It seems to be a prerequisite of being on The Bachelor that you will never be filmed discussing anything interesting. Nobody has an opinion about politics or world events. Nobody talks about the great books they have read, the music they have come to hear as an expression life’s deepest truths, who they consider their most significant teachers or what great thinker has caused them to see the world in a whole new light. Every female contestant, even with the show’s glaringly superficial nod to racial diversity, essentially looks exactly the same. Everyone is polished, buffed, trimmed, toned and tanned into the contours of what is considered attractive, and yet which is lacking so completely in any of the wrinkles and curves and particularities of actual real living bodies and that make actual real living bodies beautiful to behold. And perhaps what I find most annoying about the show is that, despite the fact that every date ultimately ends up with a heart-to-heart over the supper table, not once have I ever watched anyone take so much as a bite from the carefully prepared plates sitting in front of them.
I am a late-comer to Bachelor Nation. But thankfully it doesn’t take long to catch up with the history, expectations, and what little drama has actually unfolded on the show. Whereas I initially hoped that this current season’s narrative arc was swinging toward Colton’s coming out story of having been a closeted NFL-playing gay man, I have quickly had my expectations tempered to fit what actually qualifies as a surprise on the show (ie. he professed his love, and….dun-dun-duh…. after just three dates, she isn’t sure if she loves him back!). If I actually have anything in common with anyone on the show, that wouldn’t be obvious from the way it is edited and produced. And the entire premise of one man finding life-long love through a process of simultaneously dating thirty different women is almost too ridiculous to contemplate.
Nonetheless, I am hooked.
I am hooked for the same reason that I was hooked on Dallas in the 80s, 90210 in the 90s and Sex and the City at the turn of the century. It is escapist television at its best, providing a window from our modest couches into the lives of the impossibly glamourous. Yet somehow these popular shows also make it so that, as we are consuming other people’s lives as the epitome of what our consumer culture can offer us, we get to allow their outlandish troubles to temporarily eclipse our own. Like most of the rest of the continent, I like The Bachelor because I like to turn off my brain for a while at the end of a long day.
But there’s something else too. There’s something else about this show that keeps me thinking about it all through the long week of waiting for the next episode to be released. The Bachelor, for all its nonsensical messages about love and marriage, also lifts up something that I can’t help but to recognize as true. I might not go as far as to say that it’s capital “T” true (although I also wouldn’t reject the possibility of Ultimate Truth showing up in even the most inane of places either) but I definitely will claim that there are things The Bachelor deftly reveals about the messy cultural moment in which we live.
I could certainly talk about how The Bachelor shines a light on gender roles and how much we still embrace and are locked in by certain narratives about beauty, female competition, what are and are not appropriate expressions of sexuality, and how much a heteronormative model of romantic love still dominates. But there are plenty of other feminist writers and cultural critics who have unpacked those messages much more thoroughly than I might in this blog. Given that I’m a religious leader though, what particularly fascinates me about The Bachelor is the very odd, but I believe very telling, conversation that takes place on the show about religion — Christianity in particular.
As Claire Fallon and Emma Gray note on their Bachelor podcast, Here to Make Friends, The Bachelor takes such a traditional stand on its understanding of marriage as the ultimate goal of human sexuality that it has come to attract a remarkably strong following from Christian evangelical circles, with more and more contestants from evangelical Christian backgrounds choosing to go on the show. It is becoming common to feature women (and on this season, the lead man, Colton) discussing their virginity: why they are or are not a virgin, or their disappointment in themselves for no longer having their virginity to “give” to their eventual spouse. And because this very particular decision around preserving sex for marriage is seen as emerging from the Christian realm of our culture, that one very narrow value ends up being presented to the world as representative of what it means to be Christian. Christianity can then be either ratified — or more likely it is to be rejected — based on how people feel about their own sexual choices.
