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Scarcity and sexism: does watching The Bachelor make you a bad feminist?

Well no wonder they’re all fighting for The Bachelor – there’s only one of him. Network Ten

Scarcity and sexism: does watching The Bachelor make you a bad feminist?

Until about two years ago, I’d been living in a bubble of oblivious bliss where the (not so) fine art of pick-up artistry was far from my radar.

And then I was introduced to the dark arts of Neil Strauss. Strauss wrote The Game, a book which, alongside Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, is among the most disturbing I’ve ever read.

The “genius” behind pick-up artistry is the crude-but-nevertheless-logical application of some of the most basic tenets of psychology, sociobiology and anthropology to the dating game. According to Strauss, most mating is initiated in nightclubs, a space where humans act not unlike impala on the Serengeti. Think peacocking, unwanted physical contact and … um … magic tricks.

One of the themes consistent in works like The Game is scarcity – a principle as relevant to psychology as it is to economics. Scarcity spotlights our desperation for those things that seem in short supply.

Whack a “limited edition” sticker on a car, a bottle of perfume or a tub of icecream and our yearn for it increases manifold. Get told that the dress is the last one in stock, that the manufacturer has stopped making those shoes, and suddenly our want is insatiable.

Seat a man in a bar, have women poised around him to laugh at his jokes and gawk wide-eyed at his sleight of hand and his value to a lady passerby suddenly skyrockets.

I don’t subscribe to a doctrinaire branch of feminism and thus don’t feel even slightly comfortable with to-do, to-be or to-think lists. It’s thus, no surprise, that I don’t think taking righteous stances against TV shows is necessary.

I’ve no interest in shaming the guilty pleasure of reality TV. Nevertheless, the gender politics of The Bachelor – which concludes its current Australian season on Thursday night – are certainly worth considering.

The premise of the show is a world where wealth and a well-cut suit is at the heart of sex appeal. And a man boasting such attributes is, apparently, more than enough to coerce a harem of ladies to sign up to win his affections.

I don’t even really know you, but I will debase myself to compete for you nonetheless. Network Ten

They may not love him yet, hell, they may not even know him yet. But if there’s only one of him and every other woman wants a piece, surely he’s worth throwing one’s panties into the ring for.

And thus, we have women – gorgeous, neurotic, insufficiently self-reflective – plotting and scheming and grooming-within-an-inch-of-their-life in the hope of being chosen. To have one’s existence validated by a chap whose worth has become alarmingly inflated based purely on each contestant’s willingness to grovel for his table scraps. Curiously, the why of this “catch” needing Channel Ten to provide him a social life goes unquestioned.

The presence of the catfight in media is nothing new. Any sporting/political/corporate contest involving two women, any commentary involving one women daring to criticise another, and news reports will either explicitly use the term, or at the very least, decorously tapdance around it. Because the catfight frame is one we all know well.

I promise I’m a catch – even though I need a TV show to get a date. Network Ten

In the girls will be girls mythology of media, women are seemingly only ever biding their time – waiting for their nails to dry – before seizing an opportunity to tear out their rival’s hair.

Claims of sexism in the media will inevitably be met with the obvious oh but men are sexualised/objectified/made a mockery of too. And thus the counter to any criticism of The Bachelor always takes the form of The Bachelorette.

However, slotting a woman into a role traditionally occupied by a man does not a feminist triumph make and those men wanting to woo a bachelorette need to be considered – and critiqued – as a completely different beast than women wanting desperately to be validated, made whole, made worthy by the bachelor.

Men on TV don’t engage in bitchin’ and back-stabbin’ in the hope of getting “picked”. Men don’t take life breaks to go on a TV show in the hope of being anointed as the very best/prettiest/sweetest. Men don’t grow up with the all importance of coupling-up-before-their-expiry-date rammed down their gullets.

The Bachelor is just a television show and it’s only one of a deluge of cultural messages we receive. So there’s no need to exaggerate its influence on our collective sexual politics.

But equally, it would be naive nonetheless to pretend it isn’t the perfect screen depiction of the male masturbatory fantasy of scantily clad women pillow-fighting for his affections. And a poignant encapsulation of the lingering sexism in pop culture to boot.