05/01/2016 10:43 AM AEDT | Updated 02/06/2016 4:27 AM AEST

The Real Fantasy Of 'The Bachelor' Is That Love Can Be Controlled

Why the show is so addictive, no matter who the guy is.

ROBYN BECK via Getty Images
Ben Higgins is the latest normal dude to embark on a journey of love.

On the eve of January 4, a young man will start his fairy tale journey. Armed with roses, suits and the "right reasons," he will find love on national television by the end of March. This is how "The Bachelor" works nearly every season, and one can pretty safely assume that Season 20 will be no different.

Each season, dozens of potentials apply to be on the other end of that fairytale. This time, the Daily Beast's Brandy Zadrozny wonders why. Years ago, the chosen "Bachelor" men were unusually wealthy, Ivy League-educated, or at the very least related to a famous actor.

Not anymore. With regards to Season 20 star, 26-year-old software salesman Ben Higgins, Zadrozny writes: "Why would these women be so fiercely desperate to speed-date on national television in the hopes of marrying the kind of man they’re likely to run into at their local church or neighborhood AppleBee’s?"

She has a point. Higgins and the other Bachelors who have been culled from the previous season's pool of rejected men (every single Bachelor since Jason Mesnick on Season 13 in 2009), are basically "normal dudes," at least by television standards. 

The question is, do women really go on "The Bachelor" because they want the chance to "meet a man miles out of [their] league"? And do women watch "The Bachelor" to see that particular version of a (pretty messed up) "fairy tale"? I suspect the answer is no, on both counts.

Ratings have actually gone up in recent years, as the franchise has continued to rely on casting men and women who its audience is already invested in. 

There are many reasons people go on reality television that have nothing to do with the deep belief that they will find true love: boredom, a desire to be temporarily famous, to promote your start-up, because your friend drunkenly filled out the application and you can afford to take off work. There seems to be no shortage of 21 to 34-year-old women (and men!) who are willing to leave their lives as dental hygienists/dog lovers/software salespeople/fitness coaches for a chance at three months of travel, five minutes of fame and -- maybe, just maybe! -- a relationship, or at least a few months of something vaguely resembling one.

That glimmer of romantic possibility, which the stars of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" must have faith in more than any of the contestants, is what draws in even the most jaded of viewers.

It's not the Bachelor himself who's some aspirational fantasy for the women who watch. The true fantasy is in the formula; the idea that with the right pool of people, the right amount of "vulnerability," the right "process," finding love is a bygone conclusion, completely in the control of a person who truly wants it and has been deemed deserving. Anyone who has ever fallen in and out of love knows that that's not how it works, but oh, wouldn't it be sweet if it did?

Cheers... to the right reasons?

There is a very particular tension that arises when you consistently watch something that you understand to be disconnected from reality -- and perhaps even find compelling for that reason -- but by virtue of that consistency, you buy into at least a little bit.

Shows like 2015's critical hit "UnREAL" further reinforce what we already suspected: "The Bachelor" is a construction; a series of edited clips strung together by highly-skilled producers who know what they need from their on-camera talent and know how to get it. We know all of this, yet we come back to our TV screens week after week after week. Because figuring out such a formulaic construction of love is satisfying in its simplicity.

In real life, no one will tell you when to stay in with your friends and when to go out on a date. Said dates will likely not take place at 5-star resorts or include death-defying challenges that force you to "face your fears." No one will prompt you to "open up" about your feelings or be physically intimate at a predetermined time in a predetermined location. No one will drive you off in a limo and ask you how you feel to signal a breakup or give you a rose in Thailand, along with a free diamond ring, to signal "forever." 

Love IRL is more the stuff of frustrated therapy sessions and overly-familiar Facebook posts than romantic comedies. Vulnerability takes the form of heartwrenching conversations about your needs which you decide to initiate with a partner because something inside of you knows that you have to. Or re-downloading Tinder and Bumble and OKCupid in the aftermath of a breakup. Or being truly honest about your sexual desires for the first time. Or pushing yourself to go into a setup with a positive outlook even though it might end in disaster. Or accepting that even if you do all of the above, love might remain out of reach. 

We continue to try because the payoff can be enormous. Love and romantic partnership are not everything, not even close. But they feel so goddamn good when they, against all odds, work (even temporarily). So we go back again and again like gluttons for romantic punishment. 

As Roxane Gay wrote for the New York Times in 2014:

We are not as cynical as we pretend to be. We continue to date and fall disastrously in love and marry and divorce and try again despite overwhelming evidence that it is a hell of a thing to stay with one person for the rest of your life. Few among us want to die alone, holding that hollow space inside us. The real shame of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," of the absurd theater of romantic comedies, of the sweeping passion of romance novels, is that they know where we are most tender, and they aim right for that place.

"The Bachelor" indulges our most jaded selves while burrowing underneath our romantic scar tissue. So, who cares whether we're watching 25 people swoon over the heir to a tire fortune or a software salesman while it happens?

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