True romance in a mediated age.
“Contra the Buadrillard-inflected suggestion that reality TV enacts the reality of the simulacra in the allegedly postmodern era, such programming stages not the dissolution of the real but the inescapably real inadequacy of reality upon which it relies.”
~Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched
It’s snowing in Los Angeles, a flurry of perfect white flakes grafted onto a blue-black night sky.
Enter Juan Pablo and his date Clare: two perfect people in a perfect world, wearing their tight-fitting clothes like galvanized mannequins. Watch them gaze up at the sky. Watch them bask in the soft glow of the streetlamps, glimmering like jaundiced moons. Watch them twirl and catch lukewarm snowflakes on their tongues. Watch them sled and ice skate with the easy reluctance of tipsy adults trying not to fall—and notice how her teeth sparkle like a champagne glass, see how they shine, a pure, impossible, whiter-than-white white.
“It’s all absolutely surreal for me,” Clare says, gushing to the camera. She’s quick to smile and has electric green eyes, yet an undercurrent of desperation ripples beneath her bubbliness, a wanting so deep it swallows the wanted. “This could be the first date with my future husband.”
The snow is fake, of course—a prop spewed from a machine. But on ABC’s The Bachelor it doesn’t matter if the snow is artificial or if the setting is a set, if those Christmas trees are plastic or if that gingerbread house—the one over there, under the string of convivial white lights—isn’t actually made out of gingerbread because Clare, a 32-year-old hairstylist from Sacramento—whose favorite game is “Clue,” and favorite snack is “fruit”—could already “be falling for this guy.”
Later on in the date, our two prospective lovers slip into a hot tub, its surface cloaked in a welcoming fog. Clare has a doll’s perfect figure, porcelain skin, and an even, golden tan; Juan Pablo looks pretty much how you’d expect a Venezuelan ex-soccer player-turned-club-promoter/single father to look: ruffled, windswept hair, a thin but boxy frame, and the sort of inviting eyes and boyish smile that are used to getting what they want but are deceptively good at pretending they aren’t. When Clare tells Juan Pablo about her deceased father, and suggests that her ideal husband will share his qualities, Juan Pablo listens intently, leaning his face in close, eyes open and focused, as if this physical nearness will translate into emotional intimacy. As a reward for opening up, Juan Pablo presents Clare with the Rose. Will she accept? Yes, she will. They embrace. Clare clutches The Rose gingerly in her hand. Without it, their winter wonderland might mist into oblivion.
Then: faraway music, as if from a television left on in another room. They get out of the hot tub, and make their way towards the sound. A D-list singer croons just for them, and soon the live music performance merges with the show’s score, providing a real-life soundtrack to their made-for-TV romance. On cue, snow begins to fall again. They look up, then at each other, their faces close, almost touching, the inklings of smiles breaking atop each successive smile—for a moment it’s like they’re alone together in their own little world.
And maybe they are.
Spanning 18 seasons and 12 years—not including the nine seasons of its sister show, The Bachelorette, the three seasons of its prurient cousin, The Bachelor Pad, or its countless spin-offs and parodies—The Bachelor has distanced itself from other reality TV dating shows, not only through its staying power, but because it operates under a powerful pretext: finding True Love. Girls go on MTV to find a beefy dude to sloppily make out with; women go on The Bachelor to find someone they could spend the rest of their life with.
Therefore, before the women even step outside the limo they have enormous expectations. Through the show’s anachronistic fairy tale lens, they are the villagers to Juan Pablo’s Prince, and so strong is this image of Juan Pablo as a symbol of True Love that it subsumes his individual tics and traits, twisting his imperfections into an aloof sort of charm. The Bachelor is, at its core, a waking dream wherein “real” girls are free to comingle with a holographic man upon whom they are expected to project their wildest fantasies about True Love and romance. In its seamless merger of reality and hyper-reality, the show plops its contestants down in an ersatz fairy tale, complete with long-stem roses, elegant nightgowns, villains & heroes, and most importantly, the promise of a happily-ever-after. On The Bachelor, all the messiness of love is cleaned up and refined, jerked from the unknown and dragged into the highly visible arena of pop culture, where it is reified in ritual and a sentimental score, visual puns and camera-ready clichés, a giant diamond ring and a methodical formula designed for the express purpose of cajoling several wasted “I love yous”—and one that just might mean something.
