It’s late into the night. A full moon casts its shadow over the voluminous mansion, glittering spectrally upon the wet pavement leading to the home’s towering front door. Two masculine figures stand expectantly in the driveway, their eyes focused on the single road leading to the isolated home. Black limousines slowly glide towards the two figures. One by one, young unmarried women pour out of the vehicles. “I’m so nervous,” one confesses. “I can’t stop shaking,” whispers another. These women are welcomed into the home by the two men. The younger man is introduced as the “bachelor” of the home. He is eager to meet the women so that they may become his lovers before he singles out one as his wife. As the weeks progress, the women reside within the looming mansion together. Sometimes, the bachelor will reward one or a few of them by taking them on excursions beyond the house’s gates. As these women are not allowed any contact with the outside world, these outings are greatly desired. Without the distraction of friends, family, and work, the women find that their minds focus solely on the bachelor- what is he thinking? How does he feel about me? Will I be the chosen wife? Soon, something dreadful is discovered. Each week, a few of the women disappear. Not only are they no longer physically present in any of the mansion’s many chambers, but ominous figures dressed entirely in black have removed all traces of the disappeared women’s existence. The women remaining have little choice but to continue working towards their potential married future while avoiding the sinister fate to which so many before them have succumbed.
Although the above passage may sound like I’m describing the plot of a gothic romance, I’m actually summarizing the basic plot of ABC’s reality show staple, The Bachelor. I admit that I’m describing The Bachelor with a ton of gothic style, however, as this blog post will hopefully demonstrate, the connections between The Bachelor and the female gothic mode are numerous.
The focus for my American Gothic class this week is the female gothic. While reading some articles on this sub-genre, as well as “The Whisper in the Dark” by Louisa May Alcott, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “What a Thought” by Shirley Jackson, and selected poems by Emily Dickinson, my mind kept going to The Bachelor. Perhaps this was because of the “most dramatic finale ever” which viewers were graced with last night, but after some thought, I think it was because The Bachelor definitely borrows from this gothic mode.
WARNING: There may be some spoilers from various seasons of The Bachelor. I’ll try to keep it minimal.
The Female Gothic
The female gothic can be read as a specialized version of the larger gothic genre. In her article “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,'” Carol Margaret Davison describes the female gothic as a narrative that “centers…on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood” (48). In Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (cited by Davison), Eugenia C. DeLamotte states that the ‘fear of power’ present in gothic narratives is “a fear not only of supernatural powers but also of social forces so vast and impersonal that they seem to have supernatural strength” (17). In the female gothic, the social forces which control major aspects of women’s lives within patriarchal cultures become the supernatural monsters which haunt and antagonize the female protagonist.
Davison also describes the female gothic as a sort of bildungsroman. The young (virgin) protagonist typically begins the narrative with boundless optimism and fantastical ideas about marriage. By the end of the story, she has become far more mature, sensible, and realistic due to her ability to survive the terrifying persecutions enacted against her by the Gothic hero-villian. Her virtue and maturity are “rewarded by way of an inheritance and companionate marriage, a union that is figured as both practical and emotionally fulfilling” (51). The female protagonist grows and purifies as a result of the pain and persecutions she endures along the way.
Finally, Davison explains that the house is key to understanding the female gothic. The (haunted) house can represent the dual security and oppression that patriarchal family
promises for women (53). It is through the house that the female protagonists twin anxiety and desire for married life and motherhood are given shape. The house (and marriage) can become a tomb or prison for the female character. Her identity is lost as her virginity is taken, as her name is changed to match her husband, and, finally, as she transforms into mother.
In “Uncanny Stories: The Ghost Story as Female Gothic,” Diana Wallace adds to Davison’s definition of the genre by revealing the repeated presence of the Bluebeard story in female gothic narratives. The female protagonist often must explore a large and unfamiliar home to uncover the mysteries of her lover’s disposed former wives (59).
The Bachelor as Female Gothic
Although not every season of The Bachelor featured in episode in which a handful of the women and the bachelor lead investigated a supposedly haunted plantation, each season does contain elements of the female gothic mode.
Before diving into The Bachelor as female gothic, I want to stress the fact that I’m focusing on The Bachelor and not The Bachelorette or any of the other Bachelor-adjacent shows. I’m sure there are gothic elements to be found there (i.e.: Chad re-emerging from the woods, Chad threatening to turn the other male contestants into floating torsos in the pool, everything Chad did…he was basically a gothic monster), but that’s not what I’m interested in right now.
Right Reasons and Wife Material
Because of the show’s game-like formula, there is a hyper-focus on whether contestants are there for the “right reasons.” The bachelor and viewers at home must closely scrutinize each of the women to determine whether or not they are “wife material,” not ready for marriage, or, most sinful of all, just there to be on television. Signifiers of ‘not being ready for marriage’ often have to do with identity. Sometimes, the bachelor will not want to propose to a woman who has a demanding career or who is in the process of achieving a life’s dream. During the most recent season, bachelor Arie Luyendyk, Jr. persistently flipped between being attracted towards career-minded women and expressing his disbelief in their ability to be happily married. Mid-way through the season, contestant Lauren B. noted that one of the few things she knew about Arie was that he likes a girl with “a flexible schedule.” Later, Arie referred to contestant Jacqueline’s desire to become a doctoral student as “a challenge.” Although the women on Arie’s season were accomplished and independent, viewers were constantly reminded that serious careers are not very desirable in a potential wife and mother.
