A Defense of 'The Bachelor' and Other Guilty Pleasures

Joy Beth Smith

This past Saturday, some 2.6 million people took to the streets in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. Social media flooded with pictures from the rallies, quotes from celebrity speakers, and stats about health care and equal pay. (My favorite sign: “Talk less about thigh gaps and more about the wage gap.”) Then, on Sunday, women across the United States iced their blistered feet while chilling bottles of wine to prepare for their The Bachelor viewing parties. And now I’m left wondering if our fight for progress ends at the television screen. Is the future female—or superficial?

Hot tub scenes, bikinis, and copious tears are sure to star in the 21st season of The Bachelor. For those who aren’t familiar, the dramatic dating show revolves around a single man who attempts to find love by eliminating a houseful of women until one is left. Ideally, each season finale—always more dramatic than the last—ends in a marriage proposal. Interchangeable women with large lashes and small waists sport job titles like “Aspiring Dolphin Trainer” and “Pilates Instructor” and repeatedly assure us they are on the show for love.

The show has been widely criticized for lacking diversity and promoting a sexist agenda, but I can’t stop watching. And neither can most of its target fanbase (young women); this season has seen a substantial bump from last year’s ratings and boasts record-setting numbers. So why would I, someone who wears a “Tweet Women with Respect” T-shirt, continue to adjust my Bachelor fantasy league week after week, as I watch a parade of scantily clad women, highly produced content, and food that never seems to be eaten?

Some note the implicit spiritual values that guide the show. A string of Bachelors have been professing Christians, including Jake Pavelka, Sean Lowe, and Ben Higgins. A few Bachelors have chosen to opt out of the “fantasy suite” (a one-night getaway for each of the final three contestants where no cameras or microphones are allowed). Meanwhile, Bible verse tattoos and crucifix jewelry sit in the periphery of a few shots each season, and several of the contestants’ Instagrams reveal they are “really blessed.” Catherine Lowe (later married to Bachelor Sean) was baptized after being re-introduced to Christianity through her time on the show.

Claiming The Bachelor is an edifying Christian experience is a stretch, but I imagine many Christians keep watching the show because of its finish line: marriage. Like much of our church sermons, curricula, and retreats, the show speaks to the longing for marital bliss. Like so much of our teaching around dating, the show suggests that if you eliminate the wrong choices, do it all right, and follow your heart (or listen to the Lord), you should wind up at the altar with someone who will multiply your joy, not divide all your assets in a nasty divorce 18 months later. The show boasts that 6 of their 30 couples are still together. To be honest, those odds seem significantly higher than my own first-date conversions.

But the flashy rings and televised wedding ceremonies hardly resemble the marriage I imagine for myself, and in that way, I barely connect the ceremonies at the end of these fairy-tale romances to the covenant described in Scripture. I don’t watch The Bachelor because of my hopes for marriage, but I do appreciate that it presents marriage as something desirable rather than disposable, as other reality TV shows and sitcoms do.

But more than its Christian celebrities or marriage dreams, I keep watching The Bachelor for the same reason Monday Night Football continues to pull in some of the highest ratings week to week: communal bonding and emotionally charged escapism. Instead of beer and chips, my friends and I sip rosé and munch on brownies; rather than placing bets on the score, we guess who’s being sent home. But we’re still leaving our shoes and worries and work woes at the door as we temporarily dive into a world that’s more exciting and less demanding than our own.

The festivals in the Old Testament and the feasting done in the New Testament lead me to believe that the God-oriented life makes room for frivolous fun. As we are called to glorify God in all things, our fun shouldn’t cause us or others to sin, of course. Still, I’m comforted that for everything there is a season, including, perhaps, Monday nights enjoying reality TV among friends. I acknowledge the paradox of being a Christian feminist who loves a show that asks women to compete for a man’s attention. But this won’t stop me from anticipating our next viewing party. I’m so glad a handful of women choose to live in this tension with me. 

I keep watching The Bachelor for the same reason Monday Night Football continues to pull in some of the highest ratings week to week: communal bonding and emotionally charged escapism.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure