“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could have just as easily been Mike Fleiss’ pitch to ABC for The Bachelor back in 2001. And if any network executive questioned whether a woman would be ready to get engaged after just a handful of weeks dating on TV, Mr. Darcy’s line, “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment” might have been able to persuade them. Courtship rituals, obstacles on the way to the altar, and the hope of happily ever after are the driving forces behind one of America’s most popular long-running reality shows—and a typical 19th century marriage plot novel.
What Austen’s novels captured so astutely was human nature—vanity, ego, concealment, insecurity, and desire are the central tensions I’ve always found most enthralling about her work and The Bachelor. Both are a crash course in human nature and the social dynamics involved in the search for a partner. In a way, the producers of the show are one big organized, financially incentivized (and more devious) Emma Woodhouse—creating matches and orchestrating diversion.
In the two decades since The Bachelor premiered, more sensational and elaborate iterations of the genre have certainly come for their audience. People have signed up for Dating Naked, Dating & Related, and MILF Manor. Reality show contestants have dated while disguised in elaborately intricate prosthetics and gotten engaged to people they’ve only spoken to through a wall. Nonetheless, audiences still tune in on Monday nights to see the Bachelor or Bachelorette whittle down their pool of contestants in the same comfortingly formulaic pattern—a pattern of suspense that follows in the footsteps of many novels, now heralded as great literature, that were once lambasted when they came out. It’s not a stretch to assume that women (because women make up more than 75% of the viewership) wondering who the lead will choose to marry out of twenty-odd contestants on a reality show would have been the likely readership of marriage plot novels a couple centuries ago.
In the 19th century, novels were a form of low-brow entertainment and were considered to be vastly inferior to historical, religious, and philosophical texts. Then, as now, novels were predominantly read by women, and as is often the case with something associated with femininity, they received a great deal of derision. In an 1816 issue of the Quarterly Review, writer and critic Walter Scott referred to novels as “bread eaten in secret.” The American Magazine of Useful Knowledge called novels “trash and chaff.” In 1844, M.M. Backus called novels the “lowest and vilest of the dregs of the intellectual creation,” going on to claim, “The habitual use of the stimulus of fiction is always enervating to the intellect, as that of alcohol is to the physical system.”
But no genre of fiction was more disparaged than romance novels, and the ladies who read them were prime targets of mockery and scorn. George Eliot even penned an essay in 1856, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists—a scathing critique against some Danielle Steele-esque novels of the day—that was downright hostile towards all female readers in general. She wrote, “the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage; it is only fit for the very lightest crops.”
Jane Austen novels have long been cemented in the literary canon and are a staple of high school and university syllabi. Around the time of their publication, however, in the early 19th century, the initial response was considerably less effusive. Many early readers critiqued her depiction of life for being too realistic and her novels’ lack of moral purpose. Her work was originally published anonymously, and it wasn’t until several years after her death (at age forty-one) that her nephew published her biography, which would eventually become the genesis of her long-standing acclaim and fandom. But the decades following Austen’s death continued to excoriate novels with majority female readerships. In 1869, Popular Amusements magazine published a piece that questioned how daughters at home could happily focus on their domestic chores when “her mind is in a whirl over some delicious love-story, in which she has lost her identity in that of the fascinating Lady Something, with four desperate rivals for her hand, and the crisis of her fate just over-leaf?” I’ll admit that I also often find my mind in a whirl during The Bachelor’s “Hometown Week.” “Hometowns” is one of the final episodes of the season when there are four contestants left, and the lead visits each of their childhood homes to meet their respective families. (Nothing quite rivals the look on a dad’s face when the Bachelor inquires to see if he has permission to ask his daughter to marry him whilst dating three other women.)
Endlessly and bombastically criticizing a show that millions of women enjoy doesn’t buoy one’s feminist credo, but rather joins a long history of deriding something made for and predominantly enjoyed by women.
The Popular Amusements piece goes on to warn that young women reading these tempestuous texts might fancy themselves in the position of the heroine and seek a lover like the ones in the pages of a novel, and therefore feel indifference for the more plain or common men in her life. And if the notion that consuming romance might spoil you for real-life relationships feels like a relic from an era when headaches were treated with leeches, you’d be wrong. Just ten years ago, Psychology Today ran an article, Is “The Bachelor” Hurting Your Relationship (the answer was yes) that advised women to “consider limiting your exposure to the romantic, sexy stuff [reality dating shows] in order to remain focused and committed to your current relationship.”
Criticism of The Bachelor’s many issues are valid, and there are plenty to choose from. The show is rooted in conservative gender roles that can feel completely out of date. On The Bachelorette, even though a woman is in control of choosing which man she wants to marry, her final contestants are expected to propose in the hope that she will accept. Even when a woman is in charge, the question can only be posed by her male suitors. And beforehand, her final two contestants are expected to ask her father in the penultimate episode if they have his blessing to propose. Women in the franchise don’t ask the men’s families much beyond “is he ready to be a husband and father?” And Casting has only just recently started to diversify. And the franchise has generated its own little cottage industry of alumni influencers. But criticism that diminishes and dismisses the perfectly valid pleasure in watching a courtship unfold every week is eerily reminiscent of 19th century arguments that castigated marriage plot novels as frivolous—arguments that typically patronized the women who enjoyed them. Endlessly and bombastically criticizing a show that millions of women enjoy doesn’t buoy one’s feminist credo, but rather joins a long history of deriding something made for and predominantly enjoyed by women.
The Bachelor uniquely combines the most thrilling parts of a marriage plot novel with the communal excitement of watching a sporting event, which ultimately fosters connectivity. The show is a competition where a handful of players “lose” each week, and the speculation of who will make it to the final rose is an integral component of watching the show. Another part of the pleasure is watching it with friends (or in my case, asking my fiancé to ritualistically watch it with me). One office I worked in a few years ago began designating a half-hour every Tuesday for a post-Bachelor rundown. Talking about the show is simultaneously exciting and completely idle in the best way—there’s not much else I’m deeply invested in but is otherwise completely inconsequential to me. Similar to watching a big match, it’s enjoyable to root for someone to come away with a Neil Lane ring and ponder who you’d choose as the show’s next lead from its pool of rejected contestants.
In thirty-six seasons of The Bachelor(ette), nine couples have remained together. But questioning why people watch the show if the majority of couples break-up misses the point entirely. The pleasure is in watching two people come together in the first place. By the time we’re down to the final two or three contestants, that’s when the show’s real tension arises. The producer-orchestrated Shakespearian drama seems to fall by the wayside, and the lead is left wondering how they chose who to marry when they’ve only known each contestant for the length of summer camp. Parents are involved at this stage, bringing in new sets of expectations and stakes. Of course, the lead doesn’t have to propose or accept a proposal, but it’s pretty clear that the producers are gunning for an Austenian conclusion—and they frequently get one.
At the end of Mansfield Park, after Fanny and Edmund are married, Austen writes that they are “as secure as earthly happiness can be”—an acknowledgment that even after the delivered promise of marriage and happily ever after, earthly happiness may not be all that happy. The reason we watch is the same reason people read to find out if Fanny and Edmund will tie the knot. What happens after you close the back cover of the book or after the final rose is handed out isn’t nearly as interesting. They’re no longer characters you page through every day or check-in with every week; they vanish from the present and become a memory. To borrow one of The Bachelor’s most saccharine, overused, cringe-worthy words, it’s really all about the journey.