Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 'The Bachelor' Is Killing Romance in America (Guest Column)

Courtesy of ABC

"There is an insidious darkness beneath the fairytale" relationships on the show, which debuts a new season tonight, argues the cultural critic and NBA legend.

Sad news for the condom industry: millennials are having less sex than recent previous generations. A study published last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior concludes that younger millennials (born in the 1990s) are more than twice as likely not to be having sex as the generation before them. Many people might be cheering this news as a move in the right moral direction, but that’s short-sighted. Rather than a triumph for increased gender respect it could be a symptom of a greater social problem: the replacement of sturdy realistic romantic love that might last a lifetime with the flimsy bedazzled imposter with the shelf life of a loaf of Wonder Bread. There are many lucrative business reasons for the pimping out of unrealistic romantic love in American popular culture, but the plastic face of it is the trendy Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise. As entertaining as these shows are (and they really are compelling fun), there is an insidious darkness beneath the fairytale pabulum they are serving up.

Before we go any further, we should agree that when discussing people on these reality shows, we are only talking about the characters that are represented through editing, not the real people, whom we can’t ever fully know. Some critics complain that we can’t learn any “real life” lessons from these shows precisely because of the editing and because we are watching people who know they are being filmed and therefore are faking their behavior, either to create a more obnoxious character for national attention (Chad Johnson) or to appear nicer than they really are (Josh Murray). However, the presence of cameras actually enhances the “real life” lessons because some castmembers are so desperate to manipulate their personas for the audience (and so inept at doing it) that we see them even clearer than if they didn’t know the cameras were there.

So, what’s so wrong with a little harmless entertainment of watching people scramble for “love” like ravenous crabs on a washed up seal corpse? In the short term, nothing. Just good, clean fun. But the long-term effects of their choices — from the types of people selected to be on the show to the promotion of a subversive, childish concept of love — is like smoking or listening to Kenny G: it can have serious consequences.

In her novel The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes one of the most profound observations about human culture: “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another — physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” Morrison is exposing both notions as weapons that induce self-destructive behavior that harm not just individuals, but also society. The Bachelor shows perpetuate both of these harmful ideas.

The shows’ mantra repeated by most castmembers that “everyone deserves love” ain’t necessarily so. You’re not even in the running for love unless you fit a very narrow ideal of Ken and Barbie doll physical beauty. These shows promote the scorched-earth effects of raising females to be continually judged physically above all other attributes and then measured against impossible physical standards that has marginalized a majority of girls and women — and made billions for the beauty products, clothing, and cosmetic surgery industries. Even youthful Amanda Stanton, 26, admits to using Botox.

The real crime is the lack of intellectual and appearance diversity, which leaves the contestants as interchangeable as the Mr. Potato Head parts. The lack of racial diversity has already been commented on. If you’re black on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, you’re usually kept around as a courtesy for a few weeks before being ejected. Those outside the ideal body fat percentage index need not apply. With all eyes firmly fixed on firm buttocks, the criteria for finding love becomes how high a quarter will bounce off rock-hard abs. Will we ever witness a conversation that isn’t so bland and vacuous that words seem to evaporate as soon as they are spoken? The rest — intimate outings, group dates, visiting hometowns — is window dressing to disguise the establishment of a laundry list for love so paltry and insubstantial that nearly anyone with a hipster beard or pert breasts can make the cut. Just as some experts blame the porn industry for establishing sexual shenanigans that make millennials feel too inadequate to pursue sex, so this network romance porn may set the bar for falling in love so low that only divorce attorneys and Ashley Madison subscribers can endorse it. Oh, the humanity if this becomes the template for true love.

But equally harmful as the cartoonish physical and mental restrictions has been the romanticizing of love as a mystical process that creates unrealistic expectations. Worse, they encourage an urgency to falling in love or else being kicked off the show and labeled a loser in society, unworthy of love. This can send a message that those not in a relationship need to hurry up and find someone — anyone — or else face an unforgiving expiration date of love worthiness.

The cruel result is people on these shows are so anxious to be in a relationship that they trick themselves into thinking they’re in love. Contestants on these relationship game shows are competing for a prize, the same as contestants on The Price Is Right. But is that prize love or a relationship? There’s a significant difference and that difference contributes to why America has high divorce (53%) and adultery (30%) rates. From observing the three most recent incarnations of this show — The Bachelor (Ben Higgins), The Bachelorette (JoJo Fletcher) and Bachelor in Paradise—it’s clear that being in a relationship is the goal. Love is the word they use to justify their need and to disguise their choices because no one is permitted to question their convoluted decisions and self-deceptions when the word love is used. What kind of inhuman monster questions Love? (Except nearly every parent trying to explain the difference between love and infatuation with their teenager proclaiming love.)

Let’s look at some examples from the shows. JoJo Fletcher’s constant whining about being in love with three men from the petrie dish of ab-fastic, bearded suitors certainly denigrates the concept of love. Throughout the show she worried about the kind of men she’d gone out with before who treated her as less valuable than she wanted. As soon as we saw Jordan, the jock who kept her at a distance, and who she described as being like her previous boyfriends, there was no doubt she would select him to relive the psychological loop of needing to be validated.

Amanda Stanton on Bachelor in Paradise hooked up with a man who everyone had warned her against, including her best friends, and whose behavior on the show indicated a volatile man-child used to puffing his chest and braying. Love? Or blind faith in some Disney ideal that already resulted in marriage at 20, 2 children immediately, and divorce after only 2 years. Although she does ask herself, “I was questioning whether my idea of love even existed,” she ends up ignoring all the evidence with a sadly self-deceptive, “I feel I know who he is.” When a couple from a previous season who are married visit the set, she says, “They got married and lived happily ever after.” They’ve been together for a year, not exactly “ever after.” But this is the type of hyper-romanticized thinking that sends people leaping blindly into bad relationships. The fact that they call the room where couple go to have sex the “fantasy suite,” (and that the show leaves no condoms in the room) reveals just how much fantasy plays a role.

The Bachelor/Bachelorette shows could be an informative social mirror that exposes the basic cracks in how Americans glamorize romance and as such could be part of the cure. A cautionary tale for the pitfalls of fantacizing romance rather than balancing heart and brain in choosing a partner. Like watching Scared Straight. But, unfortunately, we tend to take the premise seriously and form camps around contestants, rooting for them to be chosen to get the engagement ring as we would root for our hometown team to win the championship ring. The fact that most of these relationships eventually wither when not nourished by the lights and cameras reveals just how much of a fantasy it all is. The real danger is when we try to apply that fantasy thinking to our own lives. And when we think about where our children learn about the realities of romance, it becomes even more important to question what may influence their behavior in choosing a partner.

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