Bachelor Nation and the Ancient History of Gamifying Romance

September 13, 2021   •   By Stephanie Wong

PASTS IMPERFECT IS a new column that explores the impact of ancient pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen, and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space for addressing forgotten, manipulated, or misunderstood histories of the ancient world from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We will also highlight how narratives about the past influence the world we live in today, from books and movies to executive orders.


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LEAD ENTERS STAGE LEFT, wearing a glittering green evening gown and matching eye shadow. Before her: Two rows of men wearing business casual blazers, their hair slicked back with pomade likely purchased from an Instagram ad.


KATIE (tearfully): I’m honestly shaking right now. I made my intentions very clear about why I’m here. And tonight, a bomb was dropped on me about multiple people still here for the wrong fucking reason. I don’t know how clear I can be about my intentions and my time, but if you are not here for me, if you are not here for an engagement, then get the fuck out.


The men watch, silent, rapt. They wonder which of them will survive elimination this week, boasting roses on their lapels, and which of them will be sent home.


Detail of a mosaic of the Judgement of Paris where Paris (seated) is speaking to Hermes while Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite wait impatiently for him to choose which goddess is most beautiful. Eris, goddess of discord, has given the golden apple to Paris to give out to the fairest (fourth-century CE from Casariche, Archaeological Museum of Seville, Spain, Image via Wikimedia)

Who came up with the idea to make romance a contest? It’s hard to say, but The Bachelor’s enduring popularity and fervent fan culture may be evidence of a longue-durée legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, which seemed as obsessed as we are with spectacles of romantic competition. Paris’s apple for the fairest launched fleets from Greece in order to defend his choice of a wife, the most beautiful woman in all of the eastern Mediterranean back in the Bronze Age; Atalanta pitted her suitors against each other and herself in a footrace to determine who deserved her most; Penelope, after heroically establishing the ancient world’s greatest friendzone, staged a nightly contest to replace her long-lost husband. Homer and Ovid knew what their audiences wanted, and Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor/ette, has made millions betting today’s audiences want the same: romance as spectacle.


Thanks to Fleiss and his legion of producers, the 21st-century American audience can watch modern mythology, however trifling, playing out in real time, as opposed to stories from the fabled past. Something about popular romance, whether set during the Trojan War or in a tacky Southern California mansion, triggers addictive, rudimentary emotions: revulsion, thrill, adulation, schadenfreude, genuine joy. Whether hearing it sung from the lips of bards or broadcast with closed captions on ABC every Monday night, romantic spectacle continues to enrapture hearts and minds. By this emotional metric alone, The Bachelor franchise should be read as a classic text of the Western canon.


Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, The Judgment of Paris, 1520 (Image via Wikimedia); Rose poster for The Bachelor (season 16) (Fair Use).

The similarities between the tales of Greek mythology and the newfangled televised phenomenon of pageant queens fighting over a single mediocre man are diverse and abundant. Both depend heavily on a fixed visual and verbal structures: material symbolism (an apple dropped on the racetrack; a final rose pinned to a lapel), ritual (a foretold wedding night; a staged engagement), and stereotypical roles (a patriarch; a patriarch). As Henry Jenkins argues, the blossoming of television fan culture returns viewers to early communal storytelling practices, allowing us to connect to elemental love stories, global pandemic be damned.


In March, The Bachelor will mark two decades on the air. The flagship show — later joined by The Bachelorette (2003) and Bachelor in Paradise (2014) — has been around the longest. It is the show that launched a thousand spinoffs in other countries; however, the original Bachelor franchise in the United States remains the most staid and prudish. Leads strive toward engagement by the end of the season, marked unsubtly by a product-placed diamond ring. The show’s regular programming, which is near constant during the calendar year, adjusted quickly to pandemic standards. Bachelorettes Clare Crawley, Tayshia Adams, and Katie Thurston and Bachelor Matt James proved it was possible to find love the old-fashioned way during COVID-19 — that is, on reality television broadcast across the country and social media. Along with the contestants, the nationwide audience counts down the roses and dissects each week’s round over podcasts, Instagram accounts, YouTube videos, subreddits, and group texts.


Fans of the Bachelor franchise call themselves “Bachelor Nation.” Like the audiences of ancient Mediterranean bards, many citizens of the Nation acknowledge the allegorical role that the societal series plays: it promotes the value of marriage and patriarchal authority. Crucially, a personal conflict between two people can explode outward, analogically, to shed light on an existing conflict in greater society. All shows in the Bachelor universe are aspirationally nonfictional, but by editing hours of raw content into a heavily condensed final cut, the producers orchestrate a recognizable narrative without nuance. The real nonfiction of the franchise is much more nefarious. As confessionals published post-NDA have revealed, the franchise’s racist, sexist, and classist prejudices reach much farther than the happy forever promised by a cushion-cut diamond ring.