Yet for all its cheesiness and treacle, its shallowness and heavy-handed appropriation of trampled tropes, The Bachelor has managed to create a reliable love potion; almost all of the show’s past finalists have found love on the show, ending in a marriage proposal or at least the promise of a meaningful relationship.
But what happens when the bachelor refuses to swallow the potion? And what does his refusal reveal about the nature of true love?
For me, like it probably was for you, there was little glitz, no pomp and all circumstance. Our first kiss was on a trampoline at the end of the summer before my senior year of high school. It was more savage than passionate, like two people too hungry to really taste what they were eating. We rolled around for a while and then, like absentminded pedestrians stepping into a busy intersection, realized what we were doing and promptly stopped, embarrassed, and self-conscious.
The kiss has since taken on more weight, like a book left on a shelf to accumulate dust and along with it, a mildewy kind of sophistication. First love and its vestiges, trailing off like a vaguely remembered tune, had made it realer than real in my mind, though oddly fictional, too, as if through the frequent reviewing of the moment itself—the kiss, colored by the love that came after—had become someone else’s, or at least belonged to a different “me.”
The first time I said ‘I love you’ was five or six months after that kiss.
We’d gone through all the motions: basement make-out sessions under the auspices of “watching a movie,” infrequent texting that turned into nightly, hour-long phone calls about nothing, a mix tape (from me), a book of poetry (from her), hand holding and cuddling—in short, all the small ways we test our bodies ability to fit together before the real thing, which was clumsy and cerebral but nice, too, it was innocent and intimate and comforting to know we knew each other in a way no one else did or ever had.
For our winter formal, our entire class opted out of the normal school dance and rented a restaurant space downtown. On the train down from the suburbs, we each sipped from our own nondescript water bottle, into which we had cleverly siphoned our parent’s vodka. I drank alcohol then with an amateur’s disregard for the taste: in my pre-collegiate bliss, vodka was still unassociated with its ill effects, so it went down with relative ease.
Soon after arriving at the restaurant, I began to feel those effects. Things shifted cubistically as I made successive trips to the bathroom. Objects refused to settle. After a certain point, my mom arrived to pick me up. She had a very matter-of-fact, slightly bemused look on her face, as if she’d expected this to happen all along. Maybe she had. My girlfriend was nice enough to accompany me home, though I must’ve protested: I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, much less her. The whole ride home I apologized profusely, in what became an irritating refrain of ‘I’m sorrys,’ first for my drunkenness and then for saying I was sorry so much. When we got home I went to bed, tired and happy to be alone.
The next morning the night before came back in short, little inkblot fires that went out as soon as they began to surge: the decidedly Lynchian bathroom, its reflective black linoleum like a mythic pool of water; the glazed wooden bench in the lounge; my friend’s arm around my shoulder, the musty smell of his patterned sport coat oddly adult, even paternal.
And then something else, too: the sound of the car’s engine humming and my forehead cold against the frosted windowpane, the city’s iridescent reds and neons and glassy blues smeared together like a child’s finger painting, a masterpiece of twisted perception—and barely audible beneath the clamorous vision, a small voice tentatively reciting three words from the well of my subconscious.
A repeated critique of The Bachelor is that it is somehow not “real”—that nobody really falls in love, that the show is an elaborate fiction, manipulated for drama and ratings. Those critics would not be wrong, though they would be missing the point. Akin to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s suggestion that MTV’s The Real World is not reflective of real life but the reality of being on a reality TV show, The Bachelor does not elicit “real” love, per se. Rather, it portrays the reality of falling in love on a reality TV show.
The Bachelor is so profoundly interesting because its representation of love is already somewhat removed from the real; to borrow from Barthes, in his introduction to A Lover’s Discourse: “Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a simple symptomal subject, but rather that we hear in his voice what is ‘unreal,’ i.e. intractable.” Love, by nature, is incomplete, inexpressible, and to paraphrase Barthes once more, “disreal”—that is, if we attempt to grasp it we “emerge from it.” It would follow, then, that our experience with love can never be completely real. If it is, love will cease to exist.
