How to Win a Husband: The Singular Path to Female Fulfillment on The Bachelor
Television programming has seen a tremendous increase in availability and popularity in the last century and has, in a sense, taken over the role of educating women about femininity and matrimonial aspirations. Specifically, reality romance competition shows like The Bachelor further perpetuate conservative definitions of womanhood and offer marriage as the sole path to happiness.
The premise of The Bachelor is set up around the assumption that all women’s ultimate goal is to find and secure a husband. Twenty-five female contestants abandon their lives for six weeks in exchange for the chance to marry a total stranger. This drastic upheaval of their lives is understood as a necessary and commendable sacrifice because a life without heterosexual love and traditional monogamy is assumed to be incomplete. Beautiful, successful, and seemingly normal women desperately compete for the attention and affection of a single man and agree to date him all at once. Season after season, producers are overwhelmed by the hordes of eager would-be contestants who jump at this opportunity. The desire to live out a fairytale romantic narrative and to achieve marital bliss overrides a contestant’s own routines, lives, and selves. Commitment to finding “Mr. Right” is so strong that they are willing to share him with 24 other women until he eventually makes his decision.
Because of this competitive aspect, female contestants are encouraged to mold themselves into what The Bachelor supposedly wants. They define themselves through their desire for him and demonstrate a willingness to compromise their needs in order to fit into his. They want to win, and are willing to surrender their personality and individuality for marriage. They find themselves through service to a man and through pursuit of the sacrament of marriage.
On a more specific level, women’s careers are belittled or ignored by the shows editors and producers, highlighting that these women’s primary objective and purpose is marriage and motherhood. Trista Rhen, one of the two finalists of The Bachelor’s inaugural season, was described in her caption as a “Miami Heat Dancer.” The show failed to mention that she was also a pediatric physical therapist. Apparently the producers decided that a less threatening and less intellectual job would make her more desirable. Likewise, a different contestant on the same 2002 season was described exclusively as a “Hooters Waitress” when she actually works primarily as an insurance agent, waitressing on weekends. More recently, on the 18th season of The Bachelor, women were given such frivolous job titles as “Free Spirit” and “Dog Lover.” This trend towards minimizing the professional accomplishments of contestants further emphasizes dating, marriage, and motherhood as the primary life path of modern women. If the show were to present its contestants as self-actualized, self-confident, and professionally accomplished women, with complex and nuanced identities, the show’s central message would be weakened.
It is important to present the women as incomplete until their attachment to The Bachelor. Furthermore, it is important to describe them as relatively unremarkable and generic because that leaves room for them to shape themselves into whatever that season’s Bachelor wants them to be. The girls find their personal identity through fairytale romance to a real-life Prince Charming; a narrative that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if contestants were whole to begin with. Each contestant derives her self-worth through his approval and affection, investing completely in the artificial structure of rose ceremonies, group dates, “Fantasy Suites”, and eliminations.
We see this message of heterosexual romantic relationships as the singular path to fulfillment most clearly in the confessional-style interviews that follow every elimination ceremony. Time after time, the rejected women lament their apparent failings and blame themselves for not being deemed “the one.” One contestant on season one, Rhonda Rittenhouse even required emergency medical attention following her elimination when she suffered an anxiety attack. She was unable to handle the rejection after investing so profoundly in promise of marital bliss. The show uses these contestant interviews very deliberately to articulate why each “loser” is somehow unworthy of love. The show frames women like Rhonda as inadequate because of their solo status, perpetuating the idea that a woman without a man is incomplete.
This is further depicted in the various reunion shows and Women Tell All specials where achieving a relationship is seen as the ultimate revenge. It seems that the only way these rejected contestants can redeem themselves and reassert their worth is to engage in a monogamous relationship with someone else, particularly if they are chosen to do this publicly on the shows spin off series, The Bachelorette. The first season of The Bachelorette in 2003 featured Trista Rehn who came back from the rejection she faced with Bachelor Alex and went on to achieve redemption through her engagement to Ryan Sutter. Following the 18th season of The Bachelor, lovable single mother Renee Oteri announced to the world that since being eliminated by Juan Pablo, she had met someone new and was well on her way to the alter. Renee was redeemed in the eyes of the public not through her own merit or accomplishment but rather by attaching herself to a new man. Renee and Trista are not isolated examples. Anyone who has glanced at a People magazine cover can tell you how one former contestant or another has finally achieved her “Happily Ever After.”
Through this never-ending race to the alter, The Bachelor establishes marriage as the ultimate accomplishment, presenting a very narrow range of options for contemporary women’s pursuit of happiness: marry The Bachelor, or marry someone else. These are the only legitimate options presented to Trista, Renee, and other contestants on the show. The extent of this influence is not, however, limited to those featured on or involved with the show. In fact, these messages are being internalized by audiences everywhere, casting a much wider net. Viewers are shown that single women are losers and that success wears a white dress and a diamond ring.
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