The Apex of Televised Love

So I’ve been watching The Bachelorette this summer, in a red wine and sponge cake-fueled frenzy, and here’s the thing:

I kinda feel bad for the guys.

Not because there’s something wrong with Desiree, the eponymous unmarried star.

see? she’s mostly harmless.

She’s pretty, she has great skill at enacting enthusiasm, she seems truly invested in some of the dudes.

No, my sympathy for the men–there are four of them left, after last night’s roses and tears–lies in the weird emotional churn in which they seem to be embroiled.

It’s reality TV, I know; so take it with a grain of salt, you say. But still. Nonetheless. It’s strange to watch these dudes push themselves to feel, damn it, on someone else’s timeline.

The show–if you’ve never seen it, and don’t pat yourself on the back too hard there, tiger–is pretty straight: 1 woman, 25 dudes, a slow/painfully accelerated series of ridiculous “dates” designed to help Des determine which of the guys might be her future husband.

And now they’re down to four. Next week, she meets their families, and their families meet her. Zounds!

What I’ve found interesting is the pressure that several of the boys seem to be putting on themselves to fall in love with Des already, like they’re sure all the other dudes have.


This week, Brooks–a poor man’s Ben Edlund and my personal favorite, you’ll see–used one of his confessional interviews (and what a freaking field day Foucault would have with that) to sketch his anxiety, his sense that his emotional connection to Des had fallen away and behind.

have i told you about the suicidal teddy bear, des?

On his over-the-top, producer-constructed, incredibly elaborate date with Des–on the cloud-kissed cliffs of Maderia. Seriously–he, to his credit, made a point of articulating that concern. He pointed out the absence of any words between “like” and “love,” a range wherein, he noted, there’s a whole variety of emotions; “like like” only gets you so far after middle school, right?

The solution he proposed–and that Des accepted with soft moonlight glee–was to describe that range in terms of action, who relative activity related to the depth of one’s feeling. You could be walking, skipping, running, for example, on the way down deep to being in love.

Recognizing a discursive gap? Rushing in to address it? Admitting that emotion is perhaps more complex than language can easily contain? How can I not dig this boy?

Did I mention I’ve been reading Foucault?

Shut up.

Anyway, my romantic longings aside, I find the progress narrative that lies at the heart of The Bachelorette really striking. As the number of dudes ticks down, everybody knows where the train is heading: towards a finale in which one of the final two may or may not propose to Des (now why the fuck she’s not proposing to them is grrr argh). The boys know that the rituals of love and proposal are built into the show’s format; hell, it’s made to put everyone through their heteronormative courtship paces. So they seem to be pushing themselves to feel the way they’re supposed to, to fall in love with Des in six or seven weeks because it’s the whole point of the competition: to reach the apex of televised love.

Several of the men seem to be specifically striving to feel–or at least be able to articulate the feeling of, which some would say is the same thing–in a manner that reads to me more traditionally female than male, as far as the dominant discourse is concerned. The aforementioned Brooks’ confession was overhung with a sense of anxiety; why didn’t he feel for Des the way the other boys do? What’s wrong with him?

in my book, not a damn thing, baby.

It’s almost a kind of queer thing, in a way. He’s supposed to be this, he’s not quite there, and that must mean that he’s deficient. Not that Des is boring or not his type or he’s not really into falling in love in a fishbowl. Nope. It’s gotta be him.

There was the dude who declared his love in week 3 and got booted in part, it appeared, for his overzealousness. He felt, sure, but way the fuck too fast. Trust me, I feel you there, buddy.

There was the young vet who pulled out on his own because he didn’t think his emotions were where they needed to be, given the state of the game. He didn’t feel, and sent himself home.

I suppose it’d be easy to dismiss all of this, really, because it’s a “reality” show. And I get that, I do. But it strikes me as fascinating that these guys have fallen into what’s become a cultural script of how you’re supposed to fall in love: no backtracks, no breakups, no maybes and brush off and bust. No, it’s gotta be an endless push of progression, driving inexorable towards the kind of love that’s legible in the discursive mainstream.

Even Brooks’ linguistic flexes of walking and running still presume a progressive action: moving forwards, it seems, never back or around or sideways. Always forward.

As somebody who writes romance, or tries, on paper if not in everyday life, I feel I’ve just implicated myself. Because what romance novel doesn’t move ever upward? Even if there’s a breakup or a moment of jealousy, or (my favorite) a misunderstanding, both me and the reader know that it’s all in the service of getting back together, of makeup sex if you’re lucky, of that beloved HEA. In real life, those divergences don’t have the same guarantees.

That’s not a bad thing. Life’d be dull if it always followed the script.

But sometimes, I’d kind of like to know my lines.

Which is why, ipso facto, I shouldn’t be watching The Bachelorette.

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