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Like any good epic, the Bachelor franchise’s troubles go back generations — okay, seasons, in this case. In 2017, Rachel Lindsay was announced as the series’s first Black Bachelorette. Lindsay was a lawyer from Dallas who had competed on the previous season of The Bachelor, where she made it to the final three and was eliminated after her Fantasy Suite date (which, she later reported, she spent blackout drunk after watching Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election the night before). In addition to contending with a hatemongering racist as a contestant, endless microaggressions left in the season’s final cut, and a lackluster love story, Lindsay continued to endure hate speech in her inbox long after her season had ended. But she was trapped in the cycle. The franchise had hired her to co-host a podcast with former Bachelorette Becca Kufrin, and her contract extended a full year after her season, leaving her at the whims of production. Meanwhile, Lindsay continued to be attacked by the worst of the show’s fanbase, a deplorable group she dubbed “Bachelor Klan.” As the highest-profile Black woman in the franchise, Lindsay was forced to bear the brunt of every racist conflict that occurred in the Bachelor universe.


Following the airing of Bachelor Matt James’s season (2021), he broke up with the “winner,” before ultimately reconciling with her

One such conflict arose early this spring, while Matt James’s season of The Bachelor was airing. James, a nonprofit co-founder and real estate broker originally from North Carolina, was the first Black male lead cast in the history of The Bachelor. Unlike many of his predecessors, James was entirely new to the franchise: he was not a contestant of a past season of The Bachelorette or Bachelor in Paradise. (Most of the leads, both male and female, are sourced directly from previous casts, adding to their renown and recognizability. In fact, a frequent accusation leveled against contestants by their competitors is that they had only auditioned for the show in order to become a lead in the future, i.e., being on the show for the wrong reason. Imagine mythological personages making similar bids for kleos, the glory heroes attained through good deeds.) Intersecting expectations about race and romance on The Bachelor immediately arose for James, who expressed his anxieties during his season premiere. He voiced his frustrations about how “people are cheering for you to end up with […] a specific person of a specific race.”


As the season progressed and a clear frontrunner emerged, a chorus of social media sleuths on TikTok and Reddit exposed Rachael Kirkconnell, the eventual winner, as an attendee of an antebellum plantation party in 2018. In a televised interview with Rachel Lindsay, the longtime host of the show, Chris Harrison, defended Kirkconnell’s actions, asking Lindsay whether they were “not a good look in 2018 or […] not a good look in 2021.” The fallout was swift, but it landed squarely on the shoulders of Lindsay, who was forced to delete her account to avoid death threats from rabid Bachelor fans fulminating against cancel culture. The deus ex machina of producer intervention seemed to save only the lily-white faces of the franchise. Only weeks later was Harrison ousted as series host, pocketing a payout of $9 million, and former Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe stepped in as replacements. The cycle of prejudice and bigotry had ended. Or had it?


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Helen of Troy did not have to contend with the combined modern forces of TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram — though the idea that ancient Greek kleos lives on in the grid is a titillating one. In addition to nationally broadcast television, social media have emerged as new amphitheaters of romantic spectacle. If popular with the audience, leads and contestants can change their lives permanently. (Famously, Adams paid off her student loans after her serial runs on The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise, and The Bachelorette; she went from working front desk at SoulCycle to her new gig as series co-host.) Social climbing via social media beyond the confines of the show has its benefits, of which all the contestants are aware.


To reach Instagram influencer levels of fame, leads and contestants must first play the game. For years to come, Bachelor alumni can milk their fame through behind-the-scenes photographs from their seasons, engagement and birth announcements, and wedding videos. Contestants with large followings on social media sometimes have careers that make them predisposed to Bachelor success; the pageant-queen-to-contestant pipeline has filled the ranks of many a Bachelor cast. A prominent run on a season of the Bachelor/ette, and perhaps subsequent runs on Bachelor in Paradise, can create an alternative source of income for alumni through social media ads and sponsorships. Posts, likes, and stories in aggregate generate a full social-media-based complement to the “nonfictional” environment produced on the big screen. But these paratexts also form a deep archive for problematic behavior. The historians who mine it reveal evidence of contestants liking offensive content on Instagram, penning bigoted tweets, and using racist slurs in live videos.


