Twenty years. Twenty-six seasons. Two long-running spinoffs. Millions have been mesmerized by “The Bachelor.” At first glance, the reality television series is an experiment in love and matchmaking in the modern era.
Year after year, viewers watch a highly manufactured depiction of romance that prioritizes a thin, white, cis-heteronormative and able-bodied lens of love. The competition is a psychologically strenuous exploration of polyamory as a means to monogamy, which simultaneously appeals and directly opposes the sensibilities of its white evangelical base. No matter the gimmicks, countless crises or the amount of love-bombing and trauma-dumping the franchise invokes, fans are still watching.
Amassing 3.8 million viewers during the Season 26 premiere, “The Bachelor” is a hit among the 18- to 49-year-old viewer demographic, skewing largely toward white, often Christian, middle-aged women. The series has spawned a cultish online community referred to as “Bachelor Nation,” which thrives off the series’ organized chaos and drama. The question that remains is whether this experiment is as successful — or even intentional — as it purports to be, and why America continues to eat the “Bachelor” franchise up.
Albeit a hit in homes across the nation, the relationships the “Bachelor” franchise spawns rarely last. “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have a mere 16% and 33% success rate, respectively. Suzana Somers, 31, is the whiz behind @bachelordata on Instagram, where she is a full-time “Bachelor” data analyst tracking statistics on everything from contestant screen time and follower count growth to kisses per episode and more. She first began tracking data during Colton Underwood’s season (Season 23) as a means to sharpen her Excel skills following a job promotion.
“There’s this conception of the show that it’s a show all about finding love, but people are generally unsuccessful just because we see so many people break up,” said Somers, who has watched every episode of “The Bachelor” franchise to track data. “If we look at ‘The Bachelor,’ for example, there are only two seasons right now where the final guy is with the final girl that he originally chose. That would be Sean and Catherine, then Matt and Rachel for only about a year old now.”
Outside of the confined walls of the “Bachelor” franchise mansion, human curiosity gnaws away at the leads, causing them to wonder what life would be like with a different partner. Then they act on it via sending DMs and text exchanges, often to other former contestants. Somers noted that she’s beginning to see a trend in which leads change their minds after the season ends, which first occurred in 2009 and reemerged in 2018.
Arie Luyendyk gave the final rose to Becca Kufrin, but they later broke up, and he rekindled a relationship with Lauren Burnham; Burnham and Luyendyk are now married with three kids. The most recent example is Season 17 “Bachelorette,” Katie Thurston, developing a relationship in November 2021 with former contestant John Hershey, whom she did not originally select.
Somers said that upon evaluating “The Bachelor,” it took seven years from its inception in 2002 before one couple decided to stay together long term: Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney in 2009. Per her data, four leads from “The Bachelor” are with someone from their season; as for “The Bachelorette,” six leads are with someone from their season.
“We had seven years of [“The Bachelor”] being wildly successful, getting renewed, increasingly getting better spots on TV, and the show kept going and it stayed popular,” Somers said. “I don’t think that whether or not these couples stay together is an indicator overall for the show’s success to stay on the air. ”
What Somers has discovered is that there is no breakup threshold or a barometer to gauge when couples split (i.e., after the two-year mark, three-year mark). It’s sporadic: Peter Weber and Madison Prewett lasted one week. Hannah Brown and Jed Wyatt broke up before her season ended. “The Bachelorette” Season 7 couple, Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum, divorced in 2020 after nearly eight years of marriage.
If anything, it attests to how watching the franchise is “a cultural event,” Somers said. Fans place bets on who will make it furthest in a season, a cascade of tweets inevitably take over the Twitter timeline, and “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have become a blueprint for reality dating television shows.
Psychologist William J. Ryan compares the feeling of watching the “Bachelor” franchise to that of a social-bonding event like watching the NFL playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl. This even translates to contestants such as Ryan Fox, who appeared on Michelle Young’s season of “The Bachelorette” with a physical playbook in tow. Funny enough, he was eliminated due to his impure intentions.
Ryan has nearly 35 years of experience and a doctorate in psychology; he is a couples therapist based in Brooklyn, New York. Though he’s watched only a few episodes of “The Bachelor” franchise, he said audiences can’t ignore how the series offers a “vicarious pleasure” that “feeds our own imagination about romance.”
