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.”
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.
“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.”
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
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
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.
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
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.