So it’s perhaps more fitting than fake that love on The Bachelor occurs to real people in a mediated, ritualized fairy tale narrative—a site whose conflation of reality and surreality mirrors the same conflation emblematic of “real” love. So ubiquitous is this conflation on the show that the bachelorettes employ the words “real” and “surreal” with an almost unconscious interchangeability. Oftentimes, the more surreal the situation the more real the feelings become: on her first one-on-one date, Clare’s very real feelings are triggered by the very surreal winter wonderland. This sentiment is repeated throughout the show, all the way up to the finale, where Nikki, an anxious pediatric nurse, recounts to Juan Pablo’s father: “as crazy as this situation is, my feelings are so real.”
Because what is the difference, really? Love on The Bachelor—in a glorious mansion, atop scenic overlooks, ensconced in sandy beaches and blood-orange sunsets, exotic made-for-TV locales, populated with natives-turned-extras—is both surreal and real at the same time. In real life, love can seem surreal precisely because it is happening to you in real life—you can’t exactly put your finger on it but there it is, you can feel it in your throat when she walks in the door or brushes a stray strand of hair across her face (or when she flashes that smile, that look, that way she bites her lip, her every tic a signature flourish), in your gut when she walks back inside her house, the pang of desire tugged from your chest like a dry heave, the word itself not so much found as uncovered.
On The Bachelor, the process is reversed: the love approximates the real precisely because it is so grounded in the surreal. You’re in a fairy tale, you’re on television, and this man is already the man of your dreams.
If love is the show’s flashing neon sign, The Bachelor’s ritualistic format is its emotive doorman, ushering its players towards a preordained resolution.
Take the first night and its motifs: stretch limos, the bachelor standing outside with his fingers interlaced expectantly, awkward first impressions, a magnificent cocktail party wherein host Chris Harrison gives the same spiel every year, places the same First Impression Rose like a time bomb on the same ornate steel platter, on the same table, and leaves the bachelor to raise the same champagne toast as the camera zooms out over the same throng of glistening glasses; then the innumerable cocktails, the precious One-on-One time, the grade-school gambits, and the one girl (this time it’s Lauren H.) who’s already bawling because her last boyfriend dumped her recently and now she’s experiencing a cruel echo of that rejection; and oh look: evidently someone’s drowning their anxiety at the open bar, because that chick is trashed! Soon an alarming clink, clink: it’s Rose Ceremony time, the format of which is similar to getting picked for gym-class kickball except this time it’s your heart on the line, as well as your dignity; and as one by one Juan Pablo calls the names of girls he just met—who glide with airtight smiles towards the bachelor and respond with a variation on ‘yes, of course I will,’ when The Bachelor asks, “[Insert Name], will you accept this rose?”—the camera captures close-ups of the girls left standing in the background, their squinty lacquered eyes and quivering lips, their countenances growing testy and anxious, because if he doesn’t pick me I’ll be crushed, he’s just like the rest of them, I’m never ever good enough!—then finally the suspenseful, rhythmic beat as Chris Harrison politely interrupts to utter those famous last words: “Ladies. Juan Pablo. This is the final rose tonight.” The music swells. The bachelor calls one final name. Crescendo. The score falls like a curtain. The room lets out a sigh. And one very relieved lady strides to the podium to receive her coveted reward.
The Cocktail Party and subsequent Rose Ceremony are just two of the rituals that are repeated episode after episode, season after season. In addition, there are the Date Cards, rife with cutesy puns; the Group Dates, each with their one Rose placed in plain sight of the bachelorettes, a visual reminder of what’s at stake and the symbol that says ‘I like you’; and then the infamous Fantasy Suite Dates, their accompanying card (“Should you choose to forgo your individual rooms, please use this key to stay as a couple in the Fantasy Suite”), and the attached key, clunky and medieval—a physical totem of sex and intimacy.
Of course, there are also the dates themselves, computationally designed to induce intimacy. Kat, a 29-year-old blond Medical Sales Rep with a great figure but an inability to really “let go,” takes a private jet with Juan Pablo to a sanitized rave in Salt Lake City; the date card reads, “I can feel the electricity.” By the end of the date, the pulsing dance music, the crowd-funded adrenaline, and the schizophrenic lights engender an artificial euphoria between the two. Ultimately, the Date Card’s “electricity” pun portends the feeling the two would experience during the date itself; it’s hard to imagine that they’d not feel that way.
