Now I Am Become Slut, Destroyer of Worlds

The host is alive. She is sentient. She is self-aware. And she knows you have programmed her to attack herself and the others.

Nope! Not a blog about Westworld! At least, most of it isn’t. I want to talk about The Bachelor and I want to explain why this show is the place to be, if you’re into the shock of watching creations outsmart their creator-controllers.  The more I read this Bach season as a rumination on feeling fictional and clawing for “reality,” the more I was reminded of HBO’s ambitious series on gnosticism, humanity, and the function of storytelling. Might even go so far to say that these two shows share a soul; Dolores Abernathy would be right at home at a rose ceremony!

Please follow me, down into a fake mansion that houses a harem, where we can take a closer look at the things that made The Bachelor so distinctive in its 21st season: existential female anxiety, textual reflexivity, and the peculiar journey of Corinne, a single trope that managed to awaken and rewrite herself.

Born into an apocalyptic Trumpworld, this iteration of The Bachelor became something kind of dark, dreadful, and a little bit out-of-control. Of course, The Bachelor is always a circus, and that’s why so many people hate it: for a television fan, it takes a strong set of stones to follow something so vapid, so dependent on tired stereotypes and romantic wish-fulfillment, so misogynistic, so corporate and disingenuous. How many different ways can producers arrange 30 beautiful women in a Love Thunderdome as they compete for the affections of one bland white man? But there was something poisonous in American culture at large that made Season 21 into something else, something crazier. Perhaps the 2016 election left a vacuum of hope that encouraged The Bachelor producers to lean into self-destruction as an aesthetic. Perhaps we, the audience, are evolving to watch ourselves watching TV, and we prefer everything to be kind of about storytelling – ergo the timely popularity of diverse “meta” shows like WestworldAmerican Horror StoryFleabag.

Either way, the new Bachelor was defined by these new and distinctive notes:

  1. Contestants who bristled inside their assigned story cages and pointedly drew attention to the process of being written as characters.
  2. The season’s primary “villain,” Corinne, who transcended the confines of the Bach with a Joker-like sense of chaotic sexuality and stunningly re-branded her arc as sex-positive feminist heroism.
  3. An unwilling Bachelor whose weird charisma relied on his apathy, nihilism, and constant critique of the format. Nick undermined our reception of the Bachelor experience by positioning himself as a bored observer – distancing himself from the contestants and the ideological underpinnings of the show.

First, I want to take on Bullet Number One – the Westworldian crises of self that entered this season of the Bachelor early on and began the process of destabilizing narratives and the women forced to live them. Take a look at what happened to Jasmine G on Night 1. Now, it’s not unusual for Bachelor women to immediately recoil from the uncanniness of this environment –  to be a Bachelor contestant, to be on a reality dating competition, is to be subjected to spirit-breaking. These women are tested every moment with the pressures of self-criticism, of being filmed, of being beautiful, of being charming, of systematically attacking and defeating your stunning competitors. But something about Jasmine G’s body language and wording struck me as a crisis of self, a dissociative episode which bespeaks her sudden awareness that she is performing and this whole thing – maybe any love-hunt – is theater without meaning.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do. Holy shit. Who the fuck am I? I’m blown away right now. Who am I?”

Night 1 would be the first of Jasmine’s many system failures, glitches in her personality and physical affect which provided an alarming counterpoint to the self-policing composure we’re used to seeing on these women. Nick eliminated her because of her unpleasant urge to question the “realism” of herself, of him, of the experience. And this was not the only instance of unusual meta-awareness amongst the women. Many of the others expressed a certain repugnance at the roles in which they were pigeonholed – at their status as storylines. Liz’s only mission, with mounting desperation, was to rewrite her way from Nick’s opportunistic ex-fling all the way to romantic legitimacy. Taylor realized too late that her Bachelor persona and “real” professional life were being mapped onto one another and she’d dug herself into the “bitch bully” hole (with the help of her nemesis Corinne). Taylor also literally theorized that some women are better-programmed for love! What could be more Westworld than attempting to parse the resident slut’s “emotional intelligence”?

So there was a significant change in the show here, in which the women’s grasp or ignorance of “being produced” was of paramount importance to how we perceived them. To compare these women to WW characters like Dolores and Maeve – remaining basic, guileless, and easily overwritten ensured a measure of success in the competition and preserved their classic Bachelor likeability factor.

