The UnReal-ity of the 'Bachelor' Universe

It's been a hot minute, I know. Working in TV and social media makes it harder to dedicate your free time to TV and social media. Who knew?

Nevertheless, I am currently swept up in the faraway land known as the Bachelor/ette/inParadise franchise. There is something very interesting happening in this world, which I've written about before, but you might not know it unless you are an avid fan able to parse out which tropes and codes are being disrupted in the Bachelor-verse this summer. These disruptions fall under two categories; one within the series The Bachelorette, the other outside it, namely the seriously compelling Lifetime (what, did I say those words together?) show UnReal. 

Let's start with how Kaitlyn Bristowe, the most recent Bachelorette to be whisked away by the glamor of 'dating' 25 men on TV, purposely or purposelessly spun the show on its head. See, Kaitlyn seems to behave like a woman of 2015, meaning she has a sex drive that leads to certain events. A few weeks into the courtship, when there are still ~8 men left in the game, she sleeps with one of the contestants. Normally in this show, sex happens under verrrryyy controlled circumstances and locations that are actually called 'fantasy suites,' which serial viewers of the franchise will tell you only pop out when there are 3 guys left. Usually these 'overnight dates' happen on a tropical island, complete with pillows and candles and maybe some palm trees rustling in the wind. Everyone knows sex goes on, but it is never talked about, because the show seems to pander to what it believes to be Middle American values (for its Midwestern mom demographic, maybe). This season, Kaitlyn sleeps with Nick in Dublin, in a hotel room. It's so pedestrian in comparison, but so much more real, because the next morning the crew catches her on camera having a heart-to-heart with one of the producers on her balcony, reciting all those things we millenial women sometimes recite to ourselves and to friends after sleeping with someone too early. She doesn't regret it, but now she has to figure out how to break the news to the others. Furthermore, she had already told another contestant in private (Shawn, who would end up with her heart), that he was the one.

How did the production team approach this behavior? They sort of embraced it and altered the format of the show. Yes, they seem to have scrapped the other exotic locations in favor of staying in Dublin with a shorter schedule (could this have been a weird punishment? Nah, since producers will do whatever they can for ratings), but they actually gave Kaitlyn the go-ahead to have overnights with four men, not three. They also exposed all the slut-shaming tweets aimed at Kaitlyn in a reunion special (and my feminist heart whined as I heard this vitriol) in order to incite and maybe defend their now-controversial commentary on sex. Then Kaitlyn only met two families instead of 3, which was probably a good call on the producers' part when they must have known pretty concretely that Kaitlyn only really cared about those two guys. It may have been a misstep on the production's part to bring the 'loser' all the way to a proposal, but again, ratings rule.

 "raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George Twitter trolls"

Why is this important? Finally, after a bajillion seasons of this show perpetuated archaic values, romantic inventions, and hegemonic gender roles, we're finally seeing the cracks in that rigidity. I wouldn't go so far as to say that we're getting a positive representation of healthy relationships, but Kaitlyn has ushered in a frankness about sexuality that is welcome on a show that has, for better or worse, dictated some standards around courtship and romance in pop culture. That this franchise is also responsible for Bachelor in Paradise is interesting because the otherwise proper values steeped in the Bachelor/ette are nowhere to be found in "Paradise," where sex, backstabbing, and manipulation are called "love" to hide the jealousy and competition that draws us in like any good trashy tv.

Then there's UnReal. A scripted series that draws quite tightly from the Bachelor universe (it's basically a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the Bachelor), it tells the story of the backstabbing, manipulative producers responsible for this good trashy tv. What's great about UnReal isn't so much the scandals and cat-fights the producers encourage, but that these producers are women living in the feminist/post-feminist media landscape, grappling with their conflicting desires: power and morality, danger and safety, love and lust. For example, the female showrunner Quinn is a ruthless yet intuitive boss gunning for her own franchise, and she wants to take her best associate producer, Rachel, with her, despite Rachel's paranoia that this world is drawing her irreversibly farther away from escaping the manipulations and destruction she happens to be good at.

 Quinn certainly isn't nice, but she knows people, and she knows what makes good TV.

Honestly, I sometimes feel like Rachel. It is difficult to work in media without internalizing a general feeling that the internet brings out the worst in people. Being addicted to social media, like many in my generation, has made me less patient, less able to be in the moment, less empathetic, and less able to think deeply about issues larger than 140 characters. Yet when I see complex stories on TV about complex women, I feel like at least I have a voice, because stories like mine are starting to be told in mass media. I'm trying to escape it all, but I end up sucking myself back in. Maybe it's a vicious cycle, condemning the hand that feeds me because media also tells the stories I care about, but the fact that dating shows actually resonate on my feminist scale gives me hope.

Mr. Robot and my guilty conscience

Jane the Virgin & risk-taking