Written by Kristen Rando
Media are “society’s central storytellers,” and have become an influential institution in American culture and society (Campbell, Fabos, Frechette, Gomery & Jensen, 2014, p. 17). Their influence derives from the fact that media “provide us with representations — narratives that represent us as individuals, as members of society, and as global citizens” (Ibid, p. 221). However, media are owned by “a few transnational global conglomerates” that seek to enforce hegemonic beliefs that keep themselves in power through the use of master narratives (Ibid, p. 223). It is crucial to examine these representations in the media because they serve those in power and do not offer our culture diverse points of view.
The Bachelor and The Bachelorette shows are currently part of one of the most successful franchises on television. The romance-focused reality show franchise claims to be about helping ordinary people find “fairytale love”. However, this franchise uses its romantic premise to enforce hegemonic and patriarchal ideals. Each program airs on The Walt Disney Company-owned television station ABC, representing another extension of The Walt Disney Company’s hegemonic brand. This franchise undoubtedly aligns with the Disney point of view by using the “fairytale” as a means of portraying sexist, homophobic, and racial themes. This television franchise and the media conglomerate that owns it are promoting the idea that “fairytale love” is only had by heterosexual, white, young, good looking people who abide by patriarchal standards.
The Walt Disney Company is “one of the top two media conglomerates” with “media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, consumer products and interactive media” (Robbins & Polite, 2014, pp. 12-14). According to Free Press, The Walt Disney Company “owns the ABC television network; cable networks including ESPN, the Disney Channel, SOAPnet, A&E and Lifetime” (Free Press, 2011). The Walt Disney Company also owns “277 radio stations, music- and book-publishing companies; film-production companies Touchstone, Miramax and Walt Disney Pictures; Pixar Animation Studios; the cellular service Disney Mobile; and theme parks around the world” (Free Press, 2011). The accessibility that The Walt Disney Company has to people all over the world is immense, which is why it is important to analyze the Disney brand and what ideology it truly promotes.
The Disney brand is unlike any other because it has cultivated the idea that Disney is synonymous with “family values relating to goodness, kindness and innocence for children” (Robbins & Polite, 2014, p.14). The Walt Disney Company engages both children and adults by “constructing and reliving elements of lived experiences” for children, “while providing adults with nostalgic fantasies about the past” (Ibid, p. 14). Fairy tales and magic are a large part of what makes Disney such an appealing brand to consumers, as they project “an ideology of enchantment and aura of innocence in narrating stories that help children understand who they are and what societies are about” (Giroux, 1995). There is so much passivity in those that enjoy things created by Disney because they trust that the magic and innocence is pure entertainment. Yet a closer look at Disney narratives reveals a common thread of “pushing the belief that happiness is synonymous with living in the suburbs with an intact white middle class family” (Giroux, 1995).
Specifically when it comes to gender and race, Disney tends to “assign quite unapologetically rigid roles to women and people of color” (Giroux, 1995). The Disney Princess archetype that can be seen in all forms of Disney media relies heavily on men, conforms to the Western standard of beauty, and is only fulfilled by love from a male counterpart. Disney often times creates female characters that “pursue the love of a desired male over their own professional or personal ambition” (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 223).
Overwhelmingly, people of color in Disney media adhere to harmful stereotypes depending on their race, or are merely background characters in a white hero’s story. Disney has been known for its “racial caricaturing,” giving the identities of people of color to animated animals who often time desire to be “the king” or the hero of the story (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 224). People of color tend to be used as barriers on the hero’s journey that are to be overcome in order to save the day or, more likely, the Princess.
