The scene: a long shot, emphasizing both isolation and luxury. From this distance, The Bachelor™ and his lady are only one part of a tableau meant to read as high romance. Between them is an elaborate table, set with an elaborate meal that they will never touch. In an America consumed by leftist anxiety over ethical consumption and one’s eco-footprint, and a White House occupied by order-in T-bones and canned cheese whip, The Bachelor’s decadent table-setting stands as neutral as apathy is able. In front of each contestant sits a perfect medium-rare filet mignon, or a whole lobster, accompanied by vivid asparagus or an impeccably whipped mound of mashed potatoes. It is their second or third date. It is two weeks away from the series finale. They discuss the exact topics that most of us work so stringently to avoid: how many kids do you want, why exactly did your last relationship not work out (include details), harrowing deaths in the family. They have never seen the other take a bite. They studiously avoid looking at their food.
Watching, I feel my age. I worry about the thin contestant and whether or not she’s hungry. I imagine the date being something like sitting next to the handsome kid in History 101 freshman year when you failed to eat anything and found your stomach in knots, audible gurgles periodically betraying the grotesqueness of the body’s needs. I read an interview once that they never eat until they are back in their mutual hotel rooms. Then she can relax. She will tie her long, wavy, highlighted hair into a topknot, and she will eat room service, satisfyingly standard-issue chicken fingers and fries, while obsessively recounting the entire experience. Though this scene will never appear on our television, it is the most relatable scene of her evening. After the shoots and re-shoots, the attempt to find a real conversation on camera, she may now retreat back into her body.
In The Bachelor, food is a joke or a cultural signifier. Scene: villainous contestant, Chad, stuffs his mouth with cold cuts, washed down with unlimited amounts of free scotch, and specifically details his violent proclivities. His suitcase is stuffed with protein powder, and the camera lingers on greasy rolls of meat as Chad noisily masticates, periodically enjoying a stick of celery in between. This same contestant will later defecate in his underwear passed out by the side of a pool. My friend and I wonder from home about his likely alcohol poisoning. Exploitation is sometimes fascinating, but it is rarely pretty. TV Chad is toxic in every way, but among this pool of blandly identical square-jawed fame-chasers, there’s something deviant about him. I grew fascinated by his feral consumptiveness, as he extolled the virtues of milk and chomped into raw sweet potatoes. He has the same ruddy cheeks and patchy facial hair as my alcoholic ex-boyfriend, and when I look at him, I can feel manic hands massaging my scalp in the middle of a crowded room. In other words, and unlike the others, he has a body.
The show’s lack of embodiment, otherwise, is essential to our enjoyment. When the caricatures become real, we can no longer take pleasure in them. Last season’s treatment of its “villain” Corrine is a case study in the franchise’s moral emptiness: high calorie, no fiber. Corrine was a poor fit for a villain edit anyway, though following Trump’s election, the editors must have found her too tempting: blonde, self-proclaimed entrepreneur working for daddy, prone to spouting Chad-like ready-made catchphrases like the timely but nonsensical “Make America Corrine Again.” But she really couldn’t sell the edit. She was too obviously insecure, comfortable with the cameras but not sure yet how to use her body. Like Chad, something about her made me feel protective. She was too rife for exploitation. She was obviously aware of the process, but not self-aware enough to understand how, specifically, it would be able to wound her.
As the other girls made fun of her for stress-eating cheese cubes, I worried that the producers may not have made any other food available alongside the endless glasses of champagne. When she was sent home, she spelled out her narrative in plain and endearing language: “Why can’t I just have a normal relationship? I’m trying to say things that men think are appropriate, and you know what? I’m done trying to show my men how much I worship them and I love them and I support them. I need that…I’m done trying to impress these men.” Her words are a startling internalization of damaging gender ideals, but they also disallow an easy or thoughtless dismissal of Corrine, the person, who is vulnerable. The best Bachelor villains, like Courtney Robertson or Justin “Rated R” Rego do not feel like real people. They’re familiar with the E! TV aesthetic, and they know what edit they want to bring to the table. Chad and Corrine think they know how to play the game, but end up watching a hungry version of themselves with glazed eyes trying to focus on the face of a complete stranger.
Last June, an anonymous The Bachelor franchise producer filed a complaint against ABC, concerned about an alleged sexual encounter between a male contestant, DeMario Jackson, and Corrine, whom she feared may have been too drunk to consent. The production of The Bachelor in Paradise, the show’s on-the-nose camp spin-off, was shut down. Eventually, ABC and Corrine’s own legal team determined that nothing definitively untoward had happened, and production was resumed without the two parties involved. I found this unsatisfactory, and the show’s maddeningly opaque discussions of the issue more than unsatisfactory, even nauseating. At the very least, this was an instance where at least one party, if not both, were not aware of what had happened to their own body. This became, to me and many other women, a disturbingly apt representation of the franchise’s politics. We consume the show for the pleasure of its formula, its status as a cartoonish collection of known quantities, ignoring its more noxious and retrograde suggestions about race, the marital dynamic, and gender. Reading about Corrine and Demario was, to me, like reading Animal Farm or watching Okja: acknowledging the costs behind your enjoyment, the occasional stakes of frivolity.
But I think the nature of the show’s moral failings have become an element of what makes it so intoxicating. This is perhaps even more so post-Lifetime’s Unreal, a soapy but not-as-exaggerated-as-you-might-hope depiction of the production of Everlasting, a The Bachelor stand-in. Though we take pleasure in The Bachelor contestants’ adherence to their given, edited archetype, to which “career woman,” “single mother,” “single-minded spider,” etc., will round out the final four, there’s also another kind of intrigue. After our over-exposure to the way the meat is made, we look for the hints of what is “real” within the unreal. I do this aloud as I watch. I look for the sound splices, the uncomfortable glances to the camera, the accidental quiet moments where two women said to be feuding are intimately cloistered together in the corner. I look for what is nearly lost to editing, but isn’t, quite. I want to find these lost bodies, and feed them something besides Instagram validation. Maybe ABC should hire me.