Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Bachelor/ette: Is Roberto Really Hot? Ethnic Ambiguity, Demographics, & Beauty

Call me a love-grinch if you will, a jaded Debbie Downer of romance, an old fuddy-duddy who just doesn't understand the young folks and their new-fangled ways, but even setting aside my somewhat limited capacity for suspension of disbelief with respect to reality shows in general, I have just not been able to jump on the rainbow-and-My-Little-Pony-festooned bandwagon of misty-eyed wonder at the latest candidates for the Great Lovers of All Time Hall of Fame.

Judging from the media and prevailing chatter, online and off, the level and intensity of admiration and adulation for this couple is unprecedented in Bachelor History!

The range of opinions, the ongoing battle between belief and suspension of disbelief, the pragmatists and the faithful, invariably plays out into a much more full-bodied entertainment experience than actually sitting there watching it.

Full disclosure: Although I do have it as a tivoid timer, and dutifully make a sincere effort to watch every episode in its entirety, I admit that I have, on more than one occasion, fallen asleep.

The human mind - or at least my allegedly human mind - can only endure a limited amount of helicopter rides and pageant-worthy comments about the importance of family and being real, and the phrases "here for the right reasons" and "one on one time" can cause my eyes to close and my head to fall faster than Pavlov's pet pupdog.

Maybe I don't enjoy actually watching the show much, but I do enjoy listening to people who enjoy watching it, I think I called it a "cultural phenomenon" in the previous rant.

The Bachelor is one of the most thoroughly and unapologetically ethnically and culturally homogeneous shows produced in the US today, clearly targeting an ethnically and culturally homogeneous audience. And that's OK.

I have no intention of going off on any lofty tangents about the myth of multiculturalism in the US of Modern Today, I'm just saying that it's a network show, with the potential for some high-dollar ad rates, and business is business.

Everything we see - or don't see - on the show is the result of a business decision. From casting to story arcs, to wardrobe and makeup, as with any commercial entertainment product, it's about the money.

It's also, as RealitySteve pointed out in his season wrap-up, about the drama.

Previous years had made it very clear that the future of the franchise depended on the show's ability to compete with the increasingly popular trashy reality shows, many of which were, ironically, actually inspired by The Bachelor, according to Mark Cronin, who, in an interview a few years ago acknowledged that the whole "Skankapalooza of Love" franchise was inspired by his wondering:
"... what if the Bachelor was actually a big character? The Bachelors tend not to be big characters. They tend to be nice, eligible men. Hunks, maybe, but that’s not character. A good character is someone who says funny stuff and who has a weird, whacked-out lifestyle. So, really, we wondered, “What if the bachelor were a crazy lunatic?..."
That's when he and partner Cris Abrego decided to call Flavor Flav...

Fleiss et al responded by ramping up the drama - and the sleaze - accordingly, with the MesnickDump Heard Round the World, the lame but nevertheless effective Rozlyngate, and even going so far as to insert an "insurance policy" early in Ali's season - the famous Jake vs Vienna bout, which predictably raised viewer interest in the show to unprecedented levels even as it dashed whatever hopes Jake might have had for "ever working in this town again."

Anyway, back to viewer reaction. This season, I was especially struck by the division of opinions about Ali's options along demographic lines.

Generally, girls and young ladies of the "mainstream" US demographic were going wild over him, while their counterparts in the rest of the pie chart, well, weren't.

US mainstream demographic viewers seemed to perceive Chris as more "husband material," often referring to him as "real," and "family-oriented," while Roberto was seen more as the "fling," an embodiment of an thrilling fantasy of sampling strange fruit, so that one will have lived a little before settling down and nesting oneself in that weathered-wood-picture-frame-and-matching-dadface environment, the idealized version of the culturally familiar, featuring a less physically attractive but more "realistic" partner.

Outside that mainstream demographic, while the numbers might be lower, perceptions were predictably the opposite, with Roberto viewed as only modestly handsome, at best, and about as interesting as a pile of sawdust, certainly no competition for the exciting and cinematic dream of Chris and Ali, stereotypical blonde couple, living out a charmed life in an eternal - and yes, "exotic" - Norman Rockwell painting.

As one viewer put it:
"She shd hav a afare w Roberto so she wil have sum memoris cuz he is HOT n SPICY but don get carid away cuz he wil so brake her heart, Chris is the 1 she shd marri cuz he wil aprecate her"
Variations of this sentiment abounded among Ali's demographic sisters, even among the Old School contingent who spelled most of the words right, with the phrase "not that into her" bandied about quite a bit.

As a rule, I am not a big fan of critiques and comments on peoples' physical appearance, and I intend no unkindness to Roberto in saying this, but it is simply a fact that - well, let me try to present it a little more politely:

Just as many mainstream demographic young men expressed the view of Ali as attractive in a "girl next door" kind of way, while their sisters viewed her as having an "accessible" kind of beauty, Roberto tends to be perceived by the larger chunk of earth residents as very "boy next door."

But return to that US of Modern Today context, with seismic demographic shift in full swing, and Roberto has a "look" that is extremely popular with one of, if not the major viewer segments - those mainstream demographic females 18-35, who tend to view him as "exotic," the stereotype of the "Latin Lover," yet assimilated to a fault - "diversity" in an acceptable dosage, as highlighted by the remark about his mother cooking "Spanish things I don't know the names of."