Similarly, in the female gothic of the 18th and 19th century, marriage signified the “figurative death for women” (Davison 55). All previous identity is lost in favor of becoming the commodified femme coverte belonging to her husband and his family. In Louisa May Alcott’s “A Whisper in the Dark,” Sybil is constantly scrutinized by her uncle, her cousin/potential husband, Guy, and, finally, by the sadistic Dr. Karmac. Her early inclination towards reveling in her feminine powers of flirtation is turned against her- her uncle assumes that she wants to marry him, while Guy interprets this behavior as signaling Sybil’s lack of “wife material.” In other words, Guy believes that Sybil is there for the “wrong reasons.” It is only after Sybil has suffered through her stay at Karmac’s asylum that she is deemed worthy of marriage by Guy. She is no longer the playful flirt, but is instead a serious woman, desperate for Guy’s love. Sybil needed to loose her identity in order to gain one that better suited a wife. On The Bachelor, having too much of a powerful or individual identity could also be detrimental.
According to Davison, the haunted home is of supreme importance to the female gothic mode. As I mentioned earlier, it represents both the security and the oppression offered by patriarchal family life. When replicating the Bluebeard narrative, the haunted mansion can also hold the gothic villain-hero’s dark secrets. Past wives and lovers wronged by the hero-villain may haunt certain chambers.
The Bachelor also contains an iconic mansion integral to the show’s plot. Once the female contestants arrive, they live within the mansion. Along with the signing of non-disclosure agreements, contestants can’t have contact with the outside world, their cell phones are taken away, there are no computers, and they are rarely allowed to watch television. A major component of the female gothic is the isolation and strangeness felt by the female protagonist as she leaves her family to reside in a (haunted) house. This loneliness and the supernatural entities within the mansion force the gothic heroine to grow into a more rational and mature character by the end of the narrative. Alcott’s Sybil is an orphan who is suddenly removed from Mme. Bernard to live with her Uncle and Guy in hopes that their courtship will swiftly lead to marriage. While this ancestral home is gothic, Alcott includes a secondary move to an asylum, which she describes with a particularly gothic flourish. In the asylum, Sybil is literally imprisoned in her room, rarely allowed time outside in the dead garden. She hears phantom footsteps, and is finally confronted by an empty crib and the phantom-like presence of her mother.
Although the female contestants on The Bachelor are not locked away, they do experience extreme isolation. In fact, on Arie’s season, after Bekah was reported missing by her mother after Bekah left the mansion. The fact that the contestants have limited outlets or distractions causes them to over-analyze and approach obsession over their relationship to the bachelor (exactly what the producers want). This is reminiscent of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the female narrator is not allowed to read or write. Although she secretly writes in a journal and reads the wallpaper of her bedroom, she fixates on her situation within the haunted nursery room.
Reason Vs. Emotion
In the female gothic, heroines are often wrongfully labeled as “mad” or over-emotional. In “The Whisper in the Dark,” Sybil is imprisoned in an asylum and forced to digest mysterious potions after being diagnosed as mad after refusing to marry her uncle. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is prescribed the rest cure by her physician husband while suffering (most likely) from postpartum. Rather than listen and treat these feelings seriously, masculine gothic villain-heros dismiss the gothic female protagonists’s assertions. Instead, the villain-hero infantilizes her by assuming that she cannot know what is best for herself, deems her mad or irrational, and prescribes her some sort of isolation and/or imprisonment.
On The Bachelor, feelings are often manipulated by producers and editors so that they can get more viewers and to please those who are already fans of the show. By being on The Bachelor, contestants already may feel a little weird: their isolation forces them to view marrying the lead as the ultimate prize, all other goals and passions are laid aside. It’s very easy to emotionally break while on The Bachelor. Fans on social media are quick to judge, gleefully distributing diagnoses to various members of the cast, turning mental illness into one entertaining joke. The editors and producers are guilty of this, too. During Arie’s season, Annaliese revealed that she had “bumper car trauma” as well as trauma from a childhood encounter with a dog. Check out the video below to see how this was edited for The Bachelor:
While I am a fan of the campy humor often exhibited by The Bachelor‘s editing team, and while I do find the phrase “bumper car trauma” bizarre, I don’t believe that joking about and belittling someone’s trauma is right. The villains of female gothic literature often make a similar move: By infantilizing the female protagonist, her very real emotional experiences are rendered foolish and imaginary.
Although The Bachelor is not actually an example of the female gothic genre, I do think that it is important we examine where the elements of female gothic anxieties are present. With 7.8 millions viewers, 74% of which are female, pop culture giants like The Bachelor are helpful in displaying cultural trends and beliefs. It’s upsetting to find that The Bachelor continues to espouse ancient beliefs regarding suitable roles for women. According to the logic of the show, success and accomplishments are great in order to attract a partner, but once married, these things must be put aside so that you can transition into your single role as mother/wife. As female bodies slowly disappear from viewers’ television screens with each week, this limited view of women is ingrained: nobody wants to be a ghostly woman.