I wanted to hate The Bachelor, a vapid, regressive dating show where a gaggle of wavy-haired women compete for a ripped-but-otherwise-average man’s heart (and the six-figure Neil Lane engagement ring he gives the lucky winner in the season finale). Instead, I fell in love with it instantly, much in the same way the wavy-haired contestants claim to fall in love with the bachelor, whoever he is, within just a few weeks of meeting him. As a newly-minted, highly critical fan of the show, I also wanted to love Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, a new book by Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman. In Bachelor Nation, Kaufman sets out to delve into the show’s history and reveal its most-guarded secrets, and she delivers by revealing the brilliant, if cynical ways producers ensure maximum drama. But in attempting to interrogate and intellectualize why people watch the show, Kaufman unwittingly reveals more about herself than she does about the Bachelor universe, leaving the book’s aspiring conclusions a little lacking.
Technically speaking, Kaufman accomplished her stated goals. She interviewed past contestants, as well as current and former crew members about the on-set environment and the way producers manipulate contestants into saying things they don’t mean. (Alcohol plays a big role in this. So does the contestants’ complete sequestration, which, Kaufman writes, is “part of a well-designed producer strategy called ‘The Bubble’” where “all that matters is the show.”) She enlisted social scientists to explain the show’s most persistent tropes, including its over-the-top dates, which are manufactured to make contestants feel like they’re falling in love by placing them in high-stress situations — and which, she reveals often cost ABC zero dollars despite involving helicopters, hot tubs, and luxury hotels, due to the work of enterprising producers who “aim to get everything for free” by “tout[ing] the value of having [a] business appear on ABC prime time.”
She probed at why the show has persisted despite never really straying from its tried-and-true formula, even as social norms have shifted, as well as why otherwise-progressive people watch a show that has such obvious racist and misogynist undertones. (Rachel Lindsay, last season’s Bachelorette, was the show’s first black Bachelorette, and ABC still managed to include a blatant racist in her group of suitors. There has never been a black Bachelor.) She got her hands on a bunch of internal documents, including a contract contestants sign in which they give ABC permission to “REVEAL PERSONAL INFORMATION WHICH MAY BE EMBARRASSING, UNFAVORABLE, SHOCKING, HUMILIATING, DISPARAGING, AND/OR DEROGATORY.” She printed excerpts from notes producers kept on past contestants to show just how exploitative and stereotype-laden the show can be. (“Fragile as glass;” “Get her in the house because she’ll drive the other girls crazy;” “Jewish.”) She interviewed a handful of celebrities, from Amy Schumer to Spencer and Heidi Pratt, about why they love the show so much. She even went to Missouri, where a few Bachelor franchise alumni put on a benefit, to explore the world of Bachelor-adjacent #sponcon.
There is so much going on here, but nonetheless it feels like something is missing. At times, the book’s breadth feels less like Kaufman was attempting to appeal to as many reader demographics as possible in her journey to write the definitive book on the Bachelor franchise. You can see the stitches where perhaps an overzealous editor insisted on making the book more marketable: The brief celebrity interviews that act as interludes between chapters are repetitive, gratuitous, and worst of all, uninteresting. I didn’t care that Amy Schumer is a fan of the show despite its lack of body diversity — who would? — nor did I care that Donnie Wahlberg sometimes cries while watching it.
In attempting to imbue the show with significance, Kaufman instead reveals its shallowness.
The juiciest details and most dogged elements of Kaufman’s reporting get lost in a sea of unnecessary personal anecdotes. In addition to the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” quality of the celebrity testimonials, Kaufman inserts herself into the story whenever possible. Sometimes the personal asides make sense — Kaufman was, after all, blacklisted by ABC after the network deemed her Bachelor coverage “too negative.” Other times, though, it seems like Kaufman wanted to write a memoir, and wrote a book about The Bachelor instead. She describes her first boyfriend (his name is David, he wrote her letters when she was at camp), the tea towels in her kitchen (they have Ryan Gosling’s face on them), and her Bachelor viewing parties (lots of famous people, including Bachelor host Chris Harrison, have attended them).
