Many reality TV fans watch to unwind from the stress of their workday. Reality TV is where Evie Psarras’s work begins.
Psarras, a PhD candidate in media studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, studies reality TV and celebrity culture; her master’s thesis was on the Real Housewives franchise, and in her most recent work, she’s turned a critical eye towards The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
It’s easy to write off these shows as just brain candy, but for sociologists, they offer a unique lens on how society operates. Shows like The Bachelorette and their stars can reflect current norms and values, like what we believe is beautiful or how we think we should behave. In Psarras’s latest analysis, presented at the Association of Internet Researchers’ annual conference last weekend (Oct. 13-14), she and fellow UIC PhD student Nicole Nesmith examined the Instagram accounts of Bachelorette contestants for clues about how they craft their online identities to appeal to fans.
Image can make or break the career of a Bachelorette contestant. To stay in the limelight after they give their final rose, Bachelorettes need to have a relatable social media presence. That’s a cultural phenomenon that’s developed over time, Psarras says. When the franchise first started in 2002, contestants often returned to their pre-reality show lives when their season ended. But by now, the franchise has become such a cultural touchstone that many contestants use their appearances as springboards into other careers as TV hosts, entrepreneurs, or spokeswomen.
For their analysis, the researchers compared and contrasted Instagram accounts of three “early” Bachelorettes— Trista Rehn (Season 1), DeAnna Pappas (Season 4), and Jillian Harris (Season 5)—with three more recent ones—Andi Dorfman (Season 10), Kaitlyn Bristowe (Season 11), and JoJo Fletcher (Season 12).
They found that all six of these Bachelorettes projected a specific type of femininity: conventionally beautiful (white, thin, made-up, and trendily styled), and effortlessly balancing relationships and careers.
But there were some differences. The researchers found that the newer Bachelorettes had “more evolved” strategies for projecting the image of the ideal modern woman. For instance, they were more likely to post on Instagram about their relationships. Presumably, the researchers argue, these more recent Bachelorettes were aware of the fact that people today are fascinated by women’s love and sex lives, and want an inside look at successful coupledom.”It’s just how capitalism operates [today]; the more they post about their relationships, the more likes and followers they’ll get, and that fills out their fame,” says Psarras. For example, JoJo Fletcher has an upcoming web-series about her relationship with fiancé Jordan Rodgers, who she chose as the winner of season 12 of The Bachelorette.
More recent Bachelorettes were also more likely than those of earlier seasons to blur the line between the personal and professional by using their brand to sell products. These ads are often posed-yet-candid-looking paparazzi shots; Psarras points to Andi Dorfman as especially adept at this. “She posts all these pictures of her walking the streets, not looking at the camera, but a photographer very clearly takes these photos, and she tags designers in them,” says Psarras. While the earlier Bachelorettes do also have partnerships and sponsors, their promotional posts are generally more obviously posed or taken on a professional set.
Social-media posts that glorify loving your flaws were another common theme among newer Bachelorettes, but less so among the previous generation. Psarras points out that these in these posts, the more recent Bachelorettes often share images that convey the opposite of the accompanying captions. Take, for instance, make-up-free selfie Kaitlyn posted to Instagram on Jan. 10 this year. She gets down on herself about not looking done-up (and tags it “#Realstagram!”) but still looks more chic than I do when I’m full-out trying.
Overall, says Psarras, it seems the generational divide among the Bachelorettes reflects how younger women have developed new social-media strategies that play up the feminine identity we, as a society, like to see. ”The earlier Bachelorettes did the show at a time when they didn’t know what was going to happen after; it was more experimental,” says Psarras. “The newer Bachelorettes came in knowing how to perform.”