Love Week: Reality Romance with Suzannah Showler's Most Dramatic Ever
February 13, 2018
Love Week continues with an interview with Suzannah Showler, the latest ECW Press pop classics author of
Most Dramatic Ever, about the most romantic show ever, The Bachelor. We ask her about her limo exit stylings – among other things – before reading an excerpt from the book.
All Lit Up: If you were on The Bachelor, how would you stand out during the limo exit?
Suzannah Showler: If you were to go into a lab and try to grow a human being who'd be guaranteed to melt down under reality TV filming conditions, I don’t think you could come up with someone more constitutionally ill-suited to appear on The Bachelor than I am. I’d probably just evaporate the moment the limo door opened, and the producers would have to account for a fine mist blowing up the driveway towards the mansion. It would be an understated sort of drama. Atmospheric.
ALU: How does The Bachelor challenge our ideas of courtship and romance while still maintaining them? Which do you think it does more convincingly?
SS: Hmmm that’s a good question. I think it sort of does both at once, right? Like it challenges our ideas about romance by taking some super normative ideas about what courtship looks like and cranking the dial all the way up. It’s idealization to the point of unrecognizability.
ALU: Why do The Bachelorette couples, where one woman chooses from a pool of men, have so much of a better track record for success than The Bachelor couples?
SS: Alright, let’s get into the numbers! Bach stats! First: five of the past seven Bachelorettes are still with the partner they chose on the show, and of all ongoing relationships the franchise has produced, six have come from The Bachelorette and only two from The Bachelor. (There are also success stories from Bachelor in Paradise, but that’s another story.) Because there have been significantly fewer seasons of The Bachelorette in total, those numbers are actually even more stark than they seem: 38% of Bachelorettes are either engaged or married to their on-air pick, while less than 1% of Bachelors (0.09%) have made a match. I don’t know if a statistician would say it’s a relevant sample size, but Bachelorette couples do seem to fare much better than those forged on The Bachelor, particularly in recent years.
If I was going to make sweeping, presumptive generalizations about why that is, I might hypothesize that the female leads appear to come to the role with a more well-developed idea of what they’re looking for, and that allows them make better long-term bets. On The Bachelor, you more often see the lead working things out about who he is and what he wants through the strange and unique trial of being on the show itself. That journey to self-knowledge can make for some very compelling television, but also maybe some hastily promised engagements.
ALU: What was the best season of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in your opinion, and why?
SS: This is an impossible question, in a way, because I feel like any one season of the show depends on the existence of the franchise as a whole to sustain its greatness. For example, one of my personal favourite seasons is Kaitlyn Bristowe’s (The Bachelorette Season 12). Here we had a lead who was more or less unable to stop herself from thinking and feeling and behaving as if she was in the real world. She couldn’t ever seem to cop entirely to the show’s logic, and seeing that unsnuffable flicker of reality light up the franchise’s norms over and over was amazing. But even though it’s one of my faves, I wouldn’t introduce someone to the show with this season: you need the context of the deeply entrenched patterns to appreciate the deviation.
I could totally do a thing where I recommend Bachelor/ette seasons to people based on their personal taste. There’d be a Buzzfeed-style quiz (how do you take your coffee? would your rather be burned to death or freeze in a snowbank?), maybe a word-association psychological test, and then I’d spit out your top three recommended seasons. That would totally be a valuable and necessary service, right? That’s a thing the world needs?
The threat posed by unscripted TV shows in the era of The Bachelor’s conception — that reality itself might suffer by virtue of having been uttered in the same breath as television — seems quaint and folksy now, like a cute story about terrified Parisians leaping out of the path of the Lumière Brothers’ train.
We’re all veterans of reality TV. From factory farm to table, we know all the gory steps by which the sausage gets to our plates. And we don’t really care. We maybe even love it more. It’s not unlike appreciating a sonnet for its rhythm and rhyme: you don’t have to pretend that a poet thinks in iambs in order for their work to mean something to you.
In fact, in the case of The Bachelor, I’ll go so far as to say that a kind of realism has become integral to the romantic flight of fancy. Understanding the conditions under which the show is manufactured has only served to confirm that the thing the show aims to cultivate — what Chris Harrison in the first episode calls “one of the most wonderful things love has to offer: marriage, but with love and romance” — is resilient, will bloom in even the most constrained, scrutinized, and contrived circumstances. Viewers remain safely on the inside of the joke, aware of the preposterousness of the situation while also allowing ourselves to be carried away by its results. It’s a form of emotional engineering so effective it seems to work on an almost cellular level — the entertainment value equivalent of a Cheeto’s ability to disappear when it hits your tongue, leaving you with all the caloric intake but still hungry for more, certain you’ve consumed only air.
Being given permission to toggle between contradictions is insanely powerful. It’s addictive. And even as it gets us hooked, The Bachelor lets viewers feel like we’re empowered to look at the picture in front of us and decide for ourselves which elements are man-made and which are natural — what is camera-ready performance, what is real emotion.
Which begs the question: what does it even mean for a feeling to be real? With its burlesque of real life, The Bachelor suggests something about the role performance plays in the production of all romance. Sure, The Bachelor may be absurd, but so is falling in love anywhere, with anyone. Even more ludicrous is the fact that we’ve lugged a mercantile tradition for exchanging women as goods into the 21st century and made it an object of worship. (I’m very happily married, by the way.) The tension between the lofty rhetoric of romance and the banal pragmatism of marriage is something we live with in every part of our culture, not just on TV. Romance is a story; marriage is a contract. No matter what The Bachelor may say, the truth is there are no right reasons to go on a reality TV show looking for a spouse. There are also very few wrong ones. Mostly, there are just reasons, and as with the contingencies that enable us to do most things, they’re neither good nor bad — they’re just descriptive. They’re just there.
And besides, if one really is looking for heterosexual romantic life partnership, I’m not convinced that The Bachelor is such a bad way to go about it. Dovetailing with its increased reflection of the world we live in, the show has really turned around its batting average on successful coupling. And while it’s true that the show has a pretty terrible track record for converting engagements to marriages, it’s also true that no Bachelor marriage has ended in divorce, and every married couple now has children. A generation of Bachelor spawn. Not that procreating means happily ever after or whatever, but my point is that the unions yielded by The Bachelor seem just like all marriages: arrangements that answer to a complicated knot of social, economic, and biological needs and desires. There are no right reasons — but there are plenty of right conditions.
There’s something I want to be clear about from the beginning of our own journey: I fucking love The Bachelor. I may be a critic, but I’m also a fan. Consider me a regular at the feelings trough. And I don’t think The Bachelor is good at being bad, or good in spite of itself: I think it is truly great television — compulsively entertaining, bizarrely moving, and harrowingly smart. I think if we let it, The Bachelor has something to teach us: something about a when and a where (today, and America), but also something that reaches further and deeper, something more basic about what it means to be human at all.
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Thanks so much to Suzannah for being a game interviewee, and to Stephanie at ECW for coming up with some fantastic interview questions. Most Dramatic Ever is available now. For more Love Week,
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.