Other dates induce intimacy by producing an exaggerated feeling of trust between the bachelor and his bachelorette. On her first One-on-One date, Chelsie, a down-to-earth, excitable, 24-year-old science educator tandem bungie jumps with Juan Pablo off a bridge; though Chelsie likes “adventurous type things,” she had “never jumped off a large object before,” and was visibly nervous. But after presenting her with the option of backing out—as if it weren’t always an option, as if before she simply had to jump off a bridge—Chelsie lauds The Bachelor: “him giving me both options really made me feel like I could trust him.” They eventually leap to the sound of cascading music, and share their first kiss while hanging upside down from the bridge. Later, when Chelsie receives the Rose, she confesses, “this is the rose that will forever commemorate the best day of my entire life.”
After episode four (at least on Season 18), The Bachelor takes its remaining contestants to a different location each successive week. In Seoul, South Korea, the bachelor and his bachelorettes perform with a K-pop group in front of a screaming phalanx of Korean teenagers, and later wander the streets, trying out the wares at the city’s open air market, which has become a fixture on almost all of The Bachelor’s travel dates and a simple heuristic for “culture.” In episode 5, the remaining bachelorettes travel with Juan Pablo to Vietnam. It’s a bizarre infringement on our cultural history—how many Americans can think of Vietnam without thinking of the war?—but on The Bachelor, there is no history except its own.
Something else happens in Vietnam, too: Clare breaks the rules. After a group date, she takes it upon herself to visit Juan Pablo at his hotel room. “The one thing that’s on my bucket list that I’ve never had the chance to do is swim in a warm ocean,” Clare says, despite the fact that she’s from Sacramento. “And I kind of want to do it with Juan Pablo.”
Soon enough, the pair is surging hand-in-hand into the ocean, skipping over the waves that crash onto a pristine shore. The camera scrambles to capture them as they grope and kiss and maybe do some other stuff under the light of the moon, nature’s spotlight, and from shore it appears for the first time that they are out of the audience’s reach, like they’ve wrested themselves from the show’s grip and flown away—and who knows what they’ll do now that they’re finally free?
Breaking the rules on The Bachelor is an interesting phenomenon. It’s sort of like cutting class on Senior Ditch Day—everyone knows you’re going to do it and there are rarely any repercussions from the authorities. But what makes it so jarring is that its very execution removes us, as viewers, from the familiar confines of the show itself; by breaking the rules, Clare and Juan Pablo’s midnight jaunt reminds us of the rigid artifice of The Bachelor’s rules in the first place.
In real life, we forge relationships with one another through our shared experience, and the memories of those shared experiences. On The Bachelor, it works in much the same way, except the obstruction of everyday life doesn’t interfere and the experiences are maximized for the utmost effect. More importantly, the show also allows The Bachelor and his Bachelorettes to experience being on a Reality TV show together, an aphrodisiac perhaps more powerful than the sum of its individual parts. The reason, then, why so many relationships formed on the show don’t end up working in real life is deceptively basic: the show simply does not subscribe to the same tenets of reality as the real world does. In short, The Bachelor is its own, slightly surreal world, complete with a unique set of rules, norms, and expectations, and designed with the express purpose of alchemically creating Love—so why should we expect the feelings experienced there to translate into the untelevised world?
The answer is that we shouldn’t. And, given The Bachelor’s well-known rate of failure (five couples total are still together after 18 seasons of The Bachelor and nine seasons of The Bachelorette), it’s safe to say most viewers probably do not. So the real question becomes: why do we continue to watch if we know that it’s not real? And why are we so upset when the show doesn’t pan out the way it’s supposed to, even if we know it’s most likely not going to last anyway?
