'The Bachelor': Why Smart Women Watch (and Love) It

Confession time: I watched "The Bachelor" ... and I liked it. I've been hopelessly and unfortunately trapped in the series' web of tears, overly-earnest declarations of love and tacky dresses -- and I'm far from alone.

I'm a relatively new devotee to this cultural phenomenon, which first hit the small screen in 2002, and has spanned spin-offs "The Bachelorette" (2003) and "Bachelor Pad" (2010). After avoiding the franchise successfully for nine years, I was invited to a viewing party by some women that I worked with during Ashley Hebert's season of "The Bachelorette," last May. I was officially hooked, following Ashley through her engagement to JP Rosenbaum, watching all 18 "Bachelor Pad" contestants simultaneously self-destruct and now I'm knee deep in white wine tears on "The Bachelor" -- despite the glaring fact that each of the three series is objectively horrendous. (If you look up "trash television" in the dictionary, you'll probably find former contestant Jake Pavelka's beady eyes staring back at you.)

Most of my peers have a love-hate relationship with "The Bachelor" -- specifically, we hate that we love it. The underlying messages of the show are beyond terrible. We're essentially told that all women in their twenties should be desperately searching for a man to marry (most of the 30-something bachelorettes are portrayed as a particular breed of desperate), and that women are, in general, complete and utter nutjobs (see Melissa Schreiber, Vienna Girardi and of course blogger Jenna Burke). Although, of course, this only applies to white women, as people of color rarely -- if ever -- get cast. Every single one of this season's 25 finalists is white ... or spray tan orange.

Yet even knowing all of these things, season after season, droves of intelligent, successful women come back to ABC and host Chris Harrison for more. In the words of "Brokeback Mountain's" Jack: "I just can't quit you." So why do we do it to ourselves? Is it just pure masochism, or is there something else at play?

Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck
I'm not proud of this, but there's just something inherently appealing about watching a human being get too drunk, burst into fake tears, and generally embody the term "hot mess." I think it's probably related to the morbid curiosity that impels people to slow down in the middle of the interstate to get a good long look. Watching the women of "The Bachelor" cry in bathroom stalls, discuss their burgeoning careers as VIP cocktail waitresses and dental consultants, and threaten to physically harm each other over a man they barely know, is alternately horrifying and captivating.

It's A Safe Outlet For Our Frustrations
Mondays are hard. Maybe you had a terrible weekend and are still feeling a little under the weather, maybe you had a crappy day at work, maybe your roommate is getting on your nerves or maybe you're just pissed off for no reason at all. Want a safe way to let out your anger without being hurtful to your loved ones? Enter "The Bachelor."

Last week I attended a "Bachelor"-viewing party (aka six women in a room drinking wine and ordering Indian food). Most of the women I've spoken with who watch the show also tend to watch with their female friends. "It's a bonding experience!" said my co-worker, Amanda. "My favorite thing about watching 'The Bachelor' is being able to talk about all the drama with friends during and after the episode." This bonding experience primarily consists of critiquing the contestants' outfits (far too many, too-tight, cut-out dresses), words (how many times in a two-hour period can key phrases "genuine," "journey," "real love" and "connection" be used?), and actions (so many tears and so much backstabbing).

Let me emphasize that most of the women I know are kind and thoughtful people who go out of their way to compliment their female friends, and are very hesitant to talk about other women behind their backs. But we all seem to have come to a tacit agreement that the fact that Ben Flajnik's prospects put themselves on national television makes them fair game. Former finalist Michelle Money, even admitted on "Ellen," "I think anyone is crazy who voluntarily goes on 'The Bachelor.'" Plus -- the women on the show are 10 times more awful to each other than we could ever be as viewers ("bitch," "slut," "clinger" and "cougar" are only a selection of names that the finalists threw at one another during the Jan. 9 episode). And lest you think that Bachelor Ben got off easy, he got his fair share of criticism as well. "He has a dumb-looking face," muttered a friend of mine as he came on-screen.

"Bachelor" Love Is So Fake (And Warped) That It Makes Us Grateful For The (Oft-Painful) Real Thing
Although most educated adults realize by now that "reality" television is highly constructed, that idea has never been more obvious than on a show that manufactures "true love." (My co-worker Jess even commented that "The Bachelor" was far less realistic than "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" -- and that says a lot.) In what world are we supposed to believe that 25 random girls would all fall madly in love with one dopey dude (and in a matter of hours)?

While it's fun to watch all of the uber-cheesy, romance-laden dates unfold on television, the reality of sitting in an empty theater with a practical stranger watching my old baby videos (an actual date that occurred on last week's episode) sounds more uncomfortable than anything. Watching makes us glad we date off-screen, in a world where we will never meet a man by riding in on a white horse or get dumped on a glacier.

We also get to revel in the fact that none of us would go to such lengths to impress a man. Tell another woman you'll cut her face off? Nope. Leave your PhD program to move across the country to a small town? Not even if Ryan Gosling showed up in a limo holding a boom box over his head with two dozen roses and said "You're the one." (Well, maybe for Ryan Gosling ...)

Plus, if there were ever a reason to fully let go of the Prince Charming fantasy that shows like "The Bachelor" attempt to play upon, just look at the numbers. Of all of the couples "magically" brought together on the franchise, only three are still together -- one being Ashley and JP who have yet to reach the year mark of their engagement. Most of us would rather brave the uncomfortable waters of meeting people in bars, through friends or on OKCupid than cut down other women on national television, or snag a man and then be publicly dumped -- details of the whole messy affair splashed across the tabloids.

So instead of taking "The Bachelor" franchise too seriously or using it as any kind of model for our own conduct, we take from it exactly what it can give us -- an escape from our daily lives, a reason to appreciate our real, imperfect romances, and an excuse to drink wine on a Monday night ... sans tears.

Slideshow: Some of my favorite "Bachelor"-related tweets.