So with that said, I’m dying to get back to Corinne. Here was a contestant who really jumped off the screen for reasons I’ve never seen an antagonist “pop” before. Unlike a villain such as, say, Season 20’s Olivia, Corinne worked to distinguish herself as a breakout character – not just through behavior but through actual world-building. Starting the show out by mentioning her current nanny Raquel was a stroke of genius; Raquel was a framing device that indicated Corinne inhabited a bizarre fantasy world inside and outside the show. In so many ways. Corinne deliberately ate endless blocks of cheese on camera. She feigned naps, eyes closed, smiling beatifically as she “dreamed” of Nick. She self-consciously and joyfully delivered dialogue she knew would light up the internet. Clutching her breasts and huffing, “Does this seem like someone who’s immature?” Staring soullessly into the lens and intoning, “My heart is gold, but my vagine is platinum.” Luring Nick into an inexplicable bounce house and toplessly dry-humping him with abandon. Corinne’s promiscuity, and her persona, were over-the-top but deliberately, defiantly, and delightfully self-choreographed. We know the floozy never wins, but when the floozy knows it, ignores it, and enjoys her role, she transcends happy endings.

And most interestingly, Corinne elevated her self-awareness and self-programming into a magnificent final act. During “The Women Tell All” (a reunion episode which airs before the finale) Corinne, in one fell swoop, ret-conned her entire Bachelor journey as a feminist rumspringa. “I was just doing me,” she demurely insisted, while the other contestants fought to defend her sexual agency. They leaped to defend the resident slut as the bravest and most authentic person amongst them. Corinne sat, resplendent, her eyes bearing no trace of the mischief and malevolence that had been her character cornerstones. She’d accomplished a rewrite akin to “it was all a dream.” Later, women sobbed while Liz declared her sexual encounter with Nick had not “defined” her, and they took turns praising their sister for her humanitarian work. The thematic tide-turn from “a search for true love” to “an inner journey toward female unity and empowerment” made for the most overtly political and topical episode The Bachelor has had, maybe ever – and it bespoke the malleability of reality fiction in a way the show has never previously approached.

In many ways, it was Bachelor Nick’s abdication of his role that allowed the TV text to refocus itself on the women “waking up” and growing through their relationships to one another. It’s hard, as a viewer, to engage with story about passive female players being driven toward romantic fulfillment, when the end-goal is a guy who’d be content to go home immediately and eat cold pizza. As we know, the guy had already been through two seasons of The Bachelorette and one summer of Bachelor in Paradise – his entire narrative was “last-ditch effort for love.” Nick made it his business to call out the fakery of The Bachelor, and the futility of it: “Let’s try to be as normal as possible in an abnormal environment.” “I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how much it sucks.” I certainly like Nick as a person – I like that he cries when he feels stuff, and I like that he hates being The Bachelor but loves being famous, and I like that he let women who were too good for him go, so they could fly and be free and be the first black Bachelorette. But if Nick did anything other than represent a neat resolution of the presented Bachelor narrative, he effectively denied our suspension of disbelief and exposed this particular season as “reality farce with no point.” Prince Charming was just in it for the international travel and the free food. I sympathize. And it’s fun to watch The Bachelor pretend that this isn’t a huge problem.

SO! I posit here that, at least for this season, The Bachelor evolved beyond the story of single women and their search for love. You might say that instead of being about singlehood, this show became about “the singularity” – that moment when program/character/trope/story/world comes alive and begins to adapt and change itself. I wonder: is it a better ride for the reality-consuming audience, when “we know they know”? At what point does watching a character with meta-awareness become confusing, or tiresome, rather than thrilling? And most importantly, what are the differences between watching reality television and prestige drama when we’re grappling with these issues? This question, perhaps, is of paramount importance for TV fans as we go forward; if there’s something in the water that’s poisoning every genre of narrative experience (or making it tastier), we have to put our fingers on it. Why do I watch so much television about women in traps, whose self-actualization and creative escapes are catalyzed by patriarchal violence? Why is it so easy to find that story?

I think it’s easy to brush aside shows like The Bachelor precisely because they are so heavily consumed, across political and cultural lines, and “mass appeal” television has the reputation of reifying harmful structures of power. For really good reason. But it’s important to locate these small moments of medium-transcendence within these TV texts. More and more, the characters we use and abuse are turning directly towards us. These fictional delights have real ends, and it’s never, never about the final rose.