In terms of becoming a Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise fan, I was a relatively late bloomer. I resisted watching until the 16th season of The Bachelor, a season that starred 28-year-old winemaker Ben Flajnik. With his center part and shoulder-length brown locks, he looked vaguely like Francine from the animated series Arthur, a connection the internet made quickly. My roommates would turn the show on every Monday night, and I found myself sitting alongside them, following Ben’s “journey” with rapt attention. I started referring to my own dating life as a “journey,” too. (As Season 17 Bachelor Sean Lowe told Glamour in 2015, whenever contestants called their time on the show a “process,” “they will make you re-tape it and say journey.” These behind-the-scenes tidbits are what I live for.)
Ben had a “nice guy” shtick that would normally send me running, but I continued watching because of the sense of camaraderie I found in engaging with his antics. The Winter of Ben, as I called it, began in January 2012, the year I spent living with six girls in a cramped apartment we’d generously dubbed “The Cottage.” I don’t actually remember much from Ben’s season, but I remember watching episodes with my roommates snuggled on our living room couch, sending each other links to recaps we found online the next morning, and rooting, together, for the underdogs.
After the finale, as I spiraled in disbelief alongside everyone else that Ben chose “season villain” Courtney Robinson, I knew I was completely and irrevocably sucked into Bachelor Nation. I waited with giddy anticipation for the Bachelorette season that would air later that summer. It would star Emily Maynard, a peppy blonde woman from North Carolina.
When summer finally arrived, I was teaching in a small, remote village in the Gambia. That didn’t stop me, however, from walking three miles every week to the local library, where I could use the Wi-Fi to purchase the latest episode of Emily’s season on iTunes, a downloading process that sometimes took up to three hours. This process — excuse me, journey — always left me a few episodes behind, so I religiously avoided Facebook or any other chance of spoilers. Unfortunately, when I landed back on American soil a few weeks later, a People magazine cover at the JFK airport revealed that Emily had chosen Jef with one F, thus ruining my chance to lap up the delicious unraveling of the finale myself. I was devastated.
My ardor for the Bachelor franchise has faded slightly since the Emily Maynard era (you can only invest so much), but I remain a loyal fan. And yet, over the years, my pride in claiming as much has been less consistent. When I first started watching, my obsession was clouded by the same aura of embarrassment that caused me to resist the show in the first place. There’s something inherently uncool about The Bachelor — admitting you love the show almost feels like admitting you want to be in love, that you’re willing to fight for it and get suckered in by its promise.
I felt this particular shame most acutely around men, specifically men I was trying to date. I wanted to avoid being seen as a woman who was trying too hard to find love. I hoped, instead, to exude a sort of effortless appeal, like that of a woman who, say, thought The Bachelor was bullshit. I remember one particular man rattling off a litany of hockey stats from four years ago, expecting me to be impressed, while I avoided talking about the show completely. I realize now that by staying silent, I had become a willing participant in my own pop-culture shaming. That’s not to say I believe The Bachelor to be an inherent good; it’s to say that it took me a while to realize that examining my relationship with it was worth my time.
Now I freely admit to my obsession, even defend it. I no longer shy away from saying I love The Bachelor and believe in love — big love, romantic love, platonic love, love at first sight, love after 20 years, love in every shade in between. Some people may think those two things are at odds, that love couldn’t possibly exist on television, but I believe love can bloom anywhere, even in front of millions of viewers. People argue that “true love” is altruistic, a phenomenon in and of itself, that it doesn’t count if you’re getting something else out of the arrangement, too, like fame, notoriety or money. To that, I ask: Is love ever about just one thing? Does it ever exist in a vacuum, free of outside influences like timing, geography or a surprisingly great haircut?
But even if I believe real affection is possible on The Bachelor, I also recognize that a relationship cultivated through intense competition, meddling producers and a nine-week timeline may not be destined for marriage. There are tons of post-show breakups to prove it. But that doesn’t make the emotions any less real; it just makes them intense. On the show, love is accelerated in the most primal and extravagant ways. It’s all jealousy and drinking and intimacy and lust. It’s candlelit dinners in castles and Champagne toasts aboard private yachts. It’s enough, I believe, to make anyone think they’ve fallen in love, whether it’s for the long haul or not. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I think that’s something.
The difference between love and lust and infatuation is one I debate with my friends every time we watch the show, over text during commercial breaks or, even better, while sharing a single couch. We wonder how we would react if we were the contestants: Would we be the girl who gets sent home on night one after too many cranberry spritzers, or would we be the girl whose heart gets broken in Costa Rica? We’d never, we promise each other, say that we’re “not here to make friends.” We are always here to make friends. Whether I’m deeply invested like I was when my Bachelor journey began or completely disenchanted like I was by Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s entire season, there remains something magical about being a part of this community, about using the show as a conduit to debate all kinds of real-life stuff: love, lust, dating, ghosting, drama, heartbreak. And so I continue to cheer for the contestants as I cheer for my friends, for myself; I cheer for all of us, for somebody, anybody, to fall in love. Even just for nine weeks.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.