"Anyone is crazy who voluntarily goes on The Bachelor," said Michelle Money (official Bachelor villainess, season 15) after she was eliminated from the show, and millions of people surely nodded in agreement. She left out an important coda, though: The only people crazier are those of us who watch it.
How else to explain the continuing fascination with a reality television show in which bikini-clad women race each other in tractors on the streets of Los Angeles, and say things like, "death is zero amount romantic"? The whole show is zero amount romantic. It is in fact the place where romance goes to die, yet I, and millions like me, continue to watch it and its spinoffs (including The Bachelorette and The Bachelor Canada. Probably I'll soon be watching The Nicobachelorette, about a smoker looking for love while she tries to quit.)
I feel as I should be standing in a church basement clutching a dirty coffee cup when I say this: I am a Bachelor addict. Like most addicts, I wish I were free. Can a proper feminist also be a fan of what is surely the most retrograde show on television, which transports its stereotypes – virgin, strumpet, Jezebel – by chuckwagon from 1860? That is a knotty question, which we'll get to in a minute.
But first The Bachelor, now in its 19th season, still a ratings blockbuster on Monday nights for ABC; it generates spin-offs, books, specials and enough on-screen tears to float a Disney cruise ship. If you've been watching (don't be shy, we're all blameless sinners here), you'll know that the current Bachelor is Chris Soules, a.k.a. "Prince Farming." Mr. Soules is a farmer from Iowa, and his heart is as full of kindness as his head is empty of thoughts. Despite this, and the fact that he lives near nothing but corn, some 30 women were willing to drink warm goat's milk and swim through mud to win his hand.
That number has been winnowed to three, thanks to a feral process in which the women competed with each other over who had the most "amazing connection" to a man they'd known for six weeks. The show, always barmy, has devolved into a journey to the lost city of crazy, with one contestant attempting to leverage her recent widowhood into a trip to the altar. This week, the final three contestants will each accompany the Bachelor to the "Fantasy Suite," which is a bit like a product-testing lab, except for sexual compatibility rather than choking hazards.
If this strikes you as having the freshness of a Blondie cartoon, that's part of the appeal. In the world of The Bachelor it is still 1962, and women with eyelashes like albatross wings fight with other women over the only thing that matters: an engagement ring. It's hugely comforting, or disturbing, depending on how you view the modern world.
Seen another way, though, The Bachelor and its sister shows are wonderfully subversive. For one thing, there is almost never a "happily ever after." Once the scripts have been put away and the last rose has wilted, the lovers almost invariably break up. Only a handful of the show's couples, who had once pledged their troth over a product-placement diamond, actually end up together. It's an arrow straight through the heart of the pernicious romantic myth of "the one." There is the one, but then there's that other one, with the glossier hair.
Can I be a good feminist and love The Bachelor, stripped of its cultural meaning, and just enjoy it as a show? Do I have to worry about the performative nature of femininity, or can I just marvel at the number of ways to spell Kaitlyn?
Or perhaps I can just accept that I am a bad feminist, as Roxane Gay writes in her excellent book with that title. Her argument is that questionable taste in music or TV or books doesn't make a person any less politically aware or capable, it just makes her human. She can enjoy hip hop, or even The Bachelor, and not let the sisterhood down. "I have certain interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism," Ms. Gay writes, "but I am still a feminist."
If this were a show trial (or a reality show trial, in my case) we'd all be judged ideologically impure. And that's okay. We can spend the day kicking against the pricks, and nights wondering who gets a rose.