Things start going badly for Juan Pablo soon after Vietnam. At the rose ceremony, JP pulls Clare aside and makes her feel guilty for what they did in the ocean, claiming that he didn’t want to set a bad example for his daughter. It’s the sort of confrontation that confounds all real world logic but somehow finds a foothold in the world of the show. After all, it’s not like she forced Juan Pablo into the ocean; it takes two to aquatically tango. But Clare, wrapped up in her fairy tale, merely accepts the blame and tries to move on. The viewing audience is left to speak on her behalf, taking to social media to express their outrage at the gall of the show’s hero for dressing up his slut shaming as conscientious parenting.
With six girls remaining, the crew heads back to Miami, Juan Pablo’s hometown. One of them, Sharleen, is a Canadian opera singer, with chestnut skin, jet-black hair, and a proclivity for backless dresses and using generous amounts of tongue during her make-outs with Juan Pablo. Unlike the other remaining girls, she talks with the calculated, metronomic cadence of an intellectual. She’s the type of woman who’d look sexy in a pantsuit, reading German philosophy on a subway, her hair tousled and her eyebrows arched in bemusement. Her favorite movies include The Royal Tenenbaums and Match Point, and her favorite author is Haruki Murakami. In other words, Sharleen’s exactly the opposite of the woman you’d expect to go on The Bachelor, or buy into its deceptive brand of manipulation. That Juan Pablo is ostensibly a raging philistine, not to mention an ex-professional soccer player with a rudimentary command of colloquial English, only exaggerates the incongruity. In a way, Sharleen’s tenure on the show was perhaps the single greatest test of The Bachelor’s hypnotic prowess; if they could turn her, you think, they could turn anybody.
For a while, it seems, Sharleen is content to let her sexuality take over. On a group date to a soccer stadium (“Let’s Kick It,” the Date Card read), Sharleen and Juan Pablo canoodle on a blanket at the center of the field; their kisses are withholding, if not a bit awkward, as if she’s attempting to determine mid-make-out whether or not she should continue. Later on, when Nikki gets the group date rose, Sharleen says with a hint of shame, “It both surprises and bothers me how much I care.”
It isn’t until Miami, though, that Sharleen really questions her feelings. On a very basic level, sex propels intimacy on The Bachelor more than in the real world. With the sheer amount of shirtlessness and bathing suits, tank tops and cool sunglasses, hair-blowing-through-the-wind and fast cars and dapper formalwear, The Bachelor has all the makings of a bacchanalian romp without any of the romping, all of the suggestiveness without any of the evidence, and all of the sex appeal with hardly any actual sex. In sum, it’s the televisual equivalent of dry humping with your blue jeans on, like Ken trying to bang Barbie without the requisite parts. Thrust into these surreal, romantic situations, it’s easy to see how even someone as intelligent and self-aware as Sharleen would conflate sex with something more. After all, the show practically demands it: by contextualizing sex in terms of a grandiose love story, The Bachelor sublimates prurience with its sanitary, Disney-approved romance.
In spite of all this, Sharleen notes, “something cerebral is missing,” forcing her to reevaluate “what’s propelling” her relationship with Juan Pablo. Eventually, she snaps out of the spell cast upon her and decides to leave the show of her own accord. Clare, in the wake of the drama, asks the camera point-blank, “What is Sharleen?” and though it’s meant to be jocular, it also reveals Clare’s inability to comprehend why Sharleen would be second-guessing her feelings for Juan Pablo. Yet, to be fair, Clare has to cast Sharleen as an anomaly; to not do so would call into question her own faith in the process.
The biggest surprise of the season comes in Saint Lucia, when only three girls remain: Clare, Nikki, and Andi. The week prior, Juan Pablo had visited all three’s respective hometowns, where he was vetted by friends and family. He also visited the hometown of Renee—a levelheaded single mother with whom he bonded over parenting, but who was subsequently eliminated during the week’s Rose Ceremony.
It’s interesting to note that Hometowns always come before the infamous Fantasy Suite Dates the following week, which include an option for each girl to spend a night with Juan Pablo. Evidently meeting the parents, in The Bachelor’s patented steps to finding love, comes before sex—a move that seems prudish until you realize our bachelor is potentially having sex with three different women, three nights in a row.