In depicting gender and race, The Walt Disney Company chooses to promote its patriarchal and conservative agenda by using its leverage as a trusted brand to influence an unwitting audience. Through “…stories of male heroism, female dependency, heterosexual norms, and the power of whiteness in society,” Disney uses its large scope to promote the idea that fairy tale happy endings only occur for white, young, heterosexual people who adhere to gender norms (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 223). This hegemonic master narrative is unmistakably upheld in The Walt Disney Company-owned television programs The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
The ABC television show The Bachelor was the first to air in the reality television franchise in March of 2002. After critics called the original program’s premise sexist, The Bachelorette was created in January of 2003. Although The Bachelorette was created less than a year after The Bachelor, it has aired only 12 seasons while The Bachelor has aired 21 seasons. This is because The Bachelor was releasing two seasons a year until 2008 while The Bachelorette released only one season a year and released no seasons for the years 2006 and 2007. It is clear that The Bachelor was the main focus of the franchise during its earlier years. The premise of both programs is an eligible Bachelor or Bachelorette goes on romantic and grandiose dates with about 25 contestants of the opposite gender. The lead eliminates contestants every week until they reach the final two contestants. If it is a Bachelor, they are expected to propose to one of the final two women. If it is a Bachelorette, the final two men are expected to propose and the Bachelorette chooses which proposal to accept.
This reality television franchise was created by television and film producer, Mike Fleiss, a wealthy, white, middle-aged man. The executive producer of both shows is Elan Gale, who is also a Caucasian male. The host of both shows as well as the franchise’s other spin-offs, Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise is Chris Harrison. Similarly, Harrison is a white, wealthy, middle-aged man. Interestingly, all of the people that have major roles in creating and producing these shows do not match the demographic to which this franchise markets. Both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette perform extremely well in the key 18-49 demographic on Monday nights, often winning that demographic barring any major television events. Both shows average a 2.7 rating in the 18-49 demographic, which is bolstered by the 4.0 rating among women 18-49 (Consoli, 2013). Ironically, although both shows resonate with young women and are marketed as such, the producers and hosts are middle-aged white men.
In line with Disney’s thematic narrative, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are dating reality shows that emphasize the idea of a romantic fairy tale love story typically geared toward women. The boundaries of this story line have few limits, as these programs depict outlandish dates that involve helicopter rides, fireworks shows, and picturesque travel destinations as regular features. Like most Disney content, both programs create the idea that finding a romantic partner is a magical journey full of fantastical events.
In contrast to Disney’s contrived fantasy of everlasting romantic love, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have not been very successful in producing couples that last longer than a few months. Only two couples from The Bachelor have married, while two are still engaged. Only three couples from The Bachelorette have married, while two are still engaged. It should also be noted that both the creator, Fleiss, and the host, Harrison, have been divorced, thereby reducing their credibility as role models for people looking for successful marriages.
While these shows advertise themselves as romantic fairy tales with pure intentions, they have proven to be mostly unsuccessful in creating stable relationships. In fact, these shows are more about advertising upcoming Disney films than actually creating successful couples. For example, Season 19 of The Bachelor featured a “Cinderella date” in honor of the release of the live action Cinderella film. In lockstep with The Walt Disney Company, The Bachelor and Bachelorette stand by their commercial brand of fairy tale love to sell their hegemonic and patriarchal ideals of gender and diversity. On both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, misogynistic and archaic ideas of gender norms are an underlying theme, as women are encouraged to enact the Disney Princess via the reality show format of the fairy tale love story.
As with its animated content, Disney’s reality TV depictions on these programs underscore strict traditional ideas of the gender binary as well as heteronormative behavior. The rampant sexism in this franchise begins with the fact that The Bachelorette was predominantly created to silence critics and has substantially fewer seasons than The Bachelor. The premise of the original show, The Bachelor, features one man dating multiple women as a means to determining whom is “marriage material”. This sexist premise pits women against each other, and reinforces the idea that women need the approval of men as a means to be valued in society. In order to compete with the other women on the show, the female contestants must shower the male lead with affection, and are encouraged to use their bodies to get his attention.
When judging “who is the fairest of them all,” the female contestants on The Bachelor align with the Western idea of beauty, meaning that they are usually very thin and white. With expectations of perfection that delineate the trope of the Disney Princess, the female contestants are dressed in formal gowns with their hair and make-up done for “rose ceremonies,” whereby the male lead decides who he is eliminating each week. Just like the trophy wife who is expected to be “physically attractive and sexually pleasing within both the domestic and public spheres,” the women on The Bachelor are expected to be “marriage material” with the potential to be the perfect wife and mothers who retain their beauty and sex appeal (Campbell et al, 2014, p. 243). If the female contestants do not emit the proper emotions over The Bachelor, they are considered phony and are rejected as appearing on the program for the wrong reasons.
