Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Bachelor Ethics: Molly, Memoirs, and Machinations

THE AFTER THE FINAL ROSE Ceremony on ABC's The Bachelor made for great, if inexplicable, TV.

As most know by now, the bachelor--the earnest and self-satisfied Jason Mesnick--breaks things off with Melissa Rycroft on national television just six weeks after an emotion-laden marriage proposal amidst ferns. That proposal came on the heels of a teary-breakup when Jason ended things with Molly Malaney. How teary? I've never seen a dude cry so much.

But, who said Reality TV has ever been about subtlety?

Breaking up with Melissa on national TV is, on its own, high camp. But, on the same program, within minutes of putting the former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader up for free agency, he admits he's been wanting to be starting quarterback for Molly's team all along.

Ah, the old switcharoo. Most of us can't get away with that. Can ABC? Maybe, maybe not.

"Reality Steve," a blogger who claims to have an in with the network, has been writing for some time not simply that the scenario outlined above would happen but that it has been entirely scripted by ABC and the show's producers--from the beginning. According to him, it was clear a few days into taping this season's episodes that Jason and Molly were The Bachelor's Brad and Angelina. Faced with a dull, predictable series of shows (and no twins), they made Jason a deal--you can eventually choose Molly, but you have to propose first to Melissa.

Conspiratorial? Sure. Great TV? You bet? Moral? Less clear.

My interest here is not necessarily judging the ethical decisions of Molly, Melissa, and Jason but rather, if Steve the prose-impaired blogger is correct what this says about the ethics of ABC and the reality of reality TV. In the past, I have written about fake memoirs in these virtual pages and elsewhere, and my wife, who is smarter than I am about most things, challenged me last night post-bachelor to distinguish between fake memoirs and fake reality TV.

Why, she queried, do I get all worked up by invented memoirs but not un-real reality TV?

It's a good question, for which I have no good answer.

But, let me start here. For one, we're not sure just how scripted this season or the past few episodes of The Bachelor actually were. We do know, on the other hand, the many things James Frey or Margaret P. Jones made up to make their memoirs more fabulous. That said, I do believe a great deal of what Reality Steve proposes, and a reporter for the newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Molly is from, has also agreed that this scenario makes sense.

So, going from there, I would say that the distinction is that we expect an authored book that markets itself as "autobiography" or "memoir" to adhere to "reality" more than reality TV. Perhaps because books have no actors, no producers, no advertisers, no need for weekly Nielsen ratings, and no sense of the episodic, we grant television liberties we don't grant authors; perhaps because we know a week of hanging out on an island with a bunch of other people cannot--under any reasonable circumstance--be edited down to 42 minutes with any real degree of accuracy.

I also think that we still expect something of books. This might be old-fashioned, but I believe we hold reality books to a higher standard of verisimilitude than reality television, which has become a kind of oxymoron.

We have--for better or worse--a different moral compass for high and popular culture.

This is good for books but maybe not so good for us, since far more people make television part of their identity than literary texts. But, both share the public push for narrative drama and emotional tension, and who among us has not been tempted to skew reality, transpire events to make our stories more readable?

ABC absolutely was involved on some level in determining the course of events with the show. The question is, with willing participants and an eager audience, did they do anything wrong?


  1. I would say that ABC only did something wrong if Molly, Melissa and Jason weren't involved with the "ending" from the beginning. My guess that they were (thought I don't watch the show) and this just goes to prove that "reality television" that isn't a documentary is a contradiction in terms.

    Nothing about this show is real. The situations are contrived and the people chosen to provide the most explosive responses to predicaments into which they are pushed. Viewers who honestly believe that there aren't producers encouraging poor or incongruous behavior are fooling themselves.

    This differs from written memoirs in that these claim to be true and we have no background to prove that they are not. With television, most of us understand at least on some level that the participants are in a situation that would not normally occur in everyday life and they are there because they choose to be. I have never been invited to a mansion to compete for anything nor have I ever even met anyone who has. However, I have met people who are gay, have lost a loved one, had cancer or been in rehab. With a memoir, we expect the events to be true or at least a true representation of the author's memory. We expected that James Frey said he went to rehab and since it was a book - that claimed a level of factuality - and not a television show where we could see an image that he checked himself in, we had to take his word for it. Reality television is, almost inherently, a lie. People behave differently when a camera is around and then it is edited to make it more fascinating. The entire “Bachelor” situation wasn’t something that would happened without the orchestrating of producers and directors and a camera crew. I have a hard time believing that even the average viewer doesn’t recognize that the network had a hand in this ending.

  2. Hi Dean--

    Fun post. The word missing is "simulacra." The notion that there could be "reality" television was always already oxymoronic. The televisual "frames" reality, and so cannot be expected to represent it.

    On the difference between books and television: Books, regardless of what Barthes may have said, are authored; television is produced. Our expectations should remain different on that account alone. (Though I would note that the "fake memoir" issue doesn't bother me a lot, for other reasons.)

    Finally, I recall seeing a "retrospective" after the first season or so of MTV's "Real World." Students of the genre will do better on the details than me, but there was a woman who had come off quite spitefully during the season, and the "audience" members viewing the live retrospective began to shout names at her (bi--h, mostly). At which point she began to desperately wail that she was not "really" a bi--h, but that the cutting room floor had renarrated her own behavior. But of course, even prior to Day 1 of the filming, she had already had to renegotiate her character and personality into a decisive (on-air) persona, entering into a kind of struggle with the producers, one which they are bound to win (their rules). At which point, who are we to ask who she "really" is?

  3. Who knew you watched The Bachelor? Why do you watch the Bachelor? "Paris" is right. There are differences between tv and books, but I'm not convinced just because they are different they should have different standards.

  4. Yes, Jeff, simulacra . . .exactamente . . .mmm . . .Baudrillard . . .great observation . . .

  5. Christy, I doubt most devotees of the Bachelor are as discerning (or as skeptical) as you . . .

  6. Hi Dean--

    I should have noted, by the way, that I have never actually heard of The Bachelor, so my comments should be taken with that in mind.

    I wish BayBay had actually provided some substance to the comment. Why can't different media be treated differently in criticism? Why don't different production processes create different expectations? Television, radio, music, film, books (novels, memoirs, criticism, history), and the internet, too! Do people forget that media is also a plural word? And that each media "mediates" between two (or more) sites, a transmission process that necessarily invokes different modes of representation?

  7. I had this really great young professor when I was in college who gave great advice: "Always ask 'Who is this bastard and why is he lying to me?'" :)