I caught The Bachelor Monday night at the gym, and though I hadn’t watched any of this season I was hooked after about 5 minutes (sigh). Most notably, when funeral director contestant Shawntel Newton was being interviewed, I saw that her hometown was none other than Chico, CA: my hometown. She works at a funeral home owned by her family and another Chico family. I went to middle school with the son of the other family (I remember him because I had a big crush on one of his friends. I had the makings of a FB stalker pre-Facebook, apparently). What’s more: internet spoilers say she’s getting a hometown date. Woo. Chico hasn’t been featured so prominently since the original Robin Hood (and that Playboy 1987 party school ranking)! Oh yeah wait, and the Green Bay QB who’s also from Chico. Anyway…
The fact that Shawntel is from Chico was just a (greatly) fun fact for me, but I started thinking more about it because of a few other things on my mind the past week. Namely: Emily’s blog post about the toys marketed to girls, an interaction between a teacher I observe for work and her female students, and David McCandless analysis of Facebook statuses to see which time of the year is prone to breakups, which was published a while ago but came back into memory because we’re nearing Valentine’s Day.
Shawntel Newton and I grew up in the same place, about one year apart in age. Chico is fairly homogenous amid the middle class population and small (about 100,000 people), so we were likely to have been brought up under similar cultural experiences and expectations (outside of family). There were only a handful of elementary schools and two middle schools in town at the time. What’s more, our families knew some of the same people. Obviously there are still many contributing factors to make us different people – particularly family, which I can’t use as a comparing factor at all (and I do have to mention that I left Chico at 14 for Tennessee, so at high school the surrounding similarities go out the window) – but nevertheless, having this much in common in childhood, especially things that are so essential to social understanding (schooling, friends, the kind of people you see around you every day, the cultural markers, town haunts, one of a kind places that make a town unique and that shape those who grow up within it) makes me suddenly think very seriously about The Bachelor. No, not about competing, but about why people compete. Normally when I considered this question, my answer was easy: these are crazy fame seekers, or, even easier…these are DBs (Dumb Bitches, for those of you not in the know). But now, someone whose background I partly share in is a serious contender on The Bachelor. Suddenly, instead of assuming that the people who compete are of course not like anyone I would ever know, it’s quite the opposite.
The Bachelor can be compelling because it mixes the possibility for fame with the childhood fantasy of romance and a “prince charming.” These are powerful motivators. They’re powerful motivators that have an inception in the Disney movies on which our generation of girls was brought up. Even Mulan, different because she succeeded in a traditionally male role, still earned herself fame…and a prince. (It’s true. He’s not a prince; he’s the son of a general. But you know what? Until I re-watched the movie a few months ago, I had remembered him as a prince. That’s what we remember.) But could these childhood princess fantasies really still be at play in the minds of (some of) these women, now in their 20s and 30s? That’s where I thought of Emily’s post from earlier this week: what kind of cultural messages or expectations are set up for girls via their toys? Luckily we didn’t have to deal with Bratz dolls back in the day, but it was before Barbie got her boobs-to-scale makeover, and when classic Disney princess movies were still being churned out regularly (not to say that I don’t love them).
This brought to mind another scene that I watched recently, one that made me think about the implicit messages we pick up as children, in social interactions and the culture we intake, be it through toys, movies, or the people we see every day. Part of my job is to observe public school teachers implementing an online math program. One of the teachers I see works in a computer lab, so she has multiple classes coming in throughout the day. When any class enters, she instructs the boys to pull out the girls’ chairs. The girls sit down, and then the boys push their chairs in for them. The girls say thank you, and then the boys can be seated. This is repeated in reverse at the end of class. On my most recent visit, the situation was too paradoxical not to find concerning. “Boys, pull out the ladies’ chairs for them. Ladies, you should never have to touch your chair.” Later, when the boys were pulling the chairs back out at the end of class, with the girls still seated in them: “Ladies, don’t make the boys do all the work themselves. Some of us are heavier than others.” Wait. What I had first thought was pretty adorable (they were second graders, after all) had just become problematic. Is this thrice-weekly mantra seeping into their subconscious little by little, throughout the 5 schooling years they spend in that computer lab, and affecting how they interact with the opposite gender? Did our childhood years spent obsessing over Disney movies and Barbie and Ken actually help form our idea of love in our own futures? Or is Shawntel Newton just another fame-seeking lady who happens to be from the same town as I am, another anomaly?
It’s probably the latter (especially since we can blame high school, college and after for the heartache that might serve to make someone motivated enough to be on The Bachelor) but that doesn’t mean that those childhood hours spent playing house with Barbie and Ken or singing along to “Part of Your World” at sleepovers — or that the odd “role model” in your childhood who told you you were fat while simultaneously telling you to let men do everything for you — aren’t greatly affecting our individual manifestations of gender roles, and expectations of the part each sex should have in a romantic relationship. And by signing up for The Bachelor, a woman is actually signing up for dating someone and the possibility of having a romantic relationship with him. A romantic relationship with someone she’s not met. How could anyone sign up for that unless a part of her still believed that “Disney” love was possible? (Thanks for the irony, world: The Bachelor is an ABC show so it’s actually produced by Disney.)
But let’s talk about the part of one’s love history that comes after childhood, the part of life where I can no longer compare my cultural upbringing to that of Shawntel Newton. Here’s where I was reminded of David McCandless Facebook status analysis, which finds that break-up season comes twice a year: the holidays and spring break. The numbers start to rise again right around now. How does that relate to The Bachelor? Well, personally I have no Facebook friends who update their status about breakups. Who are the 10,000 people producing the break-up statuses that McCandless analyzed? Relationships are playing out in the public domain, via Facebook, The Bachelor, etc, and clearly there are thousands of people not only watching but participating by publicizing their own relationships, or participating in relationships that are almost entirely public. So what happens to today’s girls who have The Bachelor instead of Disney princess movies; how much more public can they make their future relationships? (American media, this is not a challenge.) Whether it’s the childhood toys and movies that still flit through the subconscious or the quarter-life breakups at work, a girl with whom I shared a fairly small childhood landscape is a Bachelor contestant, and the publicizing of our most personal moments has taken another step to becoming normal.