in what the show oddly refers to as the "Fantasy Suite". Thus, the winner of the show will propose to the trophy person less than 48 hours after the trophy engaged in sexual congress with another person (not a stranger, mind you, but the winner's former roommate). No one blinks at this. (Edit: Susan informed me that there is actually a multi-day delay between the two events. She seemed to think this settled the issue of sexual impropriety). In contrast, competitors are not allowed to dip their wicks in the quest for the prize: On one season of The Bachelor, a girl on the show banged a staffer ("Jake's season", according to Susan, who answered the question with the conviction of an expert witness). And everyone went absolutely apeshit when it was revealed. It was heresy - that a girl in a non-monagamous relationship (who didn't even "win" the show) would cultivate a mature relationship with anyone but the person she was brought in to breed with was unheard of. Meanwhile, the male trophy bops multiple women on television and everyone is proud and weepy.
There are a few odds and ends of creepiness the shows offer. Rigid gender roles, for example. The man is the pursuer, even when he is the trophy (a la The Bachelor) he is the one who is expected to propose. And let's not forget the incredible time compression of relationships either. The winner and trophy go on maybe five dates over a monthlong period before getting engaged. This is especially delicious when you get cringey family reactions t what's going on.
Daughter: I should marry this guy I met three weeks ago as part of a network television show, right?
Dad: (long, wincing pause) Sure.
The dating pool for these shows - where do they find these people? You have to completely withdraw from life/job to be on the show. Regular people cannot simply walk away from their responsibilities to perform on an extended edition of the dating game. People either have to be independently wealthy, bums, crazy, or publicity whores. The penultimate and final group seem to yield the bulk of contestants. Of course the the trophy person is there for TV, but they're the star so you can't accuse them of that (double standards and all). I would love to hear one of the dudes accuse the bachelorette du jour of just doing the show to get on the cover of People. Sadly, all we get are a bunch of people desperate for camera time accuse each other of not "being here for the right reasons."
I could go on, but the really, really disturbing thing about this species of reality TV is that their romantic portrayal of love is accepted by viewers as reality and not as farce. If enough people truly believe in these superficial permutations of love it could conceivably become a new dystopian reality.
Fortunately, some shows have fought back by exposing romance reality shows for the farce that they are. They do this by parody, rolling in The Bachelor's highfalutin' hypocrisy like pigs in shit. And it's easy work - all they do is take The Bachelor's stale format and plug in people who are either too stupid to realize they're a trope or realize it and don't care. In that spirit, I'd like to share a few dating shows that are more reality than The Bachelor/ette ever will be.
Incidentally, most of these are available for free on Youtube.
Flavor of Love (Three Seasons)
This was the dominant force in establishing the ghetto fairy tale romance. Premise: Flava Flav, the untalented fiftysomething hype man ("Yeeaahhh Boyyyy!!!) from Public Enemy was given a dating show*. It was The Bachelor on crack cocaine. As a white person, I am not qualified to say how well they encapsulated the experience, but it was magical to watch the show drunkenly lurch onwards. Flav was too high most of the time to remember names, so each contestant had a nickname like "Thing" and "Delisus" (spelling mostly preserved). Also, the show was obviously made on a shoestring budget. The "dates" the girls would win would be to places like the bowling alley or the skating rink. It was both nostalgic and economical to watch Flav and a hefty girl from Detroit share a plate of curly fries and inhale each other's face. Instead of Chris Hanson/Harrison, Flav's pressure man was Big Rick, a statue-like "butler" whose main job was to be agreeable and slowly break up catfights.
Highlights: Instead of roses, Flav gives out clocks, worn around the neck. In the second season, a girl shat on the floor after getting drunk. At least one girl was kicked out after it was discovered she used to do porn. Someone spits in someone else's face at an elimination, with an ensuing brawl.
Fun fact (with spoiler): Hoopz, the winner from season one, went on to date Shaquille O'Neal. There's a photo of her giving him a piggyback ride floating around the internet.
I Love New York (Two Seasons)
The Flavor of Love people really tested just how far down they could push the standards in this spinoff. They selected the most ghetto, over-the-top drama queen from FoL and gave her her own show. The sidekick in season one is a flamboyant Filipino stylist named Chamo and - when that was deemed to be too offensive (even for this) - he was replaced by a bland white bodyguard for season two. This show spawned a few spinoffs featuring notable contestants, but the luster of the premise hasd faded by then.
Highlights: Second season featured a midget (little person?) and a guy who may have been legitimately retarded. I forget which one of them made it further.
Joe Millionaire (Two Seasons, only one worth watching)
This is the original roll-in-the-dirt reality dating show (that I'm aware of, at least) from 2003. Simple premise: random poorish guy pretends to be a millionaire and a dozen or so gold diggers are brought in to win both his love and (nonexistent) bank account. If I remember correctly, one of the girls ostensibly gives the protagonist a blowie in hopes of winning the prize (and is subsequently eliminated). Sidekick is a fake british butler (I didn't capitalize 'british' because of brexit uncertainty**).
These shows actively reveal the utter lunacy of mainstream dating/reality shows. And, by virtue of them fighting back, they have earned my respect (to a degree). To watch them is to honor the true reality of love.
*Flav's renaisance was triggered following the development of his bizarre sexual relationship with Brigitte Neilson during The Surreal Life. You know, this was really the golden age of VH1.
**Apparently the butler was actually Australian. Budget issues, probably. The pound was stronger back then.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.