Ashley’s father died from a brain aneurysm two years ago. Chantal didn’t talk to her father for the last fifteen years of his life. Alli’s father came to her and was like, “Oh, you have a little sister.” The other Ashley’s father struggled with addiction; she hadn’t been in touch with him for years. “What makes you you?” the Bachelor had asked them.
It seems on the face of it like an awful idea to reveal deeply personal things about yourself on a show like The Bachelor, since to do so is to trivialize not only your own life but the lives of the people who love you, to cede primary control of your identity to People and Us Weekly and the Internet comment monster. But if you want to win The Bachelor and/or win the heart of the Bachelor, sooner or later you’re going to have to tell the saddest story you know about yourself. It will be about your father, and it will make you cry. As you wipe away the tears, you’ll smudge your dark eye makeup. The Bachelor will put his arm around you, maybe run his hand through your hair, maybe even kiss your forehead. You’ll laugh and say, “I can’t believe I’m crying.” The Bachelor will tell you it’s okay to cry. He’ll be so grateful that you finally made yourself vulnerable for him. He really will. He knows it’s not easy for you to open up. Those tears will tell him you’re here for the right reasons.
We’re not still supposed to feign embarrassment when we admit we watch trashy TV shows, are we? Does being a straight man and liking The Bachelor require a paragraph of squirmy disclaimers? I’ve watched most seasons of The Bachelor since it debuted in 2002, when I was in college. I’d bookmark The Faerie Queene or whatever I was reading and go watch it with a few of my most virile male friends. Since then, The Bachelor and its spin-off, The Bachelorette, have taught me as much about myself and the world as all other TV shows and Edmund Spenser combined. I’m not joking.
What we want in a Bachelor is iron earnestness. Brad Womack, star of seasons 11 and 15, which aired in fall 2007 and winter 2011 respectively, was one of the best. He had a way of sealing his statements with little sincerity stamps: “I truly believe my wife is sitting in that room. I really do.” “I think you’re one in a million. I really do.” “I’m so sorry I kept you waiting. I really am.” When he spoke, he furrowed his brow and gave intermittent little nods. His shoulders were broad, his jaw square, his eyebrows thick. He had a five o’clock shadow and high cheekbones. He took long shirtless runs on beaches at dusk. His chest was smooth and shapely. On his back: a tattooed cross. He was solid. He had presence. He was a Real American Man. He’d convinced himself he was the role he was playing, or else—which amounts to the same thing—didn’t believe he was playing a role at all. On season 11, he rejected all the bachelorettes because he couldn’t look them in their eyes and tell them he loved them.
I was especially looking forward to this spring’s Bachelorette because it stars the winner of Brad Womack’s second season, a petite blonde coal miner’s daughter named Emily Maynard. She seemed perfect for Brad, and I had hopes for their post-show real-life relationship; not high hopes, since these relationships never last, but hopes. So it made me sad (that’s not quite the word) to hear they’d broken up last summer. Now I, like all of America, want her to find true love. I really do.
What makes Emily Maynard Emily Maynard? When she was fifteen, she fell in love with Joseph Riddick Hendrick IV, or Ricky. Ricky, laid-back and sweet, was heir to the Hendrick Motorsports empire. He called his elders “Sir” and said “I love you” at the ends of conversations with family members. His sleepy brown eyes shone out of a soft face; his chin was round, his hair blond and floppy. By the time Emily was eighteen, they were engaged. Ricky managed two of his father’s NASCAR teams, and Emily traveled with him to all his races. One Sunday morning in October 2004, though, Emily wasn’t feeling well. Ricky suggested she stay home and rest. She probably had the flu. Later that day Ricky’s plane crashed in heavy fog into the side of Bull Mountain in the Appalachians.
“I absolutely wished more than anything that I was on that plane, too,” Emily said later. “I didn’t want to live without him. I didn’t. It was the worst time in my whole life.” This is an important part of Emily’s story: she repeated it each of the three times she told it on season 15 of The Bachelor—to an unseen interviewer in episode 1, to a group of teary bachelorettes in episode 3, and to Brad, the Bachelor, later that same episode, at a crucial point in their one-on-one date, just when he was starting to wonder if she’d ever open up. She must have intuitively understood that by emphasizing the extent of her despair she’d heighten the dramatic impact of what came next: “That Friday, afterwards, I learned that I was pregnant with our daughter, and I could not have been happier. I knew there was a reason I wasn’t on the plane that day. Right then I knew—I wasn’t supposed to be, because we have this perfect daughter that makes me the happiest person in the world.” Josephine Riddick “Ricki” Hendrick, proof of God’s divine plan, has her mother’s bright blonde hair and big brown eyes, her father’s soft face and shy, crooked smile.
“Trust me when I say this,“ said Brad with overpowering sincerity after Emily had finally put herself out there for him, “every single thing you’ve told me makes me like you even more.“ I understood what he meant. Not only did Emily come across as warm and guileless and smart and a loving mother, qualities only heightened by being at odds with her Barbie-doll looks, but she’d waited longer to tell her tragic story than a lot of the other bachelorettes, which made her seem prudent and full of integrity.
I wasn’t convinced Emily would make a very good Bachelorette, though. She was poised, but reserved; I wasn’t sure she had the charisma. But after watching the first few episodes I’m happy to admit I was wrong. On the first episode she was visibly more comfortable on camera than she was on The Bachelor, bantery and at ease with the nervous, purple-tied bachelors out to win her heart. “You smell really good,” she told more than one as they met. She’s pointedly not talking about the Ricky story, making room for other stories to lay claim to her identity. Yes, she is boring, but this doesn’t matter. She has that essential quality shared by the best Bachelors and Bachelorettes: absolute faith, or the ability to convey it, that she’ll find lasting love on a television show. She is here for the right reasons.
Which of this season’s contestants share her seriousness of purpose? Possibly Jackson, the fitness model from Lockport, Illinois, who, when he met her, got down on one knee as if to propose and said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away. This is one of those moments,” but he’s too much of a goober for Emily, and she saw that and sent him home. Doug, the lachrymose charity director, realtor, and hugger from Seattle, seemed pure of heart, but he also manipulated Emily into giving him the First Impression Rose by showing her a poignant letter from his eleven-year-old son (“I think you should know my dad is one of the greatest dads ever because he always tucks me in at night”). She’ll get over their superficial similarity before long and find him sweet but boring and dismiss him (he’ll cry). We know to discount the men who try to impress Emily with stupid stunts and props—like Travis, with his ostrich egg symbolizing Emily and Ricki; Tony, with his glass slipper (“I believe in fairy tales”); and Randy, with his inexplicable old-lady costume. Brent’s six kids were their own sort of props: Emily cut him. Kalon, the luxury-brand consultant who made his entrance via private helicopter, is most definitely not here for the right reasons (plus he won’t be properly amazed by the inevitable helicopter dates). Chris, the corporate sales director from Chicago, on the other hand, might be, in spite of the bobbleheads of himself and Emily he brought. He feels truly blessed to be here—he’s following his heart, just being himself—and Emily found him super hot and so thoughtful. We are intrigued by Arie’s Dutch citizenship, but can Emily fall in love with another race-car driver? We didn’t want to but ended up sort of liking Jef, the pompadoured, skateboarding, boyish CEO of a bottled-water company with a humanitarian bent who hopes Emily’s not impressed with material things. He and Emily just had sort of like a cool vibe. (There remains the question of the missing f, but that can wait.) I found myself rooting for Jean-Paul, the marine biologist.
The one thing the bachelors have in common, besides having agreed to appear on The Bachelorette (and by extension being losers in love) and being hella cut, is that they agree Emily’s a real catch. She’s “absolutely gorgeous,” “amazing,” “stunning,” “muy bonita” (there are, oddly, two South Americans this season), not only “hands down, the hottest Bachelorette,” but “the hottest mom in the world.” She “looks better in person than she does on TV.” She’s “intelligent, well-spoken, well-postured, refined.” She’s “the quintessence of like, perfect, beautiful woman.”
No TV show is sadder than The Bachelor(ette). I think we can say that after these ten years. It’s not just the commodification of love, though there’s that. It goes beyond all those shots of men and women alone on balconies, leaning on railings, gazing into the distance, wondering about where they fit in the world. We enter every season ready to laugh and have fun. There are drinking games. We know better than to believe these people will find love. But then, usually around the fourth or fifth episode, provided the Bachelor(ette) is sincere-seeming enough (“It really can work,” says Emily, “you just have to be open to it”), we start to wonder if maybe these people might, in some meaningful sense of the word, actually be falling in love—a love less real than the love we’ve known, premised as theirs so obviously is on self-delusion and cliché and the conventions of society and reality television (stale dichotomy), but love nonetheless. We know ourselves to be good judges of this kind of thing. We start to feel a connection. Maybe it’s closer to the connections we feel with characters in books or movies than those we feel with actual men and women, but we know the difference between characters and living people, and anyway the latest neuroscience is breaking down those distinctions. I challenge you to watch all of season 15 of The Bachelor and not believe that both Emily and Brad feel their love is real, which can be the only measure of love’s reality. We feel happy for their impoverished kind of happiness. Everyone deserves to be happy. We forget that the relationships born on these shows rarely withstand the tabloid onslaught in the months immediately after the filming and that those that do end soon after.
This will happen with Emily and whichever man she chooses. Then the part of us that bought into their romance will feel manipulated. The part of us that didn’t will feel cynical and mean. We’ll start to wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have taken such pleasure out of watching those freshly shorn insurance agents and financial advisers sweat it out at the Rose Ceremonies, on the one hand. On the other hand, it shouldn’t matter to us that Jean-Paul, the marine biologist, was eliminated. “It felt like my heart fell on the floor and got trampled,” he said with tears in his eyes. Did he even have a conversation with Emily? Is it sadder if he did or didn’t? When little Ricki grows up and goes on The Bachelor and/or The Bachelorette, the story she tells about herself will be so very complicated.
Every friend I’ve spoken to about The Bachelor and Bachelorette has arrived independently at the same idea: They should make a Bachelor(ette) with people like us. My friends are teachers, professional do-gooders, video artists, urban planners. We’re readers. Our fathers love us. When we fall in love, we know it’s for real. We may use the same words as the Bachelors and Bachelorettes, but our words have different meanings. We fall for the ones we fall for not because of things that have happened to them, but because of the things they make happen for themselves. They bake sweet breads and write books. They have a way with animals. They’re awkward. They discriminate. They’re kind and enthusiastic and read out loud to us on road trips. They write us long letters about what they’ve noticed and thought and felt. We go on walks. We share meals. And then something in our minds has clicked and everything in the world that touches us carries some trace of them. I guess you could try to film all this but it would make for terrible television.
Andrew Palmer’s writing has been published in The Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review Online, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.