Last week, long before Arie Luyendyk Jr. became “the most controversial Bachelor in history,” I spoke to Amy Kaufman, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, about her new book “Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure.” Kaufman’s cultural history of the ABC franchise contains juicy tidbits such as the top reason Bachelor applicants are turned down (herpes!) and how producers have reportedly tracked contestants’ menstrual cycles to get more emotional interviews.
Kaufman has followed the show for years; she has even filled out “The Bachelor’s” casting questionnaire and has spoken with former producers and contestants about making and being on the show — and to celebrities about why they tune in on Monday nights.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Lisa Bonos: How did you get into “The Bachelor”?
Amy Kaufman: I got really into it around Jason Mesnick’s season in 2009; he was the guy who picked the runner-up after he had proposed to someone else. It was so dramatic that I became obsessed with the show. I also started comparing my own love life to the show.
Bonos: How did you compare your own love life to the show?
Kaufman: As I got older, I could see myself in those shoes more realistically. What would it be like if I was competing for the affection of this guy? And how do I want men to be treating me? Do the guys who I’m going out with do these kind of things to me? I had more of a point of reference as I got older and started dating more. So it made it even more enjoyable.
Bonos: Has watching the show made you a smarter dater in any way?
Kaufman: In some ways I feel ridiculous when I talk about taking any lessons from “The Bachelor,” because it’s just such a terrible example of so many things. But one thing I do think it shows in a positive light is the way you could be treated by a guy, that you deserve to be with a guy who tells you how great you are, who is really communicative, who is complimentary, who is open with his feelings and tells you that he wants to be with you and is ready to settle down. When I’m on Bumble or dating on apps, there’s so many possibilities that guys don’t feel the pressure to express themselves in that way. So that’s frustrating.
Bonos: On the show people say things like, “I’m falling for you” and “I can see a future for us.” This is earlier than people would admit when they are dating in real life. But has watching “The Bachelor” helped you open up about your own feelings for someone, or lack thereof?
Kaufman: Because they do say it so early — and I know that they’re being pressured to say it — it seems to have no allegiance to reality. But you can see it as an act of such intense bravery. One thing I do like seeing is that you watch these women or men drive away so devastated in the limo [after they’ve been eliminated]. They’re like “What’s wrong with me? Oh my God, what did I do? I’m never going to find love.” And then they turn up on a Bachelor spinoff, or you hear they’re engaged six months later. We’ve all felt that awful and rejected, worrying that we’re never going to find love.
Bonos: I love the snippets that you have in the book from celebrities and other reality TV personalities about why they love the show. Comedian Nikki Glaser tells you: “I don’t think it’s a feminist show, but I do think feminists are into it because it’s an interesting case study.” I know so many strong, independent women — who identify as feminists — who love the show and disagree with so many things about it. Why do women love the show even when we kind of hate it?
Kaufman: This is partially why I wanted to write the book, because we all feel bad about watching it, but why do we feel bad? And should we feel bad? Everything we consume is seen as a reflection of who we are as a feminist. But that’s a losing battle, because there are so many things we do in our everyday life that aren’t quote-unquote “feminist” — the products we buy, the places we shop, you know. Men aren’t bending over backward into pretzels to analyze why they’re so into football and all the negative things that represents with violence or whatever.
I’ve ultimately come to feel … that, first of all, feminists can be into love and romance; there’s nothing wrong with that. Second of all, the women who are going on the show are volunteering. Even though they’re doing things that I don’t see as particularly feminist, who am I to say that them deciding they want to prioritize love and maybe marriage in their life, over a career at a certain point, is bad?
I think a lot of us watching are maybe subconsciously yearning for that. But they are able to just say, “I really want a husband; I’m going to be open about that.” It feels lame to be open about that nowadays. So maybe that’s part of why we’re thinking, “This feels bad to watch.”
Bonos: As you know, “The Bachelor” has been called out for its lack of diversity and there have been lawsuits claiming discrimination. We’ve seen one African American lead — Rachel Lindsay as last season’s Bachelorette — but that’s about it. Do you think this show will get more diverse?
Kaufman: I’m pretty jaded and cynical about this, just knowing how slow they are to create change on the show. There were more women of color on Arie’s season, but none have lasted that long. When people thought after Rachel’s season that they were going to cast from her season and do a black Bachelor I was like, yeah, guys — as if. That just seems like way too much progress for “The Bachelor.” I would love it, but even thinking about the idea of a same-sex Bachelor or Bachelorette — how far off does that seem to you?
Bonos: It seems really far off.
Kaufman: Even though it’s happening all across America, I just don’t know if a network television show is there yet.
Bonos: You have a chapter about what a bubble being on the show can be (no access to news, friends or family or cellphones). I wondered: From the contestants that you spoke to, did anyone stand out as seeming particularly adept at maintaining a strong sense of self?
Kaufman: Definitely Sharleen Joynt, [a contestant on Juan Pablo Galavis’s season of “The Bachelor"], who recognized: I think Juan Pablo is hot and maybe I’d like to sleep with him. But he ain’t marriage material, and we’re not compatible in that way. And she said as much to him. While many people have broached that subject, by saying “I don’t know; I’m just not in love yet, but I’m getting there.” Why don’t you just say: “This dude isn’t my type.” Or, “He’s not all he’s cracked up to be.” Joynt managed to leave and act on those feelings. With all the outside pressures on someone on the show, that’s not an easy thing to do.
Bonos: In the back of the book, there’s a list of the couples who’ve gotten married since “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” and who’s broken up. Obviously most do not make it. But it seems “The Bachelorette” has a slightly higher success rate. Why do you think that is?
Kaufman: From my observations the women tend to ask questions about what they’re looking for in a partner: What kind of father would you be? Who would be working? Where would we live? It’s not just about the attraction, which sometimes the men get caught up in. That’s why they end up with the villain or the woman who doesn’t really fit into their life, but they’re like: “Ohh, I’m the Bachelor, and I’d never get to date this woman, so that’s my pick!” I’ve seen that play out a few times.
Bonos: So the women seem to be more practical?
Kaufman: Yeah, they can separate the overwhelming emotions from “Is this going to be a practical match in everyday life”?
Bonos: Did you talk to any couples about the difference between when they’re on the show and then their relationship after that? What makes things work or not?
Kaufman: Sean Lowe and Catherine Giudici were really interesting, because he did “Dancing with the Stars” right after his 2013 season of “The Bachelor,” which so many of them do. And Catherine was like, “I was super-pissed. I’d just gone through this whole thing of trying to compete for him and finally it was our chance really for him to show his interest in me. And here he was putting himself center stage again.”
And then when they moved to Texas, she gave up her job at Amazon, she moved to a place where she knew no one. She got into a religion that she had not previously been into. And she talked about how that was a very hard adjustment at first and she kept thinking: Just stick it out till you have kids; it’ll get better; just one more year. And fortunately it did, but Sean said he was aware that he really had to put in some work and knew that she had made all these sacrifices for him.
It’s hard. The power dynamic is kind of messed up after the show.