In the introduction, Kaufman explores her own struggles with love: “What does it mean to be the chosen one?” she muses in the introduction. “It’s not a label I’ve ever known, but it’s one I’ve obsessed over since I was a girl.” When describing the famous Villa de la Vina mansion that serves as the show’s set, she makes sure to mention that a “handful of [her] friends have been there for press events.” In a section where she describes how unlimited on-set drinking can wreak havoc on contestants’ lives — and public images — she adds that one of the show’s most well-known producers, Elan Gale, had complimented her recaps of the show before she got blacklisted by ABC.
One of the most interesting chapters, which focuses on the contestants’ post-Bachelor social media fame and sponsorship deals, includes an aside about how Kaufman “may or may not have had a soft spot for [season 19 Bachelor Chris] Soules, and may or may not have harbored a secret fantasy in which we lived on his farm and I worked on a memoir about living on a farm and he tended to the corn on that farm.” In that same chapter, Kaufman dedicates a page to describing the outfits she and her friend wore to a sponsored event where Soules was the guest of honor. A chapter that describes the application process turns into a chapter where Kaufman describes her own attempt at applying to be on the show for research purposes.
There’s a section written in the hypothetical-first-person where Kaufman describes what would happen if she were chosen. “After I agreed to the trip, the show would book my travel.” “I would be given a $50 daily stipend.” “The producers would have me sit down and would start asking me questions, rapid-fire.” The framing makes it difficult for you, the reader, to place yourself in Kaufman’s hypothetical position — it would have been more successful (and easier to relate to) had she ditched the perspective. Maybe I should’ve seen this coming: In that same chapter, Kaufman writes that it was “hard to separate myself from the reality” of filling out a Bachelor contestant form, an innocuous statement that foreshadowed the rest of the book.
It’s possible that the entire point of Bachelor Nation is that the franchise’s popularity relies on this kind of projection. “Here, on The Bachelor, you can be a completely authoritative judge about which kinds of women are performing a womanhood you, as a woman, admire — and that you think men might admire,” Kaufman writes in the final chapter, an exploration of why the show has endured for so long. In a recent interview with Jezebel, Kaufman said interrogating why people like the show was the most difficult part of the writing process. “I’m not even sure I got to the bottom of it, frankly,” she said. “In so many of these interviews, I’d be like, ‘So why do you think we love The Bachelor so much?’ And it’s like, there’s a million different reasons.”
Kaufman’s thesis is that people love The Bachelor because it gives us a glimpse of what “true love” really can be. “The show gives us an outlet to express our fears about the modern dating world,” she writes. “It allows us to see a world filled with courtship, chivalry, and romance — and while we may scoff at the helicopters and hot tubs, deep down I think many of us still long for those kinds of things while we’re spending hours swiping left on Tinder.” But if I may be so bold: It really isn’t that deep. People don’t watch The Bachelor because they love the idea of falling in love; they watch it because it gives us an opportunity to mercilessly judge group after group of hot, dumb strangers who are rendered even dumber and hotter by deceptive editing. In attempting to imbue the show with significance, Kaufman instead reveals its shallowness.
“I’m hopeful that the show will continue to evolve, tweaking its tried-and-true formulas so that the contrast between the supposed fairy tale unfolding on screen and the reality of dating off-camera isn’t quite so stark,” Kaufman writes at the book’s end. “But in the meantime, I’ll be planted in front of my TV, watching alongside a group of women as we all try to understand the inscrutable, wicked, brilliant thing that is love.”
In a way, she’s right: The Bachelor is evolving. This evolution, however, relies on upping the show’s cruelty. On the most recent episode of The Bachelor — which ABC claimed would “ROCK BACHELOR NATION TO ITS CORE” — bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr., had narrowed the dating pool down to just two wavy-haired contestants, Lauren B. and Becca K. (In the Bachelor franchise universe, the contestants are often so homogenous that several of them have the same name; the producers’ solution is to refer to grown women by their first name and last initial, just like in a second-grade classroom.) After choosing Becca K. and putting a fat diamond on her finger, however, Arie changed his mind, and dumped her during their “Happy Couple Weekend,” while the cameras were still rolling. ABC aired the supposedly-unaltered footage of Becca sobbing in the bathroom as Arie haplessly followed her around asking if she was okay, likely at a producer’s request. There was nothing romantic about it.