If you’re a woman of a certain age, it’s virtually impossible to avoid The Bachelorette. Between my college-age sister, my aunt, colleagues, friends, and the Twitterati, I receive regular updates on this season’s Bachelorette and her quest for love among 25 men selected by ABC.
It’s not that I’m in an unusual social circle. The Bachelorette is in its ninth season; The Bachelor, the show’s predecessor, is in its seventeenth. Ratings, if not what they once were, remain high: 7.8 million people watched last week’s Bachelorette episode, the first half of the finale, and the show was the No. 1 trend on Google that day. A surprisingly high number of Americans are invested in whether a woman they have never met can get a ring on her finger.
Pause a moment and consider the irony of a culture that vehemently rejects matchmaking by parents, and yet is fine with TV producers’ performing that service.
Desiree (Des) Hartsock, this season’s Bachelorette, is a nice 27-year-old, and about all you need to know about her is that her favorite book is Eat, Pray, Love and she’s a wedding-gown designer who felt comfortable shopping for (and trying on!) bridal gowns and tuxes on a first date. According to her ABC bio, “More than anything, Desiree’s ultimate dream is to find a love like the one her parents share. Married for 35 years, but together for 40, they’ve always supported and appreciated one another.”
Welcome to the curious appeal of the Bachelor and Bachelorette series: In an era when marriage rates are declining, Americans are fascinated by a show that is unabashedly about finding a lifelong spouse. And these long-running reality series are not the only example of this phenomenon: How I Met Your Mother, a series about a man telling his children about his long search to meet their mother, is about to begin its ninth season.
But if the statistics are any indication, more Americans are like How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, who has spent eight years pining for a spouse without finding Miss Right, than like Sean Lowe, the most recent Bachelor, who is happily engaged. Americans are getting married later than ever: According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, the average age is 27 for women and 29 for men.
And overall, marriage rates are declining. That same Pew study shows that 51 percent of adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960. Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research declared last month that the “marriage rate [is at its] lowest in a century,” at 31.1 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women. (In 1920, the marriage rate was 92.3 per 1,000.) “For the first time in human history, great numbers of people — at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion — have begun settling down as singletons,” wrote New York University professor Eric Klinenberg in his 2012 book Going Solo.
What the statistics don’t answer is why Americans are delaying and opting out of marriage.
Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, posits that young women would rather hook up than be in serious relationships, because the latter could hinder their careers. “The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame,” Rosin wrote in The Atlantic last year, “and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success.”
It’s politically correct to view young women as primarily motivated by ambition and money — if Disney followed our new cultural authority, the princesses in their movies would end up in corner offices with 1 percenter salaries. But it’s apparently a horrific social faux pas to imply that young women might be happier if they concentrated more on finding a spouse than on starting a career, as Susan Patton found out when her March Daily Princetonian article advising young women to “find a husband on campus before you graduate” went viral (and not in a good way).
Now, I’m hardly on Team Patton — I’m a 25-year-old single woman who has no regrets about not nabbing an MRS. degree along with my B.A. — but I find Rosin’s analysis curious. For one thing, it’s 2013, not 1913: Plenty of women juggle boyfriends or husbands and sometimes children along with high-powered jobs. And second, based on hundreds of conversations (and a few too many Pinterest boards boasting pictures of engagement rings and wedding gowns), I believe there are many young women who, at least among other women, are willing to admit that, yes, they do want to get married. They might be quiet about that desire in most settings, perhaps because “I’d like to get married” is more effective as a break-up line than as a conversation starter with a decent chunk of young men these days. But they’re generally interested in both career achievements and marriage.
The Bachelorette suggests other reasons besides career ambitions that may be making young adults hesitant to say “I do.” In the last episode, one of the male contestants, Brooks, told the show’s host, Chris Harrison, he was conflicted about how he actually felt about Des. Harrison asked Brooks whether his parents’ divorce could have made him afraid to commit. Brooks adamantly denies he’s afraid to commit, but many young adults’ fears of divorce are playing a role in how they view marriage. “There’s a lot of fear percolating around marriage,” Hannah Seligson, author of A Little Bit Married, told USA Today in 2010. Cornell University professor Sharon Sassler, who has studied young adults who cohabitate, arrived at a similar finding. “Across the board, it was just a lot of this free-floating anxiety about divorce,” Sassler told the Huffington Post in a 2011 interview. “A lot of them said they only wanted to marry once.”
The Bachelorette, no doubt inadvertently, also showcases another reason young adults aren’t getting married: money. The show is wildly lavish, splurging on designer duds and trips to exotic locales for Bachelorettes and their suitors. The last Bachelorette, Emily Maynard, received an engagement ring valued at $68,000, according to US Weekly. While most young adults realize they can’t match a network’s budget for a hit series, there is social pressure to keep up with the Joneses and throw a memorable wedding bash. And that doesn’t come cheap: The average wedding costs $28,427, according to TheKnot.com.
Furthermore, young adults are wary of marrying before they feel financially established — and financial security is something the recession has put even further out of some young Americans’ reach. According to a 2012 poll commissioned by Generation Opportunity, 23 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds put off getting married for financial reasons. By pairing the quest for a spouse with extravagant materialism, The Bachelorette is further fueling the unfortunate mindset that financial success must pre-date marriage — a viewpoint that particularly hurts those who are low-income and thus stand to benefit most from the economic boon that often comes with marriage.
Sure, some women watch The Bachelorette because they enjoy the crazy cast members and situations, not because they’re pining for a ring. And of course, some women, just like some men, are just fine with delaying marriage — or never marrying at all. But it’s a little strange that we live in a culture where it’s more socially acceptable for a young woman to admit enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey than for her to express a desire to get married. The success — and cultural infiltration — of the show suggests that if Des gets a ring in tonight’s finale, plenty of women will be wishing they were in her place.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.