The Bachelorette has not proven to be the feminist answer that Disney was hoping for because it only exposes the double standards in the franchise’s conservative philosophy. Oddly, the program is advertised as feminist because it adheres to what Lynn Spigel defines as “post-feminist logic” as it “embraces femininity and ‘girliness’ in the name of enlightenment and female empowerment” (Spigel, 2004, p. 1212). This “post-feminist logic” embraces the traditional gender role of women being thin and beautiful, while characterizes her as an exemplary of feminism because she is the lead character in a televised program.
On both programs, the women are expected to be sexually appealing, with the expectation that they tread a fine line on flaunting their sexuality. If they are considered too sexual, they risk forfeiting their qualifications as “marriage material.” This is especially evident during one of the franchise’s traditions called “the fantasy suite date,” an event in which, to thicken the plot when three finalists remain, an overnight encounter occurs between the bachelor/ette and potential suitor. As with other normative displays of masculinity, if the lead is a male, the show sometimes implies that he has had sex with all three of the final contestants. However, when the lead is a female, it is often times expected that she does not have sex with any of the contestants. The show never explicitly says what each couple does during their overnight date unless it becomes a storyline in the show.
Such sexual double binds have severe implications. When it was revealed that she slept with two of her final contestants, former Bachelorette Andi Dorfman received harsh criticism. In line with revenge porn and other cultural backlashes against women, contestant Nick Viall retaliated by announcing on live television that he had slept with Andi, stating, “if you weren’t in love with me, I’m just not sure why you made love with me” (Dries, 2014). In this reprisal, Viall exudes male privilege by holding Andi to a double sexual standard while disrespecting her privacy. What’s more, far from denouncing Viall’s tactics, the program franchise cast Viall as the lead for the 21st season of The Bachelor.
Another instance of the double standard in sexual identity for The Bachelorette occurred during Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season. Bristowe engaged in a sexual relationship with repeat contestant Nick Viall before the “fantasy suite date.” While the show promotes the idea that the contestants are all in a relationship with the lead and that they should act as such, Bristowe received harsh criticism and a large amount of slut-shaming on social media when she pointed out that sex is a part of relationships. Returning to age-old sexual double standard, although male leads on The Bachelor have slept with contestants while on the show, the franchise only makes a large storyline out of the sexual encounters on their program when the leads are women. Adding salt to the wound, Bristowe was “punished” by creator Mike Fleiss and not allowed to appear as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Bristowe says that Fleiss claimed that “Shawn [her fiancé] should be her passion” instead of dance, despite the fact that Bristowe has taught dance for many years (Hargrave, 2017).
Another way in which The Bachelor and The Bachelorette align with The Walt Disney Company’s hegemonic brand is through the lack of diversity. There have been very few leads of color or contestants of color on both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. The first and only Bachelor of color was Season 18’s Juan Pablo Galavis. Galavis is Venezuelan, and the show did not downplay his cultural heritage. However, Galavis is known to be one of the most controversial and disliked leads of the show due to clashing with producers. In one instance, Galavis refused to propose at the end of his season, which angered producers and many fans. He also claimed that there would never be a gay Bachelor because he said homosexuals were “more pervert,” which made fans of the show very angry as well (Baylis, 2016). Ironically, the format of both shows completely ignores homosexuality, making the franchise itself quite homophobic.
There were talks that season 12’s Bachelorette would be a woman of color. To those ends, Joelle “JoJo” Fletcher, whose ethnicity is half Iranian, was cast as the lead. However, Fletcher’s appearance aligns with western standard of beauty that resemble Caucasian skin tones and features. What’s more, the show never mentions her Iranian background and promotes her as a country girl, only highlighting her hometown roots in Texas. Due to public outcry from fans, the upcoming 13th season of The Bachelorette is purported to feature their first black lead by featuring attorney Rachel Lindsay.
