Amy Kaufman’s Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure is the deep dive into the Bachelor franchise you didn’t know you needed. But oh, do you need it. Even if you don’t watch the series, Kaufman, a journalist banned by ABC from attending events after her coverage of the show was deemed “too negative,” does a remarkable job at peeling back all the layers that create America’s fascination and obsession with the show. The book is a “cultural history”: a comprehensive look into one of the most pervasive cultural phenomenons in the 21st century.
Interspersed with both her own take on America’s “yearning for fairy-tale romance” and chapters on topics like the history of reality dating show competitions and the way the show deals with sex are personal statements (“Why I’m a Fan”) by well-known celebrities like Amy Schumer and Joshua Malina, among others. These famous “confessions” are fascinating to read; for example, Allison Williams (Get Out, “Girls”) writes, “I think that this is a show where you can learn about and engage with your own sense of feminism.” By including these celebrity perspectives alongside regular fans, mixed in with interviews with both former and current members of the Bachelor Franchise, Kaufman presents a complete picture of the impact that this television show has had on the American psyche.
After reading Bachelor Nation, I had the opportunity to chat with Amy Kaufman over e-mail.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is when you write about “frankenbites” and the editing process of the show; you quote an editor who says, “There’s no allegiance to what happened in reality.” Is there a way to tell when a scene has been heavily edited?
I think it’s pretty tricky to tell when things have been edited; these people are experts at their jobs. But when I hear a sound bite from, say, Bekah, and the visual isn’t of Bekah talking — we’re just seeing some scenery, for example, while Bekah talks about how in love she is with Arie — I always get suspicious.
If you really want a lesson in how deep the editing on the show goes, just check out the promos. At the end of the season, after the proposal is over, I like to go back to the first promo ABC released after episode one. You can see exactly how far down the wrong road they were trying to steer us, and how dramatic moments were teased that may have never even occurred. (Often we’ll see blood, for example, and yet rarely do two contestants come to actual blows.)
Do you think the type of contestant has changed from 2002 to 2018 with the rise of social media?
Absolutely. When the show started in 2002, reality television was in its infancy. Casting producers basically had to beg strangers on the street to go on the show, because so many people were wary of how the program would affect their reputation or career. Nowadays, of course, the desire for fame often trumps any concern about “looking bad” on television. That, and the easy paycheck that comes from shilling hair vitamins on Instagram.
Do you agree with Andi Zeisler, who you interviewed for the book, who said, “establishing feminism as a purity test is just a losing proposition, because we do things all the time that contradict a feminist worldview”? Do you believe viewers can separate their personal feminism from being fans of the franchise?
I do agree with Andi. Every time I watch the show, I feel like I’m separating my “personal feminism” from my fandom. Do I love that the show depicts a certain kind of woman — typically very white, thin, long-haired and tan? No. It drives me nuts. But there’s also a part of me that loves watching, well, love — and I respect the women on the show who are open about how much they desire a husband in their lives.
What changes would you like to see the Bachelor franchise make? Can the show become more “feminist”?
As I mentioned above, I’m really dismayed by how similar the women who are cast on The Bachelor look. In my book, Amy Schumer talks about being courted to be “The Bachelorette,” and she said she only really entertained it because she thought it would be so cool to show a woman laying by the mansion pool who has actual cellulite. I agree. I’m happy that on Arie’s season we’re getting to see the ladies’ professions instead of the fake silly job titles producers have created in seasons’ past. I’m always happy when I hear more about the aspirations of the women competing beyond just getting to go to the Fantasy Suite with the Bachelor.
You write about former producer Sarah Shapiro, how she was this Jewish feminist from New York who eventually left the show. With regard to her scripted show, unReal, you write, “I think it… started to force fans to examine the way we consume the show.” Do you think it also forced producers to examine how they were creating the show? Do you watch unREAL?
I can’t speak on behalf of the current producers, since they didn’t participate in my book. Many of the show’s former producers, however, did tell me they saw a lot of truth reflected in UnREAL. Note that no one told me that watching UnREAL had made them examine their behavior. It just felt true to their experience.
And yes, I do watch UnREAL, and it’s one of the first things that really got me thinking about getting to the bottom of how The Bachelor really works.
How much does a person’s religion/culture/heritage come into play when choosing the leads for the show? (Jason Mesnick said, “I had a direct conversation with the people at The Bachelor… and they weren’t sure they were going to have me be the Bachelor because my family’s Jewish.”)
As a viewer, I typically only notice someone’s religion come up when their religion is a dominant force in their life. For example, Sean Lowe talks in the book about how the night before he proposed to Catherine, he asked to meet with her one last time to make sure she was fine with raising her children in the Church. This season, we saw Arie confronted by Becca K.’s family — her uncle is a pastor — who asked him if he’d be open to delving into his spirituality more because Becca was so religious. While it was many years ago now, I definitely can’t even remember them mentioning Jason Mesnick’s Judaism as part of his background.
And the contestants — we see very few Jewish contestants (I don’t think there was a single Jewish contestant on Arie’s season). Do you think it’s more that the producers aren’t bringing them onto the show, or young Jewish men/women don’t want to be on the show?
I’m not sure it’s true that there aren’t many Jewish people on the show. I believe JP Rosenbaum, Andi Dorfman, Jason Mesnick, Adam Gottschalk, Lacey Mark, and Jack Stone were all at least half Jewish. I just think you tend not to hear about a religious background unless it has to do with sex — like with Sean Lowe or Emily Maynard, who said they didn’t want to participate in the Fantasy Suites because of their religious beliefs.
You interviewed over 60 people associated with the franchise for the book — what was the most interesting interview you did? Who was your favorite person to talk to?
One of the most interesting people to talk to was Rozlyn Papa, who was sent home during Jake Pavelka’s season because she’d engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with a producer. Rozlyn denies this ever happened, and while we will never know the full story, I appreciated hearing her account. To many viewers, she’s one of the biggest villains in the franchise’s history, but she was totally lovely and grounded during our chat — hardly the evil manipulator she appeared to be on TV. Something reporting this book showed me is you truly don’t have an accurate picture of who you’re watching on this show. One of my favorite people to talk to was Sharleen Joynt, because she took out her journals during our chat and generously gave me a front-row seat into her thought process while on the show. It was fascinating.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Bachelor Nation?
Well, I was pretty surprised when a producer told me that in the early days of the show, at least, the producers used to track the female contestants’ menstrual cycles. By monitoring the cast’s periods, the producer said, the crew knew when the ideal moments were to interview them so that they’d be especially emotional or suffering from PMS. Savage!