Why you should watch ‘The Bachelor’ with the sound turned off

If you think watching “The Bachelor” is just harmless fun, try this sociology experiment at home.

Nick Viall, The Bachelor, Season 21 airing on ABC. ABC | Youtube

When I was in college getting an undergraduate degree, I took a course in which we spent an hour watching TV ads with the sound off. Suddenly, without a pitchman’s voiceover telling us about the deliciousness of a hamburger (try a few of the Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s burger ads with the sound off) or that the ad was promoting the buying and putting on of clothes (not the shedding of them), we came to see that an entirely different message was at play. That message looked a lot like the promotion of violence against women, hyper-sexualization (at the cost, one might argue, of personal dignity), and objectification of women.

When the sound is off, or when we see an ad in a magazine like this one in this post about the worst fashion ads ever, we can tune into the meta-messages at play. For instance, as Lone Wolf’s Natalia Borecka says perfectly in commenting on a famous Blender ad in the above mentioned link, “Not sure what they’re selling (shoes? jewelry? anti-gravity hairspray? meat hooks?) but we’re definitely not buying it.”

MORE TO READ: Goodbye reality shows, hello feel-good TV

But this is the low hanging fruit of ads that depict women in ways that are arguably dehumanizing. It’s pretty easy to object to a woman who appears to be butchered, and looking at her expression seems happy about it, or at least, indifferent.

In the middle ground are shows like The Bachelor. In a recent post in Relevant Magazine, writer Ashley Abramson notes that the popular reality-TV franchise is not exactly a platform for the dignity of women. “Much like romantic comedies or romance novels, this cut, copy and paste picture of ‘love’ has potential to create unhealthy expectations among viewers, inviting them (marital status notwithstanding) to a twisted view of what love and romance actually are, and ultimately breeding discontentment,” Abramson writes. “Love isn’t all limousines and roses: it’s hard work, and more often than not, it’s a choice.”

Her argument is solid, and the show’s format pretty crude: women are treated like romantic cattle, culled from the herd, and encouraged to compete for a top spot as the choicest pick. Want to add a little insult to injury? A “losing” lady from The Bachelor might become the star of The Bachelorette, where you might say she has the romantic upper-hand, or you might say she jumps from denigrating frying pan to dignity-less fire.

But at least these women signed on for this, right? If you’re willing to Google it, you’ll see one current The Bachelor contestant posing topless with Bachelor Nick and later encouraging him to eat whipped cream off of her cleavage. We have to ask ourselves how much these women choose to share and how much is edited to show only the most scintillating scenes. I have no doubt that she did these things willingly (and contractually), but part of that process includes the cutting and snipping in the editing room that portrays her, and other contestants, in the most objectified manner. We have to ask, don’t these women have more to offer? Aren’t we interested in seeing that something more?

It’s more difficult to pick up on the subtler messages that don’t seem to objectify women outright.

It’s not a new problem, I’ll grant you. We’ve had this kind of discussion about the discrepancy in the way in which women live and act in their communities, their homes, their churches, and the way in which we consume women in media and advertisement. But the persistence of this image of women is what begs for reminders like this. We cannot become numb to what is the removal of that which makes us created in God’s image, in favor of what makes a person sexually desirable. We have to look deeper. What’s less easy to pick up on are the subtler messages that don’t seem to objectify women outright. Sometimes it’s an ad like this, where the thing for sale is entirely unclear and the woman looking back at us is something silent and unreal.

For me, one of those reminders to look deeper happened on a Sunday afternoon watching pro football with my husband and son. In the montage of images the network chose leading into a commercial break, there was all of the following: completed passes, frustrated coaches on the sidelines, refs throwing flags, and a shot of a row of cheerleaders in small shorts and half shirts. Of all the images in that collage, each of them had been discussed in the course of the game, except the cheerleaders. There’s no interview with the squad captain. There’s not even a clip of the women performing. Just a shot of them looking sexy (and I’m not arguing that!), without any additional comment.

If you want to get a real sense of the way the world sees NFL cheerleaders, check out the screenshot for this Men’s Fitness article under the “Hot Girls” subsection. These ladies are pictured anonymously (no names, info about their history on the squad, or discussion of their fitness routines). But they are pictured. Reminding us that objectification is at the root of some portrayals of women, where they are to look good and speak little.

In support of the human-ness of all God’s people, let’s remember to look a little closer, with the sound off if needed, at the way women are represented in our culture. I’m not strictly advocating that women should be barred from baring bellies or cleavage or the end of NFL cheerleading or a cease and desist on participating in The Bachelor. But I am trying to point to a more nuanced problem, that often, even when they make those choices, it seems like culture demands that we strip away the person who the image represents. I’m advocating that we make forward the fullness of women’s interests, talents, and intelligence that breaks past woman-as-media-object. I’m advocating for women as people.

Nicole Leigh Shaw
Nicole Leigh Shaw

Nicole Leigh Shaw, a former newspaper journalist, has been moving through all the metamorphic stages of the modern writer, except “tortured novelist.” Soon she’ll emerge as a butterfly or a vlogger. She writes for ScaryMommy.com, Momtastic.com and others, and has contributed to five anthologies, including the New York Times’ bestseller “I Just Want to Pee Alone.” She has four kids, two dogs and one husband.

Leave a comment: