Call it a guilty pleasure. Call it a producer-driven reality soap opera. Call it an unsuccessful attempt at matchmaking (2 marriages out of 19 seasons is a success rate of... you don't want to know). Call it what you will -- the fact is that America is addicted to The Bachelorette.
Last Monday's tear-filled episode attracted around 10 million viewers, leaving its network competition in the dust and scoring some of the highest ratings in the show's history. Even more exciting for advertisers, the episode was the leader among the coveted 18-49 demographic. And several magazine covers later, current Bachelorette, Ali Fedotowsky, is suddenly competing with Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian for tabloid time.
It's safe to say that you and your best friend aren't the only ones secretly tuning in to watch this show.
So now we must ask ourselves: why? Why are we so invested in a show with such a dismal success rate? Why do we care about the fate of readymade couples who conduct their getting-to-know-you conversations in comically traditional date settings -- helicopter rides, fancy dinners atop castles, deserted Tahitian islands, private rooftop concerts -- that couldn't be farther from the happy hours, summer BBQs and text message exchanges that fuel our own love lives? Why do we find ourselves rooting for forced romances that commence with men standing on top of limos and swearing that they want to guard and protect their lady's heart -- just 30 seconds after meeting her?
The answer may differ by generation. It's not shocking that older viewers enjoy the show, and its obvious appreciation for traditional man-on-horseback romance and throwbacks to an era of grand gestures and epic love. Even if my Baby Boomer mother grew up in a time of free love and feminist exploration, she can at least remember her mother's stories of fated wartime romances and varsity letter pins. For her, there must be something familiar and comforting about the suited suitors, the meaningful rose ceremonies, and the seemingly constant and open-hearted proclamations of attraction and connection and love.
The truly surprising question is why and how The Bachelorette has become so popular for viewers in the 18-49 range. At first glance, no television show seems less attuned to the realities of the modern dating scene. We are living in a post-dating world, where traditional dates have been replaced by ambiguous (but organic and naturally evolving) Non-Dates and Techno-Romance. Explicit declarations of romantic interest are rarely made during the early stages of our relationships, when we are more likely to be carefully testing the romantic waters with a co-worker or soccer teammate or old college friend than we are to be sharing childhood stories across an exquisite dinner table with some guy who we met at a party. Perhaps most importantly, we modern women no longer feel pressured to choose between love, career and everything else we want in life, as Ali's narrative has forced her to do. We're entitled Millennials -- we want it all, and we plan on getting it somehow!
Given all this, Ali's world of old-fashioned dates, handsome men who openly and unambiguously fight for her attention, and painful love vs. career choices should seem foreign to us. Our love lives revolve around texts and emails and Facebook wall posts and BlackBerry Messenger flirtations, and Ali is still getting hand-delivered fantasy suite letters from Chris Harrison! In her romantic fairyland, it's as if Al Gore never invented the internet (makes that old Facebook job seem a little ironic, no?).
However. At its very core -- underneath the olive oil wrestling matches and Lion King performances and Turkish bathhouse massages -- it turns out that Ali's love life isn't so different from ours. Technology may not exist, and the dates couldn't be more outlandish. But at the end of the day, Ali is simply an ambitious and adventurous career gal who is trying to find love by sorting through her very own gaggle of 25 guys. Like the guys in our gaggles, each guy on the show plays a different role in her life and fulfills different needs in her, allowing her to express different sides of herself in a quest to figure out who she is, what she wants, and which type of relationship she is looking for. And that is something we can all relate to.
Like our relationships with the guys in our gaggles, Ali's relationships with her suitors have evolved and developed as she has gotten to know them (read more about the different roles that guys can play in your gaggle HERE). Chris was stuck in the friend zone as Ali's Ego Booster until -- one bracelet and hometown visit later -- he became her Boyfriend Prospect. Kirk first made his steamy mark by making out in a bed with Ali as her Hot Sex Prospect, but he eventually veered into Ego Booster territory as her attraction to other guys grew faster and he became mired in matching sweater sets and dates where she couldn't keep her mind on him. Justin shifted from the untrustworthy Prospect You're Not Sure Is A Prospect to The Unavailable Guy as news of his two back-at-home girlfriends emerged. And as we all watched this week, Frank made the disastrous transition from The Boyfriend Prospect to The Guy Who Just Blew Ali Off in a few brief but heart wrenching moments.
Speaking of Frank, his dramatic decision to leave the show and go back to his ex-girlfriend revealed another aspect of Ali's love life in which we modern women can see ourselves. Despite her positive outlook, despite the other great men in her sphere, and despite her commitment to eventually finding the right guy... Ali was heartbroken. Yes, her remaining gaggle of guys will certainly help her to get over Frank's betrayal. But in the moment, we all saw the pain and hurt and heartache as she ripped the flower out of her hair and bawled her eyes out.
Like Ali, we may embrace the ambiguity of the post-dating world by engaging with different guys on different levels, testing the waters of potential romantic connections and living our lives without relying on the steadfast norms of traditional dating. But this does not lead us to become players or puppetmasters, aiming to treat men like disposable playthings. We are still seeking love, and are therefore still open to real emotion and consequence and pain. We are still deeply affected by the men in our lives -- ambition and empowerment and optimism notwithstanding.
So that is why we are addicted to The Bachelorette. The setting may be a bit more exotic, and the guys a bit more clichéd in their wooing efforts, but Ali's path to love is surprisingly not so different from our own. We can actually see ourselves, and our relationships, in this show.
It may not be what the producers were aiming for, but I have a feeling that they don't mind at all.
For more on the post-dating world, check out www.WTFIsUpWithMyLoveLife.com.