Last week, just a few days before the premiere of Season 11 of "The Bachelorette," my colleague Emma Gray and I launched a podcast called "Here To Make Friends," which recaps the dating reality show with love and snark. (You can listen to our recap of the first episode below.)
From around the newsroom, I received ripples of shock. Some were mostly bemused: "Oh my God, I would never have guessed you watched 'The Bachelor'!" several colleagues gasped to me. Others were almost concerned. “I just...” said one of my male coworkers, furrowing his brow in consternation, “You seem like a smart person. Why do you watch ‘The Bachelor’?”
I’ve been getting versions of this question since I started live-tweeting the show a couple seasons ago. My unlucky followers must endure two hours of incessant tweets poking fun at contestants’ opening gambits and questionable outfits every Monday night, resulting in not a few unfollows and annoyed replies from my more high-minded friends and acquaintances. “Why do you watch 'The Bachelor'?”
I was a Books Editor at The Huffington Post when I first started getting this query; the assumption was that 100 percent of my free time (rather than 90 percent) was spent reading. But hey, I’m a multi-dimensional person! People who watch "The Bachelor" also read books. Shocking.
"The Bachelor" won me over slowly when I was living alone in a tiny studio in Brooklyn. Folding laundry and cleaning seemed incredibly tedious -- so I’d put on the most recent episode of "The Bachelor" on Hulu, at first barely paying attention as I scrubbed and sorted. Then I realized I was doing a lot of staring, rapt, as the Windex dangled limply in my hand. I was hooked.
Moving to an apartment with a TV changed everything. I could watch each episode in real time -- which meant I could live-tweet. Suddenly, every episode of “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise” became my version of the Super Bowl: God help anyone who tried to keep me from being in front of the TV when the cheesy intro started playing. Bring me appropriate snacks (wine, Thai takeout, ice cream) and absolutely do not talk until commercial breaks, if you must watch with me. If you have to say something about the show, I told my (very patient) boyfriend, say it on Twitter.
Still, why do I watch "The Bachelor"? There are actually a few answers to the question. (Emma has her own response.) Chick flicks and formulaic rom-coms feature among my favorite mindless distractions, and "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" offer a touch of that absurd, over-the-top romantic melodrama -- and plenty of snort-worthy gaffes to keep things light.
Once I began live-tweeting, my enjoyment blossomed into something more involved. Nothing felt better than nailing a barb about a particularly outrageous group date (goat milking, anyone?) or getting into quippy exchanges with my new live-tweeting friends. The show felt like both a guilty pleasure and an intellectual exercise, a chance to hone my one-liners and rapid-fire banter.
That wasn’t all, though. As much as we mock the rigid rules and absurd formula of "The Bachelor," one reason it’s endured so long may be its similarity to the real world of romance. Sure, it’s an exaggerated one -- exaggerated to the point where we can barely recognize it -- but it enforces and brings out dynamics that many of us experience, in subtler fashion, in our own dating lives.
When we see a 24-year-old, blonde yoga instructor sobbing after not receiving a rose, wondering if she’ll ever find love, it seems truly laughable, and we laugh. She’s young, and (duh) her success on "The Bachelor" is not a measure of her value. But for many women, a part of us also responds with secret compassion. We’re taught to value our desirability to men so greatly that any rejection can call our self-worth into question; how many of us have spent the weeks or months after a break-up or unrequited crush bemoaning our fated singlehood?
And sure, most dudes don’t date 25 women at once, narrowing them down by eliminating one or two per week, but women today (at least here in NYC) often do complain of the difficulty in finding a relationship when men are seemingly happy to casually date an ever-changing rotation of ladies. After you’ve been on a couple great dates, you don’t need to be on "The Bachelor" to feel the nauseating fear of losing out to a more alluring competitor. (And who hasn’t felt the sting of that asshole who strung you along, made you fall in love with him, told you he wasn’t ready for marriage, then turned around and proposed to some other girl, like, right away?)
"The Bachelorette" is a different kind of crazy -- a bunch of bros trying to pretend they don’t care about a woman, they just want to win, but also they’re there for the right reasons -- but still presents plenty of head-scratching yet all-too-familiar vignettes from the world of love. And last night's two-Bachelorette premiere felt even more familiar, as I watched Kaitlyn side-eye the ground with a forced smile while Britt enveloped suitors in a cloud of silky hair and lipstick. As much as we fight against it and proclaim our inherent self-worth, we all kind of want to be the popular one.
For the smart, intellectually engaged women I know who can’t stop watching this franchise, there’s a certain twisted pleasure in seeing the imbalanced gender dynamics of dating writ large: What might seem so slight an annoyance in our own lives that we’d be petty to mention it becomes a cartoonish offense in "Bachelor World," and strident analysis seems like fair game. It's like the Platonic ideal of modern dating, claiming to be evolved and empowering, but packed with degrading expectations and assumptions.
Sometimes it’s depressing, even with white wine and Twitter in hand, to see these worn-out tropes being visited on another generation; the women who must ooze sex appeal while never admitting to having had actual sex, the men who flex their muscles at each other instead of forming relationships. But those problems still exist in our society, and that’s why they exist on "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette." The reality shows just make them easier to talk about.
Also, check out HuffPost's new podcast on "The Bachelorette"!
You can check out our future episodes of Here To Make Friends and other HuffPost Podcasts on The Huffington Post's Sound Cloud page. Thanks to our producer, Katelyn Bogucki, our editor Jorge Corona, and our guest Jenny Mollen.
Also, check out the HuffPost Here To Make Friends podcast on iTunes and make sure to rate and review the show, too.