“We have been a society of what’s called serial monogamy for many, many years,” Ryan said. In the case of serial monogamy, he said, people may date for an extended period of time and are exclusively, physically intimate, then split and do the same thing with someone else. “But the way ‘The Bachelor’ does it,” Ryan continued, “I go to a shoe store, and I try on 12 pairs of shoes. Real people don’t really do that when they’re seriously dating.”
The competitive nature of the show is further heightened by producer manipulation and unrealistic scenarios, ranging from winning athletic challenges to gain more time with the lead to, most recently, one contestant bullying another for having ADHD.
As contestants are sidelined and sequestered for weeks on end, they become increasingly hyperaware of the fact that they’re all competing for the same person. From the minute they exit the limo and walk into the mansion, contestants make extreme attempts to get the lead’s attention, be it grand entrances or presenting them with precious valuables, resulting in what can be extreme love-bombing.
Love-bombing is the practice of using grand gestures such as attention, gifts, and more to establish and influence some sort of intimacy or power dynamic in a relationship. Ryan said that this strategy happens in the real world because it, unfortunately, works. He described it as a one-way street.
“It flatters,” Ryan said. “For most people, they recognize, ‘Oh, he’s making me feel very special.’ Eventually it crosses the line. Oftentimes when people come into my office and sit on my couch, a lot of people seem more focused on being loved. And I might say, ‘How do you feel about them?’ Sometimes they’re startled, ‘Like, really? That’s a question I should think about?’”
In recent seasons of “The Bachelorette,” the pursuit of love has been marred with trigger warnings. As 2021 leads Katie Thurston and Michelle Young called for vulnerability from contestants, the men began sharing their deepest, darkest secrets or family histories.
During the third episode of Thurston’s season, contestants sat in a circle on a “tense group date” sharing moments from their past, ranging from struggles with alcoholism to infidelity. Thurston shared that she is a survivor of sexual assault — and the network didn’t include trigger warnings on the episode when it aired on June 21. Jamie Skaar from Young’s season shared intimate details of his childhood and his mother’s death by suicide, and the network added warnings after the episode rather than before.
Season 25 of “The Bachelor” not only showcased the series’ first Black lead, Matt James, but also oddly capitalized on spinning a false “absentee Black father” narrative, airing an intimate conversation with him and his father. (As the episode aired, James tweeted about the effect of “dangerous stereotypes and negative depictions of Black fathers in media,” stating clearly that he wouldn’t be who he is “without my dad.”)
The notion of trauma-bonding and trauma-dumping as a means to evoke vulnerability, said Ryan, is really an attempt to develop pseudo-intimacy.
“It can create a sense of, ‘Oh, this person is telling me a secret. This person is trusting me with a big secret.’ If anybody did that, on a first or second or third date… they might realize that this person is intentionally or inadvertently doing something to me, in telling me this. They are pulling me into a more intimate relationship than I want,” Ryan said.
That element is what Lizzy Pace and Chad Kultgen refer to as the PTC: the personal trauma card. Pace and Kultgen are co-hosts of the popular “Game of Roses” podcast, which has nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram. Kultgen and Pace refer to the contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as players. To them, the franchise is a sport.
“There are many ways to play it,” Kultgen said. “All players generally come into the game with one, some multiple. You’re really sitting there watching these star athletes unveil their special move. It’s like how Michael Jordan had a certain style when he would slam dunk a basketball, with his tongue sticking out and he’s flying through the air.”
Pace has been watching “The Bachelor” since the beginning, when she was 12 or 13; she started the podcast with Kultgen just two years ago. In January, the pair released their novel “How to Win the Bachelor: The Secret to Finding Love and Fame on America’s Favorite Reality Show.”
The book is a deep dive into what they believe is the most successful reality TV franchise of all time, replete with strategies, tactics and tools on how to win the competition. Season 26 of “The Bachelor,” starring Clayton Echard, is currently airing and features players that Kultgen has actually coached on how to win.
“If we’re correct in these strategies, they should be able to be applied to actually training players to go into the game,” Kultgen said. We don’t mean to say that this is a sport so people cannot fall in love. It’s not an either-or; it’s actually a both.”
