Who will be this year’s bad girl? Do you even care?

By Dr Rosser Johnson
27 Nov, 2017

We’re about to start yet another round of watching attractive young people trying to make their fairy tale come true. Yes, it’s time for The Bachelor again; nineteen women seeing if they have a real connection with this year’s lucky man – Zac.

The contestants will have primped and primed themselves before being secluded in a mansion to focus themselves on him. And, if previous series are anything to go by, on each other as well. Because as much as we want to see two people find each other and fall in love, we also want the tantrums and the tears, the scheming and the cattiness, the stripping away of the ice-cool reserve to see the real person break through.

A rose held behind the back of a gentleman

Who will be this year’s bad girl? The sweetheart? The shy nerd? The one who suspects her time for true love is running out? And will Zac be worth all the fuss anyway – or will he be another Jordan? In the coming days and weeks we’ll get caught up in the unfolding story of possible connections, fleeting glances, missed chances, and, of course, who gets handed the all-important rose. We’ll start to think of the people on our screens as “characters”. We’ll feel like we know them. And feel for them as they suffer the highs and lows of socialising and dating in front of a camera crew.

But that’s probably also what we’ll forget. That, like all reality television, what we see every week is not a result of just putting some people in a house and pointing cameras at them. Producers will organise events designed to bring emotions – and hopefully, conflicts – to the surface. Camera operators will choose what to shoot and how closely to frame the faces of our heroines and villains. Editors will choose which shots to join together, which people to focus on. And the crew may accidentally forget to stock up on quinoa and kale, so the bachelorettes get grumpy, stressed and hangry. In other words, as with most reality TV, we – the viewers – will conveniently forget that what we see is not “real”. It’s a version of reality, made for us to fit nicely into sixty minutes minus commercial breaks.

It will also fit into other media as well. Going on past series, we will get radio stations, newspapers, magazines and websites feeding into the stories that play out on our screens. Those that are owned by the same company that owns Three will be positive, buying into and promoting the unfolding narrative of the show. Those owned by competing corporations will be more critical, focussed on scandal, the untold story, the sordid past that’s been hidden from view. And that competition won’t be talked about very much, if at all. All media outlets will be trying to increase their ratings, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep the story going.

And the story will, ultimately, be about us more than the people on the screens. Reality TV shows that work – like The Bachelor – work because they take us beyond what we see and hear and ask us to question ourselves. Why do I like this bachelorette and not that one? What would I do in their shoes? How does my relationship marry up with the idealised romance on my TV screen? These are the sort of questions commentators and critics will ask too. There will be queries about the motives of the people involved. Enquiries into the state of “love” in 2017. Complaints about the gender imbalance of the format, the stereotypical roles expected of the women as they try to win their man, the fact that this is the third series of The Bachelor and we haven’t seen one local version of The Bachelorette.

In the end, though, what will we learn? In the absence of anything truly shocking, probably not that much. There’s a reason that there aren’t any reality shows in serious top ten lists of “greatest ever programmes”. We reserve that status for “quality” television, truly iconic shows that push the boundaries and advance the art of storytelling on screen. The value of The Bachelor, then, might not be in its production values (which are not high) or its ability to influence our culture (which is, let’s face it, practically non-existent). Instead, The Bachelor might be worth watching and enjoying not because of what it is but because of what it does. When you strip away the format, the contrivances, the games and the artifice, The Bachelor holds up a mirror. It shows us ourselves and our culture. Some of us won’t like what we see. Some will want to celebrate what’s there. But we probably won’t be able to avoid it. Or avoid – however briefly – the sneaky, hopeful thought: maybe there might be a happy ending after all.

Dr Rosser Johnson is an Associate Dean (Postgraduate) at AUT and teaches and researches about the New Zealand media. He is an avid television fan, and spends too much time in front of a screen.