Of Gladiators and Bachelorettes

When I was in college, I went with my family on a vacation to Italy and received the standard tourist introduction to Ancient Rome, including the Coliseum. That crumbling building made quite an impression on me, largely because the movie Gladiator had just come out earlier that year. I tried to imagine the gladiators waiting in the dark inner recesses, anticipating what would very likely be an agonizing and humiliating public death. I thought about the emperor, drunk with power and popularity, basking in his ability to rally the crowd as he decided the fate of human beings. Worst of all, I imagined the crowd filling the amphitheater with cheers and boos The whole thing made me feel sick and fascinated. At one point this sort of thing was acceptable and even considered a fun outing? "Hey honey, if you've got the evening off maybe we could take the kids to see that guy fight the bears in the Coliseum - it's supposed to be really good."

Of all the pieces in this gruesome puzzle, I learned that the crowd was the hub of the wheel. Yes the emperor was the one who directly decided the fate of each gladiator but without the crowd, he would have had nothing to gain. No glory, no popularity, no frenzied rush of excitement. It was the crowd that fed the ego that killed the gladiator, all under the guise of entertainment. Those ancient Romans knew how to make good TV.

Which brings me to The Bachelor. Hi my name is Sarah and I love The Bachelor. For years, this show has been one of my social outlets - I have friends over, crack open a bottle of wine, dig into the dark chocolate, and wax philosophical about how TOTALLY CRAZY that one girl has been acting for the last three episodes. It's a show about love and what woman doesn't love love? Except I have come to see (shamefully in very recent days) that this is not a show about love at all. It is all about drama. More specifically, it is about dangling the heart's desire of 30 women in front of their faces, raising their hopes over the course of days or weeks, and then smashing it to smithereens publicly in front of rolling cameras. This show does not advertise smooth and successful courtships. It advertises tears. And though there are no doubt many parts of this show that are completely fabricated, those tears are the real deal. And we, the crowd, eat 'em up.

I am a counselor by trade, which means that I make my living doing my best to understand the inner workings of the human mind and heart. And there are a few ways in which (in my humble but professional opinion) the women on The Bachelor are set up for emotional injury. For one thing, they are put into a stressful environment (competing with 29 other gorgeous women for a date with one man in front of TV cameras... come on) with alcohol readily available. Stress and the accompanying release of cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the body) place a person in an emotionally vulnerable position that is only exacerbated by the use of alcohol. Then, to up the ante in the stress department, many of the dates that the women go on involve downright scary activities. Some examples from episodes I have watched include bungee jumping, repelling off of a skyscraper, performing in front of an audience, participating in a fake wedding, and driving race cars on a race track... to name just a few. Now we take these women from this emotionally vulnerable place, put them in front of an attractive man, and tell them that they must "open up" in order for the whole process to work. The result? Tales of abusive relationships, deaths of parents and spouses, surprise pregnancies, personal and professional disappointments, and all manner of life traumas are shared with a virtual stranger and millions of TV viewers. And those who resist these hasty personal disclosures are chided for not being open and thereby not allowing their relationship to advance.

In the process, a sense of intimacy is created that totally should exist in the context of a safe, monogamous relationship. Sadly, the relationships on The Bachelor are decidedly unsafe (you have a 29 out of 30 chance of being sent home heartbroken - not great odds) and un-monogamous (just count the number of mouths that guy's tongue explores - it's usually a lot). And speaking of tongues, don't even get me started on the physical side of these relationships. Though each season differs, the kissing generally begins within the first couple of weeks. Physical intimacy escalates from there until the end of the season, when contestants are invited to spend the night with the bachelor in The Fantasy Suite. The audience is never told exactly what goes on in the Fantasy Suite but we can use our imagination and conclude that the physical relationships have gotten pretty serious by that point. Biochemically, we can now add oxytocin to the mix - a compound produced by the body during physical contact that creates feelings of connection. And finish off the cocktail with a dash of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that acts on the reward center of our brains during periods of pleasure. What are we left with after all of this? A group of stressed out and vulnerable women, feeling intimately connected to and excited by an emotionally detached man who is dating 29 other women and will, in all likelihood, publicly dump them within the next 6 weeks. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a setup for emotional bloodshed and the emperor is rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

But let's put the emperor aside for a moment. We've already established that he is not the root of this problem. He derives his power from the crowd without whom he would have nothing to gain from his sick game. Let's talk instead about the crowd. That means the viewers, ya'll. And lest you think that I am trying to heap shame upon the heads of Bachelor fans, please remember that the author of this article is the former Mayor of Bachelor Nation. Perspective, not shame, is my goal. I believe that we the viewers, the members of the crowd, need a new perspective on this show. We are not witnessing lighthearted hijinks on The Bachelor. We are watching (and applauding) deep emotional wounding. Never mind that these women signed releases before going on the show. Releases mean everything in the realm of law and nothing in the realm of morality. A contract may allow a person to be treated injuriously without the right to legal recourse. But the contract never ever nullifies the injury. The wounding is unchanged by a signature on a release. We viewers cannot fall back on the argument that "they brought this on themselves." Make no mistake, we brought it on them by publicly exploiting, sensationalizing, and mocking their wounds. Those women are duking it out in the arena while we laugh with our buddies and sip our wine.

I think it's safe to say that most of us look back on gladiator battles with horror, wondering how anyone could applaud such violence and brutality. But we humans aren't particularly creative. Our violence has become only slightly more subtle. Spilling blood represents a more concrete injury than does streaming tears but both represent an injury, sometimes of critical proportion. And that is exactly why we watch. Not for the love, but for the bloodshed. And are we not entertained? We viewers feed the egos/pocketbooks that break those women's hearts. It's time to wake up and recognize our bloodlust for what it is. I, for one, will choose to no longer follow the crowd on Monday nights. I'll take my wine without a side of shattered dreams, thank you very much.

Wanna hear more from Sarah? On Twitter, you can follow me as @MuchHaikuAbtNothing. Please excuse the tweets about The Bachelor. That's in my past.