A 21st Century Fairytale
Published March 30, 2016
It’s that time of year again. The time when millions of people unite for the television event that everyone will be talking about. Every Monday night, these televisions are tuned in from 8–10 PM to watch The Bachelor.
Approximately 8.5 million people tune in to The Bachelor every week. The show follows the journey of one eligible single man in an attempt to find true love. He is presented with 25 women, and must proceed to date all of them at once in order to find his soulmate. The goal is for the Bachelor to find “the one” and propose to her by the end of the show.
Now, this is as good as reality television gets. As anyone can imagine, one house with 25 girls all competing for the same man is a recipe for drama, drama, and more drama. The viewers watch in awe as the contestants proceed to backstab, gossip, and lie, all to gain affection from the Bachelor. It is hard enough keeping track of the women’s names, never mind how many tears they’ve shed per episode.
In a typical episode of The Bachelor, there will be one-on-one dates, a group date, a few cocktail parties, and a rose ceremony. The contestants compete for the Bachelor’s affection and, more importantly, for a rose. At the end of each week, the contestants who do not receive a rose have lost their chance at finding love.
To any self-respecting individual, the premise for this show seems ridiculous. Find love? In a matter of months? With 25 girls? At the same time? All while being filmed? The representation of women constantly seeking validation from one powerful man seems to be working in opposition to the way women want to be viewed in society today. So why do millions of us watch this show, season after season?
Perhaps the way we are raised can give us the answer. From a young age, every child is told fairytales. We listen to stories of gallant knights, fearful villains, vulnerable princesses, and we fall in love with the idea of finding a happily-ever-after fairytale ending for ourselves.
Vladimir Propp, a Soviet folklorist, analyzed fairytales and broke them down in order to understand what it is we love so much about them. Propp describes 31 basic elements that seem to occur in most fairytales. These range from #1: “The Initial Situation” in which the story is set up, to #15: “Transference,” where the hero is taken to another emotional level, to #25: “Difficult Task,” where the hero must face a challenge in order to reach #31: “The Wedding,” where the hero and the princess live in matrimonial bliss forevermore. The basic fairytale also has recurring characters. There is always a hero, a dispatcher—who explains the hero’s quest—a villain, and a princess, among others. Sounds familiar? It should. ABC has successfully captivated millions of viewers by creating a modern day fairytale.
Never mind the fact that throughout all twenty seasons of The Bachelor, there have only been about five successful relationships. Everyone who watches The Bachelor desires the confirmation that true love still exists. The fairytale ideal allows for the fantastical, dream-like setting in which the bachelor and 25 other women are trying to fall in love. The viewers delight in seeing Chris Harrison, the host of the show, help the hero in his quest for love. They relish the takedown of the villains as the bachelor gets closer to finding his princess. As he slays his dragons and hands out his roses, The Bachelor fandom is with their hero every step of the way.
But beyond creating the kinds of fairytales we grew up listening to and reading as kids, The Bachelor develops a darker, more Hans Christian Andersen kind of story. Its representations of identity, romance, and personal value are aligned with crude ideas of capitalism and sexism. I would argue that the way this series tells its story, emphasizing the ways that such themes can be hidden behind frivolity and the promise of happiness, make this not just a piece of mindless entertainment, but also a potentially dangerous text. It socializes certain ideas about how we value people, how we understand what is realistic and desirable.
We have been taught that true love conquers all. The opportunity to watch love develop on camera, disregarding the many edits and times it takes to get the perfect shot, is beyond our resistance. The Bachelor is the world’s twenty-first century fairytale, brought to us on a high-definition screen. And who doesn’t love a good love story?