The Bachelor And Regressive Gender Expectations

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Reality television claims to provide a window into some people’s lives as they experience purportedly unfiltered events. The early 2000s saw the emergence of a new subgenre of reality television in that pitted contestants against each other (O’Donnell, p. 170). By appealing to innate feelings of success, rejection, and aggressive behavior, competitive reality television experiences continued success. Romance reality television, where the celebrated prize is life-long love, particularly dominate the reality television genre. The Bachelor (ABC, 2002) featured several female contestants vying for the love of a single male “bachelor” candidate across the season through several trials and dates. Temptation Island (Fox, 2001) attempted to test the strength of couple’s relationships by encouraging them to cheat with other cast members. The popularity of these shows is problematic as romantic reality television reinforces societal gender expectations and perpetuates regressive ideas regarding love and success.

The most prominent example of competitive romance television, ABC’s The Bachelor, introduces a new cast every season of twenty-five female contestants who pursue the love of the singular male candidate, called the bachelor (2002). During the course of the season the bachelor eliminates some of the woman from the competition after their performance at several types of events. The events used as criteria for elimination include group dates, one-on-one dates, and two-on-one dates. During each elimination, the bachelor is given a number of roses to hand out to the woman he’d wish to remain on the show. This event is called the rose ceremony and occurs at the end of most episodes. If a female candidate does not have a rose at the end of the ceremony, she must take her leave. The later episodes of each season follow a distinct pattern, including a trip to the remaining contestants’ hometowns, a series of one-on-one dates in exotic locations around the world, and meetings of the contestants and the bachelor’s family. As O'Donnell mentions in her analysis of reality television, there is “preoccupation with testing, judging, coaching, transformation, and rewarding” (p. 170). The popularity of this subgenre of reality television is evidenced by the existence of several similar shows; notably Fox’s Temptation Island (2001). The show casts heterosexual four couples and boards them with members of the opposite sex in order to test their relationships. Three of the four couples split by the end of the season. The show drew criticism due to its content, something Fox Network hoped would happen to drive popular interest.

The Bachelor consistently enforces gender stereotypes and societal expectations on women. Upon seeing the winner of each season, the “lucky” woman who receives the ever-lasting love of the bachelor, the audience begins to correlate the behavior of the women who win with love. Contestants feel pressured to make a dramatic first impression and catch the attention of the bachelor (Greenhill and Rudy, p. 236). These women believe they must present themselves in a certain way to be worthy of love, often altering fundamental aspects of themselves to fit an unreachable ideal. The season premiere of the twenty-third season features Bri, one of the contestants, greeting the Bachelor in an Australian accent, stating “the accent, it’s Australian. I was hoping you’re kind of a sucker for accents” (ABC, 2019). Immediately afterwards, the camera cuts to Bri revealing “I’m not really Australian, but you have to do what you can to stand out” (ABC, 2019). Bri’s suggestion to “do what you can to stand out” serves as a reminder of The Bachelor’s enforcement of women’s societal expectations. The show seems to say, as the contestants don evening gowns, that a woman must not only be beautiful, but they must also be exciting, and captivating. The Bachelor reduces women to a mere object for the man to judge and choose. Reality television has “been an erasure of the concept that the women’s movement, the civil rights movement...have ever existed” (Haggerty, p. 683). The show encourages the contestants to devote significant amounts of their lives to try to impress a man to choose her, further reinforcing the notion that a woman is waiting for a man to rescue her.

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Colette Dowling coined the term “the Cinderella complex” to refer to the reinforcing of societal expectations seen in literature and television (1982). Dowling proposes that societal expectation force women to feel dependent on a male figure to provide them with a purpose in life (p. 56). Just as the titular character in Cinderella was unable to improve her hapless situation without the help of the Prince, the women on The Bachelor are looking for a man to choose them. However, in order to be chosen, the women must conform to societal standards. For Cinderella, she was expected to be “beautiful, graceful, polite, supportive, hardworking” and such women on The Bachelor are expected to be “beautiful, graceful, polite, supportive, hardworking” as well as entertaining and intriguing. The woman who best fits these characteristics, thus winning the final rose and The Bachelor, is presented with her prize of ever-lasting love. To attain this perfect idolation of womanhood, several stereotypes exist amongst the contestants. Jennifer Ponzer notes that there always exists “the same stock characters: the bitch, the slut, the douchebag, the prince charming, the angry black woman” (Haggerty, p. 683). One by one, the undesirable contestants leave the show after the bachelor decides he doesn’t want them; that they weren’t up to par.

While The Bachelor acts as if it is a purveyor of true love, recent data suggests otherwise. Only two-thirds of the seasons of The Bachelor ended with proposal, with only five of those proposals resulting in marriage (Zhao, 2015). This romantic reality presented is no more authentic than that of a fictional television show. By portraying itself as reality, The Bachelor sets a dangerous precedent; pressuring its audience to believe that this is how they must act to find love. As Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson muses, “I think of how generations of kids are watching are gaining permission to treat other people that way, to judge them, and to say nasty things to them” (Haggerty, p. 682). Viewers may begin to feel that behavior apparent on reality television is acceptable, nay, encouraged. Even more dangerous is the perceived acceptability of The Bachelor when contrasted with more risqué series such as Temptation Island. As Jenifer Ponzer writes, “The problem is in thinking that the entertainment options we’re being presented with are harmless fluff. They’re not.” (Haggerty, p. 683). The Bachelor is dangerous due to its mass appeal and the risk that younger generations will believe that they must rely on a man to choose them, that a man even has that right.

Reality television possesses a unique power to influence viewers in powerful yet unhealthy ways. By claiming to provide a realistic representation of romance, The Bachelor and similar romance reality television convinces audiences that they must adopt certain traits in order to find love. This activity reinforces the flawed idea that women must rely on men to provide them with a purpose in life. Indeed, many candidates on The Bachelor are not successful in continuing the relationships made onscreen after the season finale in real life. Reality television such as The Bachelor supports a system of traditions and social queues that encourage archaic gender norms and regressive ideas regarding love and success.


  1. Dowling, C. (1982). The Cinderella Complex: Women’s hidden fears of independence. New York, NY: Pocket Books Nonfiction.
  2. Fleiss, M. (Creator). (2002). Season Premier [Television series episode]. In The Bachelor. New York, NY: Fox.
  3. Greenhill, P. & Rudy, J.T. (2014). Channeling wonder: Fairy Tales on Television. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press
  4. Haggerty, M. (2010). Reality TV: is it harmless entertainment or a cultural threat? CQ Researcher. 20(29), 677-700.
  5. O’Donnell, V. (2017). Television Criticism (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Perry, A. (Creator). (2001). Temptation Island. New York, NY: Fox.
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