And frankly, I can see why this is such an appealing way of understanding religion and what it may be asking of us. It boils down the very complex realities of both faith and human sexuality into two very clear either-or camps: either you are sex-positive and liberated to live your life how you choose, or you follow the rules as your faith very clearly lays down for you. Very little else is demanded of you to work out as a person, and nothing is asked of you in terms of how you will relate to the rest of the world through all of the non-sexual relationships in which you also exist. Meanwhile, the institution of marriage gets to be preserved as a kind of watered-down fairytale: offering to those lucky enough to be part of it some mythical ‘happily ever after.’
The Bachelor, in a way that is particularly representative of the social media age in which we live, favours an understanding of true love that is almost entirely devoid of real intimacy, with participants choosing to perform what should be the most awkward, vulnerable, electrifying and honest moments needed on the path to true love before an audience of millions. The show nods toward the Christian belief that the body is a temple, to be guarded from physical relationships devoid of commitment, and yet, infuriatingly, it is never suggested that the respect we are supposed to pay our own bodies might also have implications for how our dealings with others need to be founded in honesty, vulnerability and kindness, nor how we might choose to preserve something as important our own privacy. It is never suggested that faith might teach us that it is only in discovering how to offer and receive our flawed and fragile selves to one another that we discover something of what this life is all about.
And if faith can’t be seen as saying something about how we might stop performing for a moment and start living, then it certainly is also a long way off from calling into question any of the nasty, gossipy, name-calling, back-stabbing behaviours, as well as the mild, almost rehearsed, promiscuity that the show so thrives on heightening and exacerbating between contestants. Why imagine that Christianity could ask, as our baptismal covenant says, that we learn to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being” when it is so much easier and simpler to either accept or reject it instead based on whether or not you choose to have heterosexual sex before or after marriage? I don’t lobby any of these criticisms from any moral high horse either, because of course I also have a hand in exploiting and humiliating these contestants by tuning in each week as voyeur into their exposed private lives.
This is something else I have learned about The Bachelor, and most other pop shows of its ilk: for many of us, part of the fun is loving to hate it. And yet, there is something else amazing about it too. As ridiculous and superficial a construct as the show offers, it also can’t eliminate the possibility of true Love bubbling up in and through it. And here I do mean capital “L” love. I mean that, even on a show that gets religion so totally wrong, I still can’t help but to see glimpses and glimmers of the presence and activity of God working away to offer new life and to open human hearts in ways that transform and liberate.
The show’s host, Chris Harrison, loves to trot out successful couples from previous seasons, some of whom have gone on to get married and to begin to raise their own families. “It works,” he will say. And why not? Happy and loving lifelong partnerships can be formed out of almost any set of circumstances — including blind dates, arranged marriages, chance meetings, high school math classes, not to mention war and disaster and grave trauma. Why not also as cast members on a reality television show that pits thirty people against one another to compete for ‘love’?
But maybe the best parts of The Bachelor aren’t about the romantic love stories at all, but rather what happens around the edges. Deep friendships are actually formed, and no amount of production lubricating the women up to fight with one another can entirely weed that out. At one point on this most recent season, two women whose historical beef with one another was an obvious ratings dream simply, several episodes in, made the choice to move on, and both women made a conscious effort to not succumb to bad-mouthing the other. At another point a contestant spoke up about being sexually assaulted, naming her own pain and trauma with utter honesty and claiming the behaviour of the perpetrators for the crime that it was. Her ability to speak without interruption, to be heard and supported in that story, has allowed other victims of sexual assault to feel supported and heard too.
I’m a Christian because these are the sorts of things that I understand God cares about: cares about for me, cares about for the relationships between us. The healing of broken relationships is possible. We can be set free of the hurts that imprison us. And we can figure out enough courage to open our hearts to one another through a whole host of different kinds of relationships and be blessed in doing so.
I guess it’s too much to ask that The Bachelor, or any other pop culture edifice, might be interested in seeing faith as being about anything more than a simple either/or. But thankfully, even despite our attempts to polish, tan and tone the exceptional and particular right out of our most popular stories, God refuses to be edited out and remains on the move, right in front of our eyes.