The Utopian Feedback Loop of The Bachelor
How our addiction to happy endings fuels the franchise
We’ve all imagined what it would be like to take a turn as the object of desire on a show like this, how exciting and stressful it would be to have thirty beauties bid for our attention, how difficult it would be to remember everyone’s name let alone who already heard the story of how your parents met or what went down during your last breakup.
We’ve all imagined ourselves in this role because even if the scenarios are a bit forced, cramming a typical courtship (or two) into a few months, the end result is firmly within the expected trajectory of American heterosexual relationships. Despite the fact that these days only “three-in-ten Millennials live with a spouse and their own child,” the American familial dream is still packaged in this traditional format.
And that’s why we watch.
We don’t know how our own messy dating journeys will end, but marriage is ingrained as the ultimate end to a successful dating life, and the show is likely to fulfill that promise (well, with an engagement at any rate, but more on that later). It’s soothing to know that every time you tune in for another two-hour installment you’ll see a few contestants rise to the top of the pecking order, a few contestants pack their bags, and as sure as you are that Chris Harrison will needlessly announce that there’s one rose remaining during each rose ceremony, you know that a proposal lurks near the finale.
When the current data shows that many of us are trending toward a different or delayed result in our own love lives, are we doing ourselves a disservice by continuing to consume this alternate reality?
This is the 25th season of The Bachelor. We wouldn’t still be watching if we weren’t willing consumers of the promise of the show. Sure, we love the makeup-ruining meltdowns and the villains who stir the pot, but I think we’re more addicted to the overly-produced happy ending. At a time when Millenials are more likely to be saddled with debt and less likely to be married homeowners than Gen X or Baby Boomers, watching other people take a shot at love and the anticipated happiness wrapped up in that notion is pretty enticing.
It’s just a show, though, a diversion. We know these contrived relationships won’t last.
Sure, but reality television is no longer an experiment to see how people behave while cameras are rolling; it’s a finely-tuned machine that uses analytics just as well as the NFL and the Fortune 500. We had to first feed the machine to let it know what outcomes we’d support with our viewership, and despite the fact that there have been more breakups than marriages post-show, you know where to find us on Monday nights, comparing our own stations to the couples we see on TV.
I’ve been lucky enough to see lasting marriages and loving families up close. I don’t take issue with pursuing and cultivating these traditional relationships. I do wonder, though, if shows like The Bachelor are merely an innocuous escape, a cheat meal among a more comprehensive media diet, or if this feedback loop surrounding relationship expectations can have real world consequences. By perpetuating family values and expectations that no longer match the outcomes awaiting those who watch the show, it’s not a stretch that this could contribute to dissatisfaction with your own situation and prime you for another hit of machine-learned matchmaking that doesn’t require any of your skin in the game.
I get it. Real life has a funny way of being unsexy and difficult, and if reality television consisted of phone calls with debt collectors, we’d pretty quickly send the signals that would get that show cancelled. So I’m not surprised that we request and consume more happy endings as political and economic skies darken. It’s a natural to seek balance. Let’s just remember that though the timetable and composition of our families are changing, our content systems aren’t built to reflect that, and individual fulfillment rarely comes from the places everyones else is telling you to look.