During the pandemic, Pace and Kultgen rewatched every season of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” on double speed as they were mainlining their playbook. Through that process, Pace said, they witnessed how the game — the franchise — has actually transformed. She said that in its original inception, “The Bachelor” was closer to what it purports to be: everyone having an equal chance of finding love.
“All of the group dates were divided into equal amounts of players. The group dates weren’t these psychological and physical torture chambers like they have come to be today. They were these extravagant fancy dates where they put them on airplanes to Lake Tahoe,” Pace said. “There was no group date rose; there were no first impression roses. There were none of these elements that they later added to the game to stoke the competitiveness, which actually, in our minds, brings it further away from the show’s stated purpose, which is to help one person find love.”
On the note of trauma and torture, Pace and Kultgen have concluded that the PTC is a method utilized to bring the contestant closer to the lead. They have divided the game into four audiences players must appeal to: first is the lead, second are the other players, third is the producers and fourth is the viewership and Bachelor Nation at large.
Kultgen said the third audience — the producers — defines everything, from the edit you receive to a contestant’s identity in the show as either a “villain” or “the nice guy.” Despite knowing how contrived and superficial the series can be, what keeps them intrigued are the players.
“I don’t think it’s a failed experiment at all. It’s one of the longest-running TV shows. The subreddit is always up there in the top most active subreddits,” Pace said. “Then, if you look at the top podcasts in TV and film, there’s a ton of ‘Bachelor’ podcasts on there. Like, we see it as the most accurate reflection of our society as a whole.”
But does the show establish a good foundation for long-lasting, healthy relationships? “Of course not,” Kultgen said. “But that’s not what the show is about.”
As with any form of entertainment, it’s a mirror of the good, bad and ugly of our society, a thermometer of the culture. Kultgen added that what drives today’s culture is the fame machine. While he has no problem with fans who do watch it for love, he finds that tapping into the gameplay is far more engaging.
Some fans still find the pursuit of love — and discussions regarding who can search for a partner on the national stage — worthwhile. Ashley Tabron, also known as @AshTalksBach online, is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. The 34-year-old English teacher started watching “The Bachelorette” during Rachel Lindsay’s season. Prior to that, Tabron felt like the show did not cater to her as a Black woman.
Watching the “Bachelor” franchise initially served as a form of escapism and a “fun thing to watch,” she said. However, upon listening to the podcasts hosted by contestants and digging deeper into social media, she has yet to discern what the franchise really wants to achieve.
“I didn’t realize that it was rare that they stayed together until I really got too invested in the show…. I don’t know if the show’s purpose is worthless,” Tabron said, questioning the franchise’s purported matchmaking mission. “I know they market it that way and they hype up their success stories.”
Apart from the highly produced nature of it all, Tabron said that getting engaged amid newfound fame further complicates the process. She noted that in postseason interviews, couples have shared that the first time they truly get to date is following the televised engagement.
“What I think the show tries to do is create this environment where people are bonded through novel experiences,” Tabron said. “You only have a limited amount of time to get to know the lead and to get them to know your personality. The show kind of fast tracks ‘what’s your sad story’ to get to this…because the lead is getting to know the person for the first time. Also, the audience is supposed to care about this person and feel empathy towards them as well.”
Tabron fluctuates between whether she’ll keep watching or not. What would keep her interest is seeing a series that actually grows and evolves with our changing nation ― lest we forget the train wreck of a season that showcased the first Black Bachelor. While she said that, on one hand, it’s something “mindless for a Monday,” the show has a “responsibility to reflect 2022 instead of 2002.”
“Initially, I came to the show because of Rachel Lindsay, so I never expected to see myself reflected. Once I realized that it was possible for the show to include me, people who look like me, and Black women getting chosen, loved, respected and seen in ways that they hadn’t done before. I was all in on that, even if it was new, even if it was messy,” Tabron said.
“I’ve met so many Black women, especially through Twitter and Instagram,” continued Tabron, “and I’ve been able to engage in thoughtful commentary with them on a level that I wouldn’t if I was only talking to a white female viewer. There’s still conversations that need to be had about the show, so that was my rationale for continuing to watch Clayton’s season despite this abrupt shift back to its original form. Now that I know the show can do better, it should just do better.”