It's that demographic shift, the ologists would tell us, that is responsible for the corresponding shift in the prevailing "standard of beauty" embraced by that mainstream demographic.

While the society is still largely socially "segregated" along ethnic and cultural lines, that has to do with a purely cultural change, and cultural change tends to prefer a slower pace.

When we talk about things like "standards of beauty," we're talking about something that goes a little deeper, even less likely to reflect any conscious choices, something that touches on primordial proto-caveman instincts.

Here's how the ologists would, and frequently do, explain it (and believe it or not, using even more words than I am):

In the case of the US population, it simply means that as a larger percentage of the population becomes more ethnically heterogeneous, peoples' ideas of what is beauty changes in order to increase their likelihood of finding a mate and reproducing sooner, thus preserving the species.

The US/Western European standard of beauty is currently in the process of widening to include what has become a currently popular advertising buzzword, the "ethnically ambiguous" look.

Now of course the preservation of the species does not really depend on this event. It is just one of those sort of leftover things we don't really need anymore but are still there in or biochemistry, kind of like the way some populations have body hair.

Originally its purpose was to keep them warm - the same reason their even more pre-historic ancestors had it - and many other species of mammals still have it today.

But many ologists believe that the reason some humans hung onto it for a few more million years was because they got into stuff like more organized societies, written language, science, etc, a few millennia later than the other boys and girls and thus continued for a longer time to need something to protect their skin from thorns as they wandered around in the bush gathering berries or hunting bison or something.

Others point out that the only people who still have it tend to be from colder climates, so it was always about keeping warm, and that the later adapting of all that stuff was coincidental and/or weather-related, but whatever.

The point is, they still have it now, and they don't need it - any more than they need any unconscious and/or involuntary perceptions of blondes or "ethnically ambiguous" people as more or less attractive in order to prevent human extinction.

It's that kind of thing - against the backdrop of that vortex of change - that makes all this interesting.

Plop the whole thing down into another population, one that is NOT in the throes of a major demographic shift, and there's nothing to see. In a traditionally heterogeneous population, you'll get some of the same "split" along those old lines of "my tribe bestest," but you'll get that today and 150 years from now, and in a solidly and eternally homogeneous population, anyone who did not conform to that single standard of beauty would never be cast in the first place.

But with a population in transition, we get stuff like this:

While the current twin ideals of blonde and ectomorph still hold sway, with both blonde AND ectomorph being almost a guaranteed winner, even though Ali is blonde, we did not hear her referred to as "hot" by male and lesbian viewers of that mainstream demographic anywhere near as much as we heard their sisters and gay male brothers use that adjective when referring to Roberto!

If the viewer-expressed adulation of the undisputed audience favorite set me to musing and pontificating on relative standards of beauty and changing faces of a population, and clearly it did, since I seem to have gone on about it for several pages, watching the undisputed Queen of Roberto worship, Ali herself, fawn over her Chosen One should have been more fun than it was.

So enchanted was Ali by her perception of Roberto's physical appearance that on more than one voiceover occasion that she expressed misgivings about the possibiliy of a relationship with him on the basis of his being so much more attractive than herself that she felt insecure, as if he belonged to some kind of higher aesthetically-pleasingness-based caste.

Once I got past the sheer sadness that anyone would feel that way about themselves, I could not help wondering what Roberto thinks about that.

Even if she didn't say it directly to him during shooting, he will surely have heard it by now.

Every viewer who was ever asked to prom, or worse, proposed to, because someone thought they were "exotic," or even that they were so nice to look at that they didn't really give a damn about the rest, is going to be asking the obvious question with me:

Just who is more likely to break whose heart here? I'm just sayin'...

We have no way of knowing whether their post-show photo-ops, some of which reach Speidi-adjacent levels of sheer cheesiness, actually reflect a sincere mutual attraction.

Internets, checkout lines and water coolers alike are positively trembling with an unprecedented groundswell of certainty expressed by such an overwhelming swath of (mainstream demographic) viewers that Ali and Roberto are not like all those other Bachelor/ette couples, that their feelings for each other are not either superficial, they are in Real Love with a capital L, and they are going to live happily ever after.

I certainly hope they are right. I hope that happens to everybody. Who doesn't?

But let's face it. One of the primary sources of amusement afforded by this show is the wild absurdity of the premise best illustrated by the episode (at least in Bachelor seasons) where this dude buys an engagement ring, and tells us that he intends to propose marriage to somebody tomorrow, he just doesn't know yet to whom.

By season's end, the couples have, with luck, spent a total of a few hours in each other's company without the chaperonage of a camera crew.

With the understanding that most romantic relationships do begin because one of the parties feels some degree of physical attraction for the other, and that millions of people live out perfectly happy lives without having a single relationship, romantic or otherwise, that millions of other people would not call "superficial," what chance do any of the Bachelor couples have?

Have any of the ones who are not Trista and Ryan ever wondered how their stories would have played out if they had met each other at a friend's house or a cooking class or the neighborhood gym?

Do any of them ever wonder if they might have "made it" if their romance had not started out as a "showmance?"

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