What’s ironic about the Fantasy Suite specifically though, is that it really is a fantasy, albeit an altogether generic one, more a simulacrum of a fantasy than a fantasy itself. Just look at the rose petal trail and scented candles, the meticulously made king-size bed, complete with translucent bed shades, a private Jacuzzi, champagne and chocolate—the fantasy suite contains all the elements of a 90’s soft core porn, right down to the unbelievably attractive and passionate lovers, the mawkish romantic score, the montage of kissing that leads from the bed to the hot tub and back again, and, of course, the cameras themselves.
But more significantly, the Fantasy Suite date marks the first time the bachelor gets to be completely alone with a bachelorette, free from the pawing eye of a camera and its clunky appendages, which has the sobering effect of cleaving a gap in the world of the show between public and private, on-camera and off. It’s a subtle assertion of self-recognition, in that it connotes the existence of a very different reality from the reality we’ve been exposed for the previous eight episodes. The question then becomes whether or not this reality—off-camera, in private—is more or less real than the quasi-reality to which we’ve grown so accustom.
On past seasons of the show, the Fantasy Suite date normally goes off without a hitch: the bachelorettes go in on the cusp of Love, and emerge the next day with a renewed spirit, their feelings and beliefs in their man affirmed. For Clare and Nikki this season, the same held true. But something different happens on Andi’s overnight date: she goes in on the cusp of Love (“It’s a dream that I couldn’t even fathom,” she says, elated), and emerges the next day in a state of aggressive loathing for Juan Pablo (“Was I an idiot?” She asks, dumbfounded. “Was I blind?”).
Like Sharleen before her, Andi is somewhat of an oddity by Bachelor standards: an actual lawyer; bright and witty; Jewish. She’s also, notably, the only brunette left in the final three—Clare and Nikki are bottle blonds, slightly different versions of each other. Before entering the Fantasy Suite, Andi was well on her way to finding that great love, and excited to spend some real alone time with Juan Pablo. Her day date goes fine. Dinner, swimmingly. And as the camera zooms out and the screen fades to black, Andi and Juan Pablo are chatting flirtatiously, faces close, intermittently pausing to dote small, aviary affections. But when the show returns from a commercial break, the mood has changed, the once pleasant skies now cast in a gloomy pall. It’s morning, and Andi is irate. She speaks with the wavering, uncertain voice of someone brimming with anger, her words racing to keep pace with her feelings. Far from the man of her dreams, Juan Pablo had become, over the course of one evening, self-centered, disrespectful, mean, boring, a profligate name-dropper. Alone together, a different reality settled in, collecting like fog. An odd thing happened: when the cameras disappeared, so did their relationship.
Andi’s sudden change of heart, though attributable to a variety of reasons, speaks to an almost Orwellian ability for the show to make its inhabitants fall madly in love—if only on the show itself. Because there’s something oppressive about the cameras, about knowing you’re being watched: it changes us, pressures us to conform to different norms or expectations, elicits a sort of subconscious performative response. For actors reading a script, or even improvising, there’s always the acknowledgement that they are, in fact, acting. But reality TV—and The Bachelor, specifically—is fundamentally unique in that its participants are not really acting, even as they appear to be following the scripts the show has essentially laid out before them.
. “Far from every ritual expressing a hidden essence in which the performers explicitly believe,” Nick Couldry writes in his essay on reality TV, “rituals by their repetitive form reproduce categories and patterns of thought in a way that bypasses explicit belief.” Participating in ritual, then, is not dissimilar to following a script—we lend ourselves to a predefined role, relinquishing control in service of a grander narrative. Repetition, too, distances us from belief: do the religious go to church every Sunday because they believe in God or simply because they go to church every Sunday? By jamming them—literally and figuratively—into a box, The Bachelor theatricalizes its rituals, magnifying the otherwise quotidian dissonance between compliance to and rejection of ritual into the stuff from which great drama is made. And this at least helps to explain why Sharleen can simultaneously fall for and reject the bachelor, why Andi has the capacity to both execute a complete one-eighty on Juan Pablo and be genuinely surprised about it at the same time, and also, perhaps, why people so frequently fall in love on the show in the first place.
But Sharleen and Andi’s defections alone are not what sets the most recent season apart from the rest—it’s that Juan Pablo did not play by the show’s rules. Many people pointed to the language barrier as a primary factor in Juan Pablo’s disastrous tenure as the bachelor, and they wouldn’t be wrong; given that the process necessitates clear and constant communication, any language deficit on the show is like a strained muscle forced into overexertion.
