Why We Should All Care about This Week’s Finale of “The Bachelor”

By GINGER ADAMS

This week, Season 23 of “The Bachelor” concluded in what its host Chris Harrison assured would be the most dramatic finale in franchise history. View-baiting promises aside, this season’s finale looked unlike any before it. For the first time, a woman of color competed for the final rose. 

Despite accusations that challenge its faithfulness to “reality,” reality television is a rich medium through which we can observe the processes of social reproduction — the creation and recreation of our society’s structure. Familiar tropes repeatedly featured on reality programs saturate and drive our perception of ourselves in relation to others. The archetypal characters portrayed on programs like “The Real World” and “Big Brother” simultaneously reflect and reaffirm social stereotypes. “The Bachelor” contributes to social reproduction differently by normalizing the privileged class’s dominance over capital. Implicated in the process of social structuring, reality television can be understood as a social institution advancing the incrustation of social roles and the preservation of our society’s power structures. 

Reality television can be understood as a social institution advancing the incrustation of social roles and the preservation of our society’s power structures. ”

Recognized as the first reality television program, MTV’s “The Real World” perfectly demonstrates its genre’s function in the naturalization of prescripted social roles. In its early seasons, the series won praise for representing the difficulties of young adulthood and for consistently featuring diverse casts. Over its many seasons, however, new cast members began to feel familiar. Their personalities were predictable and house tensions presented as scripted. The bisexual blonde was the party animal. The southern boy loved America and had a dangerously hot temper. Through the production process, cast members were reduced to caricatures, performing one aspect of their identity in expected ways. By matching dispositions to identities and suggesting these social archetypes as naturally occurring, “The Real World” structured how we understand ourselves and helped ingrain stereotypical personality performance into our gaze. 

In addition to offering pure entertainment rapture, “The Bachelor” likewise contributes to social reproduction. The racial and economic homogeneity of the program’s contestants illustrates the dominant class’s monopoly on cultural capital that is essential to our capitalist society’s functioning. 

The franchise has featured one non-white Bachelor (a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Venezuelan born in Ithaca) and one non-white Bachelorette (a successful attorney and the daughter of a prominent Dallas judge). While the stars provided long-needed racial diversity to the program, they both represented a wealth of cultural capital. 

Unfailingly, a season ends with the engagement of two beautiful representatives of the ruling socio-economic class. ”

After facing a racial discrimination class action lawsuit in 2012, the program has made more efforts to recruit diverse contestants. Yet non-white contestants rarely advance in their season and are regularly denied substantial screen time. Unfailingly, a season ends with the engagement of two beautiful representatives of the ruling socio-economic class. 

The program illustrates marriage as an institution complicit in preserving the dominant class’s exclusive hold on power. The Bachelor’s record suggests that members of similar economic classes who possess comparable cultural capital are ultimately compatible. The bottom line is: the dominant class intermarries — sometimes on television. 

Critics dismiss reality television as misrepresenting authentic people and relationships. Yet fantastic fiascos of table flipping and drink tossing captivate us. Perhaps we consume them as experiments of power — opportunities to observe the consequences of actions we only dare to fantasize about from the safety of our sofas. Perhaps we devour them as means to identify ourselves. Like astrological charts and personality quizzes, reality television offers its consumers a map to understand themselves. Whatever it may be, we must recognize the genre’s power in reproducing the structures that shape society. Tayshia Adams’s run on this year’s season of “The Bachelor” may symbolize a movement towards the program’s racial diversification. Sure — like the non-white Bachelor and Bachelorette before her, Tayshia is rich in social and cultural capital. She is a beautiful, intelligent, witty and successful woman. Her stint on the program certainly does not imply a drastic evolution in reality television or the society it reflects. Yet we can celebrate her success and recognize its significance within the socially-structuring institution that is reality television. Tayshia’s victory, along with making television history, could indicate a shift towards improved representation in reality television, and consequently, in society. 

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Why We Should All Care about This Week’s Finale of “The Bachelor”