Despite projecting an image of 2020s reality, the franchise promotes a conservative, 1950s view of heterosexual love and romance, one that culminates in the sacred institution of marriage and white bourgeois domesticity. As Gust Yep, Ariana Ochoa Camacho, and Rachel E. Dubrofsky have discussed, heteronormative and whitewashed narratives have dominated the franchise since its inception: conversations of social class and race rarely make it onto the screen. Talks between most recent Bachelorette Katie Thurston and fan favorite Andrew Spencer took steps in the right direction — the pair bonded over their shared experience of eating free lunches at school, and talked for approximately 30 seconds about what it would mean to be in an interracial relationship — but no discussion of identity politics ever progressed beyond the hypothetical. Casting for the franchise still functions along career-oriented girlboss lines for both the male and female contestants; aspirational wealth and social climbing are conflated with romantic eligibility. While contestants and leads can have poverty in their personal histories, a contestant who is currently poor cannot be desirable.


Detail of a fifth-century BCE Etrurian red-figure skyphos depicting Odysseus killing the suitors of Penelope (Berlin, Antikensammlung, no. F2588; image via Wikimedia) and the official The Bachelorette promotional poster for Jillian Harris’s season (2009) alongside her 30 suitors (Fair Use).

For all its shortcomings, the franchise has 1.3 million followers on Instagram for a reason. The emotional ups and downs of leads cast as the girls next door or the goofy young men become a national concern as well as a pastime. In an effort to create coherent narratives for each season, the producers tease various edits and angles for different contestants, revealing their own implicit biases. Rachel Lindsay, in her damning essay on the deeply systemic ills of the franchise, asserted that she was cheated of her fairy-tale ending with now-husband Bryan Abasolo. Her producers, she argued, were more interested in presenting the narrative of her runner-up Peter Kraus as her heartbroken suitor; they were more dedicated to affirming his role as audience favorite than uplifting her story of joy. “So much of my finale made it seem like I’d settled for Bryan because Peter couldn’t give me what I wanted,” Lindsay wrote.


The series has the potential to inspire dialogue across its broad demographic. Season 25 of The Bachelor garnered around five million viewers per episode. 2021 will yield two seasons of The Bachelorette, the second featuring elementary school teacher Michelle Young, who will be the third Black female lead. Favored by viewers for her Midwestern upbringing and her warmth as a schoolteacher, Young finished as runner-up on Matt James’s season of The Bachelor. It remains to be seen whether her time as Bachelorette will be more idyllic than Katie Thurston’s milquetoast season, which just drew to a tired close. In a suspected effort to both modernize the show’s leads and appease “Bachelor Klan,” producers cast Katie as Bachelorette for her willingness to stand up to bullies and her sex positivity. When presented on her season, both qualities manifested in a rushed narrative about sexual assault and an anti-masturbation challenge that fell flat in regard to attempted humor and outcome. The protagonists of spectacularized romance are still beholden to their audiences.


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Ancient Mediterranean mythology and The Bachelor/ette share a narrative lineage and cultural significance, but it is much more common to see the Odyssey on syllabuses than a season of Bachelor in Paradise — despite the fact that both document a similar quantity and caliber of intergenerational drama. There is a certain peril in ranking canonized ancient epic above mass-market reality television, of dismissing the value of the Bachelor franchise as a critical cultural text. From a democratizing perspective, reality television nearly eliminates the barrier to entry: anyone with a cable subscription can critique and interpret The Bachelor/ette in real time. For the viewer’s version of scholarly commentary, type any iteration of a Bachelor hashtag into your Twitter search bar on a Tuesday morning. Isn’t cultural impact an important metric in assessing any story, old or new, scripted or not?


The franchise has also bred new evolutions of romantic spectacle. Producers have rediscovered, exploited, and then standardized a long-standing audience desire for the gamification of romance. Unlike contemporary students of classical mythology, Bachelor viewers invest their energy in the rationalized vessel of the show’s elimination process, which promises a happy ending. The potential for joy through the myth of permanent heterosexual marriage becomes the viewers’ priority.


For an audience accustomed to consuming the detritus of reality television, with all its boons and banes, The Bachelor presents a mirror. Through the aspirational nonfiction of a program centered on finding the permanence of true love, the audience can sense reverberations of social ills: the systemic racism that leads to police brutality, the crushing consequences of a negligent government and exploitative economic system that exacerbated the effects of a global pandemic. By memorializing and gamifying epic quests for love, the puppet masters behind The Bachelor franchise reveal the endurance of classical traditions as well as, unintentionally, the vast gaps between myth and reality.


A second century CE mosaic of Aphrodite holding a mirror with Medusa on it up to her face to look at her own reflection as a cupid serves her (the Roman villa at Psila Alonia Square in Patras, Archaeological Museum, Patras) (Image by Egisto Sani via Flickr).

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Stephanie Wong is a writer and doctoral candidate in History at Brown University.