Yet being a successful bachelor also necessitates a willful ignorance of the show’s outrageous premise, on dating a plethora of women at the same time while maintaining the integrity of a man looking for love with only one. On past seasons, rarely is the bachelor held accountable for misleading his bachelorettes—for actively persuading several of them to fall in love with him, despite the fact that he was only ever going to choose one. Instead, he is often lauded for his tact, his honesty, and his noble intentions.
When Andi confronts Juan Pablo later in the episode to tell him she’s leaving, Juan is vexingly nonplussed, edging on ambivalent. He seems hurt that Andi would accuse him of being dishonest and mean, but generally accepting of her decision to leave, which in turn makes Andi more infuriated: he obviously never cared to get to know me in the first place! Then Andi recounts a cruel joke Juan Pablo kept making, about her being the “default” and barely making it to the “final three.” Though distasteful under the circumstances, the joke is doubly significant: it both reveals Andi’s frustration at being taken out of the surreal nature of the show—of being reminded, or made aware of, the two other girls—and Juan Pablo’s refusal to forget that they were, indeed, on a reality TV show.
Clare inhales steeply before getting out of the limo.
“It’s all been my perfect version of a fairy tale,” she’d said moments before. “I just want that fairy tale ending.”
It’s the final rose ceremony. She’s wearing a turquoise dress, with a jeweled strap around her waist. Juan Pablo, standing at the makeshift, faux-alter, is sweating, his forehead dotted with small beads that seem impossibly suspended. But Clare, emerging with a pregnant glimmer in her eye, does not appear to be perspiring at all. She’s glistening. There’s a precision about her—in the curves of her body, swelling in all the right places; in the way she talks, as if attempting to slip the words through a fixed smile; on her magnificent skin, which seems both soft and firm at the same time—that glimpses perfection. But it’s a vulnerable condition, as brittle and fragile as glass, and a part of you always wonders when the façade will break, shatter into a million shards of runny mascara and generously applied bronzer.
It doesn’t take long for Juan Pablo to tell Clare she’s not the one. Past bachelors have built suspense, but he gets right into it. Afterwards, when he attempts to console her with a hug, Clare pushes him back.
“I have saved this moment for the man of my dreams,” she says, her brow furrowed in anger and disappointment. “And I thought it was you.”
This, as it turns out, is not Clare’s fairy tale after all. It’s Nikki’s, who comes out next, refreshingly human, visibly sweating, her hair frizzy from the humidity. Juan Pablo picks Nikki, but he doesn’t propose. “I like you a lot,” he says quietly, like even this is a concession. And though Nikki is happy to have been picked, this is not a typical Bachelor ending. Like Clare before her, Nikki had told Juan Pablo she loved him the previous evening, and though he didn’t reciprocate then, it was expected he would now, when it was all over.
Maybe this isn’t Nikki’s fairy tale, either.
My own story ended about a year and a half after I told her I loved her for the first time.
We had tried the long distance thing, the weekly phone calls and late-night text messages, campus visits comprised of moments that looked and sounded the same but were laced with an indefinable tension, summers doomed from the start because they were bound to end. Eventually, our relationship’s tether to the past snapped under the weight of all that had changed, and though we were still in love, maybe, it was a different kind of love, more a homage to the love we once shared.
In Barthes fragment, “The Ghost Ship,” he writes that we can only start to tell our own love stories—“the end, like my death, belongs to others; it’s up to them to write the fiction, the external mythic narrative.” Because does any love story really ever end? When she was gone and more or less out of my life, the love eked out like smoke under a closed door, persisting as a stain that time could blot but not completely erase, because love has a half-life, love is a palimpsest, it’s layered over and over in a graffiti’d gestalt, constantly evolving and compounding but always the same, really—it all comes from one place. For a while afterwards, I made the mistake of confusing my love for love with my love for her, until I realized that maybe she was just my reference and once I found someone else to split the load her presence would dim, the way years seem shorter and less significant the more you accumulate. Maybe I can’t tell my own love story because love never dies, it just becomes something else; “Metaphors,” the late Roberto Bolaño wrote, “are our ways of losing ourselves in semblances or treading in a sea of seeming”—and isn’t that what love is like, too?
