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My 13-year-old sister is the smartest person in my family. Not coincidentally, she thinks that I am a huge dork (correct) who has bad taste in television (hopefully not correct, otherwise I am in the wrong line of work).
She’s also, like many teen girls, an iron trap who has repeatedly resisted my efforts to do some good in the world and get her into Buffy. Instead, at dinner at my parents’ house last week, she mentioned her excitement about the impending season finale of "The Bachelor," a show with which I am almost completely unfamiliar, and that I am generally led to believe would be bad for teen girls to watch. Why this and not Buffy?
I ask if I can join her, and she grudgingly agrees, knowing full well that I have never seen an episode of the show.
I settle in to ask her a ton of annoying questions about how the franchise works, and obliquely why she and all of her friends are obsessed. We start watching an hour late (she has a test she has to study for), which means we get to skip through all the commercials. This leads me to think that I’ll need to squeeze in the interrogation or be forced to pause the episode repeatedly. Instead, she’s not particularly bothered by talking loudly over the show -- what’s important is the act of having "The Bachelor" on TV, and being able to see the facial expressions of family of bachelor Chris as they creepily evaluate the contestants competing for their boy’s heart.
My sister is doing the same thing to the contestants from the comfort of our parents’ living room. When I remark how uncomfortable this family scrutiny must make the women, knowing they’re competing against someone else, she casually mentions that she did the same thing to one of my ex-girlfriends, saying of her visit to our house, “After that, she was doomed.”
Unlike my ex, Samantha is deeply impressed with finalist, clear favorite, and eventual victor Whitney’s ability to play the game.
“She’s just too perfect,” she complains, suggesting that Whitney has essentially grown up watching "The Bachelor" and can therefore play like Ivan Drago (if Chris dies, he dies). I would have no way of knowing otherwise.
Her concern with playing the game is a pleasant surprise -- but in that case, isn’t it possible that Whitney is just trying to win and will dump Chris immediately after the finale?
“That’d be so funny.” Still, Samantha is rooting for the other finalist, Becca. In her unwillingness to outright say she’s in love with Chris, Becca reveals her glancing honesty -- she might not be the best person to win "The Bachelor" (she might not even be the right girl for Chris), but she’s definitely the most open about her intentions, a trait with which my occasionally caustic sister is, surprisingly, quite taken.
It’s one of her favorite things about this season of the show, especially in contrast to how much she (and, I gather, everyone else) hated Juan Pablo from last season. Why would you keep watching if you didn’t care about him at all? “Because it’s, like, entertaining.”
A lot of the material she finds entertaining is actually simple stuff about the way reality TV works, information I didn’t begin to pick up on until I was much older. She might be bright, but it’s still somewhat surprising to me that she’s so knowledgeable about the way the producers manipulate the show, and is interested in learning more about it. (Her friends obsessively read Bachelor analysis to try to understand what is happening and why.)
As Becca (or Whitney) stands longingly near some water somewhere maybe around Chris’ hometown in Iowa, she complains, “They do this stupid thing where they make them get dressed and ready and go outside, but they’re not going to see him.”
It’s not that the presence of his chicanery is shocking to me, but I am a little surprised she’s so aware of it. I shouldn’t be, I guess -- she knows what’s up.
“It’s The Bachelor,” she explains. “They make whatever they want to happen, happen.”
Though it might be a sign of unfortunate, premature cynicism, I’m pretty proud of her for paying so much attention to the reality TV smoke and mirrors -- better to love "The Bachelor" for the ridiculous apparatus than the bizarre, somewhat nauseating product.
The apparent problems with watching "The Bachelor" are legion, and I don’t quite know how to broach them as a conversation topic, especially given how young she is. She assures me repeatedly, and with no small rolling of the eyes, that this is in no way how she thinks about dating. In fact, in some respects, it seems like "The Bachelor" is explicitly teaching her how not to think about romance, something that’s embodied in this exchange:
“...Does watching this ever feel cruel to you?”
“Do you care?”
“It’s TV. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Last year, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote that one could watch "The Bachelor" “because you are nothing like the men and women who put themselves through this absurd process and you enjoy reminding yourself why you have made the choices you made,” something my sister has somehow learned as a teenager and I’m only just allowing myself to do at 22.
I’m sure this is nothing new for fans, but there’s a gleeful horror in watching the show that’s made all the stronger by observing in awe how obviously good at the game Whitney is. By the time she makes an impassioned, articulate plea to Chris on their “final night together,” I want to date her. When the lazily scratched silhouette of a man on a piece of toast sitting across from her responds with an insane, two-sentence version of “same,” my sister and I burst out laughing simultaneously, and I’m hooked.
And that’s how I realized that my sister is the target audience for "The Bachelor" --not because she’s 13, but because she’s a much, much savvier television viewer than I was at that age (when you would have been hard-pressed to convince me that "South Park" wasn’t the greatest show of all time), able to quickly initiate me into the rituals of watching an entire reality franchise. She would probably get along with other people in the media much better than I do.
Still, she’s 13 -- asking our mom whether or not the contestants get paid, because they have to leave their jobs for however long they’re on the show and forcing herself to close Snapchat to avoid spoilers. It’s a perfect blend of genuine excitement and cynicism that’s difficult to maintain for adults (or, at least, for me).
It seems to have had some positive effect on her -- she’s much more insightful about the emotions of reality competition contestants than I could ever hope to be. After Becca gets the axe: “She probably didn’t like him that much. She’s not even crying.”
I want to tell her that sometimes people are just emotionally numb after breakups, but that seems both too adult for the moment and also ignorant of what appears to be a fundamental rule of nature that contestants on "The Bachelor" must compete in part through tears.
When Chris waits an unbelievably long time to tell Whitney that she’s won, my sister contemplates the possibility that they might actually stay together. “Don’t you think it’s embarrassing if you watch the season later and then it’s like, he was so torn.” The idea that anyone could find "The Bachelor" emotionally realistic is laughable to her. I just don’t know why it took me so long to realize the same thing.