Reality TV's happy endings: Are we losing the plot?

A massive number of padlocks hitched by lovers on the Pont des Arts. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
A massive number of padlocks hitched by lovers on the Pont des Arts. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl marry, etc. Or: Boy (girl) meets 25 girls (boys). Boy and girl perform falling in love in front of video cameras, producers and millions of television viewers.

It is spring, the feverish time when people fall in love, when people who have fallen in love promise their lives to one another - blushing brides, nervous grooms, extravagant weddings, compressed versions of the overproduced rituals of television shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Since 2002, these two shows have offered a grotesquerie of the courtship ritual that is predicated on the fragile premise that "the one" is waiting among a carefully selected group of entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical reps, dental hygienists and personal trainers.

I have never dreamed of being a princess. I have not longed for Prince Charming. I have and do long for something resembling a happily ever after. I am supposed to be above such flights of fantasy, but I am not.

In "Aschenputtel", or "Cinderella", by the Brothers Grimm, the daughter of a wealthy remarried man is subject to the cruel whims of her stepmother and stepsisters. When the king throws a ball, a white dove brings Cinderella a gown and slippers so she can attend the ball.

For three nights, wearing ever more beautiful gowns, Cinderella dances with the prince. He falls in love but, on the third night, she flees, leaving behind a golden slipper. The prince comes to her home bearing the slipper. The stepmother counsels one daughter to cut off her toes so her foot might fit in the slipper. This deception is revealed. The second sister has cut off part of her heel to fit into the slipper but her deception, too, is revealed. Then the prince learns of Cinderella, hidden away in the kitchen, and her foot slides perfectly into the slipper. They marry while the stepsisters are blinded by doves who strike them in the eyes. In both darker and lighter versions of fairy tales, a woman's suffering is demanded in exchange for true love and happily ever after.

Throughout any given season of The Bachelor, the women exclaim that the experience is like a fairy tale. They suffer the machinations of reality television, pursuing - along with several other women, often inebriated - the promise of happily ever after. Instead of bleeding from the foot to fit a golden slipper, they bleed their dignity, one episode at a time.

When each contestant leaves, eyes red, lips trembling, mascara streaking, she is embraced by the soft leather seat of a limousine. Many of the young women, in their early to mid-20s, plaintively say, "I'm never going to find anyone" - a lament that is a bit hard to take from someone who would have trouble renting a car.

I am 39. I am single. I am a black woman. I have too many advanced degrees. Many a news story tells me finding true love is likely a hopeless proposition. Now is the time when I need to believe in fairy tales. People are impossible, but I am clawing for ways to find someone with whom to be impossible. I know how damaging fairy tales are for women, how much sacrifice is demanded for an all-too-fragile promise of love, but still I watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

I buy into the notion that a man or woman can find love among 25 tanned and extremely fit potential suitors, in a mere matter of weeks, as long as the courtship is, unlike the revolution, televised. The Bachelor harkens back to Puritan times, when courtships were supervised by parents and other invested parties to secure wealth, land and social standing. Love was not a necessary condition of marriage. Instead, Puritans focused on more rational considerations. Though these rational considerations are different on The Bachelor, they are there - is this person attractive? Can they form basic sentences? Are they willing to sacrifice themselves to the spectacle? But now it's television producers who work to make the proper match.

Beneath the glare of cameras and the manipulative intrusions of producers, the couples on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are similarly bundled until one of the last episodes, where couples can visit a "fantasy suite". The cameras disappear. The next morning, the men and women stare into the camera and say things like, "We talked all night" or "It was perfect". The rest of us know they finally had sex.

Last season, The Bachelor was, however, a fairy tale interrupted. Two women refused to be arranged. Ms Sharleen Joynt decided that though she was intensely attracted to Bachelor Juan Pablo, he didn't stimulate her intellectually, and she left the show. Ms Andi Dorfman, who will be the next Bachelorette as that show begins again next week, was sent with Mr Pablo into the fantasy suite.

The morning after, she went off script, saying: "The fantasy suite turned into a nightmare. I saw a side to him that I didn't really like, and the whole night was just a disaster." She, too, left the show. Mr Pablo himself refused to be Prince Charming, resisting, despite pressure from the show's host, to say that he loved the woman he chose.

We rail against these shows and romantic comedies and romance novels and the overwrought consumerism of Valentine's Day. We say: "This is not how love works." And mostly, that isn't how love works.

Love is a messy and ragged thing. For many of us, it is endlessly elusive. And so we'll be watching as the newest Bachelorette - who has been through the exquisitely staged courtship routine and knows her lines - says she's ready for love and knows The One is out there. We will watch. We are not as cynical as we pretend to be. The real shame of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, of the absurd theatre 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.