Both shows have also been notorious for casting very few contestants of color. Minorities have been known to be eliminated in the first few weeks. In fact, in the 2009 to 2012 seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, there were only one or two people of color cast each season, most of whom were eliminated during the first week. This led to a class action racial discrimination lawsuit filed in 2012 against the franchise for casting too few minority contestants. The lawsuit was filed by two black men, Christopher Johnson and Nathaniel Claybrooks, who auditioned for the show and felt that the show specifically did not cast them because of their race. Although the case was dismissed, the franchise cast more minority contestants the next year, but worked to retain a colorless aesthetic by rarely acknowledging their race and ethnicity. Not surprisingly, this practice complies with the Disney fairy tale standard in which “’whiteness’ remains central to the master narrative in terms of racial representations” (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 230). Like most Disney characters, the race and ethnicity of those on The Bachelor/ette are rarely discussed so that the “ethnic markers” of certain contestants of color “are made invisible, whitening their identity since absence signifies whiteness” (Dubrofsky and Hardy, 2008, p. 380). Both male and female contestants are expected to perform whiteness, making themselves less conspicuous as contestants of color.
The fact that contestants of color do not last very long on these series based programs is particularly troubling because it promotes the idea that “only white people find romantic partners, while women of color work to facilitate the coupling of white people” (Dubrofsky, 2006, p. 39). Both shows often describe themselves as a “journey” for their lead to find love. In this context, both shows are about two white people overcoming other male and female obstacles to end up together. But when people of color never end up with the white lead, it implies that people of color can also be constituted as obstacles, reinforcing the master narrative that to “help the white heroes find one another, they must disappear into the background” (Dubrofsky, 2006, p. 54). Similar to conforming to “Disnified” gender roles, this franchise promotes that “whiteness is essential to finding a romantic partner” (Dubrofsky, 2006, p. 54). These dominant representations are troublesome for viewers because of how easily they are repeated and regurgitated across reality television programs and genres.
The Bachelor and The Bachelorette promote a Disney branded agenda, implying that predominantly white, heterosexual, good-looking people who abide by traditional gender roles will find love. It is important to consider how this message could be normalized because it is on reality television as opposed to scripted television. Reality television claims to allow us “access to the ostensibly real thoughts and behaviors of people allegedly like ourselves” (Cloud, 2010 p. 417).
Many who watch reality television tend to believe that the programming is staged and manipulated through editing. However, according to Dana Cloud, viewers of reality television tend to regard it as “’real’ and ‘not real’ at the same time” (Cloud, 2010, p. 430). Cloud explains that when it comes to reality television, audiences may get enjoyment from “identification with characters/contestants and outcomes,” while also “recognizing the text as artificial construct” (Cloud, 2010, p. 430). Viewers tend to value most the “credibility of emotions, confessions, and articulations of the intimate” (Mast, 2016, p. 914). Although there is a sense of detachment in viewers of reality television, it is very unlikely that they are not affected by the values projected in the master narratives. Considering that the target demographic is women ages 18-49, it is important to recognize how these viewers may be influenced by the hegemonic and patriarchal ideals promoted by The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
It is undeniable that media representations of identity affect culture and society, and because of this influence the corporations who own the media exert control over culture and society. These corporations look to make the largest profit they can while also promoting their own hegemonic beliefs that allow them to keep their wealth and power.
As one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, The Walt Disney Company exerts a tremendous amount of influence on identity politics through their storylines and representations. Its unique brand is synonymous with fairy tale magic and family fun on the surface. However, a deeper analysis exposes sexist, homophobic, and racist values injected with a conservative set of ideologies. Despite the truth that love is universal and that everyone deserves it, Disney’s hit reality television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette promote the idea that love is bequeathed only onto white, heterosexual, and ‘good-looking’ people who embody traditional gender roles. Ultimately Disney and other media corporations like it exploit these master narratives because it allows the hegemonic elite to keep their power and they make a large profit. To challenge this power, viewers will need to demand better representation in for- profit media in order for a broader scope of reality to be expressed on television.
Student Author: Kristen Rando, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication, Worcester State University
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