Immediately following the final episode of The Bachelor, Chris Harrison hosts an After the Final Rose special, where we hear from the runner up, and check in on the status of the relationship of the bachelor and his bachelorette, which has to be kept under wraps for a few months while the show aired. Normally this episode is congenial and relatively drama-free—but ever since the show made a concerted effort to turn on Juan Pablo following Andi’s exit, Harrison has been blatantly skeptical about the bachelor’s intentions. And now, when he confronts Juan Pablo about why he hasn’t said “I love you” to Nikki, he becomes openly bitter, vilifying the bachelor for refusing to say those three words, even though the two appear content in their new relationship. There’s a sense, in the prolonged, tension-filled discussion, as Harrison flounders in attempts to draw out the phrase, that the show depends—relies—on him saying it out loud: if he doesn’t, he’s not making good on the promise The Bachelor makes to its viewers in the beginning of each season.
But Juan Pablo does not give in. “Sorry the show didn’t turn out like you wanted it to,” he says finally. As a result, Harrison suggests that Juan Pablo did not give himself up honestly to the process—that he didn’t go in with the intention of finding love. Don’t lose faith in the process, he might as well have said. Lose faith in Juan Pablo. Whether or not Juan Pablo came in with the right intentions we’ll never know. My guess is that he didn’t over think it: sure he wanted to find love—who wouldn’t? But he didn’t have to, and maybe didn’t expect to, either.
Regardless, the reaction to Juan Pablo’s refusal to play along and say “I love you” was acrimonious to say the least. There was a palpable anger—both among the studio audience and the Twittersphere—directed towards Juan Pablo. What was really crazy, though, wasn’t merely the intensity of the anger, but it’s ubiquity; almost universally, people agreed that Juan Pablo was a villain, a creep, a scumbag. But why? Was his offense really that despicable? Was it really so wrong of him to refuse to say “I love you’ on national television, after only (sort of) dating someone for six weeks?
Of course it wasn’t, but the outcry is telling. Ultimately, The Bachelor is our ghost ship: we are the “others,” and it’s up to us to “write the fiction, the external mythic narrative.” It’s no coincidence that The Bachelor is one of the most tweeted about shows, routinely appearing on Nielsen Social’s weekly top ten lists, which measure the shows that inspire the greatest Twitter activity. Or that we, the viewers, have a significant say in determining the next bachelors and bachelorettes (including Andi, whose season of The Bachelorette comes to an end on Monday). One might argue that we have a similar stake in the love lives of our favorite characters on television or in movies. But I don’t think it’s the same. Scripted love is fake, and we know it’s fake. Love on The Bachelor, though arrived at through a set of unreal circumstances, is real—just like falling in love on vacation is real, like falling in love over a semester abroad is real—if only for the duration of the show itself.
There’s something refreshing, too, about a love that’s this tangible, this definable, this clean and easy. One of the reasons we watch The Bachelor is because it steals love from its hiding place and transmutes it into digestible portions, turns something we’ll never understand into something we can: a repeatable process, complete with a codified set of rules and variables. Our pop culture is riddled with angst about love and its place in an increasingly digitalized age. There’s last year’s Her, a movie about technology that’s really about love, and Don Jon, a movie about love that’s really about technology; there’s MTV’s Are You the One?, which attempts to reconcile the idea of a “perfect match” with love, albeit in the form of a raucous monetary competition; and then there’s the crazy popularity of algorithmic online dating sites, the myriad niches of which now narrow the field before the game’s begun, so that we only look for what we think we want—oftentimes, people just like us.
The Bachelor, as a product of its time, employs similar, post-human techniques; yet it does so in an attempt to prove the existence of something singularly and profoundly human. So perhaps our stake in the show’s story is so great because the show’s story has such a great stake in ours, too: for all its flaws, The Bachelor—with its conflation of the surreal and real, reality and fairy tale—is one of the few reminders we have left of the type of magical love we so desperately want to believe is out there, somewhere, if we can just open ourselves up to finding it.