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The Bachelor shows the power of female friendships over competition

“I’m not here to make friends” is such a common refrain on competitive reality shows, it’s become a cliché. The Bachelor, now in its 20th season, has women compete to “win” the bachelor, with each episode showing roughly one week in the process of the eligible man getting to know his suitors. Episodes are heavily edited so each week contains a narrative arc of tension, drama, and resolution. The bulk of the episodes are dedicated to showing the growing relationships between the bachelor (this season, it’s Ben Higgins) and those competing for him, but in the margins we see the relationships between the women. And while “I’m not here to make friends” has surely been uttered by more than one Bachelor contestant, making friends is exactly what happens on the show.

We don’t see much of it. The relationships between the contestants are only given significant screen time to heighten the drama. Fighting between contestants is a staple of any competitive reality show—The Bachelor is no exception. Far less exciting are the quiet relationships that form between contestants. The current season’s most revealing scene so far was likely only included because it furthered the episodes-long arc of the contestants’ conflict with show “villain” Olivia. In the scene, Amanda is talking about her kids during the “cocktail hour,” the time in the evening dedicated to each woman getting a turn to talk to Ben while the others sit together. Viewers don’t usually see much of what the women are talking about—unless it’s to dramatic effect, as in this case. As Amanda tells several other contestants about her daughters’ schedule at home, Olivia remarks that it’s like an episode of Teen Mom. The offensive statement propels the drama for the rest of the episode, galvanizing some of the other contestants to finally tell Ben how they feel about Olivia.

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What this scene reveals, though, is how much these women care about each other. People competing for the “prize” of Ben should ostensibly dislike each other; it’s practically written into the DNA of The Bachelor, as there is only one winner and the stakes are very personal. Yet these contestants get to know each other over the course of weeks and months spent together, cloistered in a house, sharing bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s clear that friendships form, even if the producers go out of their way to include only the drama in the edited versions we see. Amanda is sharing the intricate details of her life with a few of the other women, just like friends outside of the bizarre, unnatural world of The Bachelor would.

These scenes are rare but revealing, giving viewers a glimpse of the far more profound relationships present on The Bachelor. In the next episode, with Olivia gone, the episode finds a new villain in Leah, who tells Ben (seemingly out of nowhere, though it’s hard to tell with how heavily edited the show is) that another contestant, Lauren B., isn’t the same person in “the house” (shorthand for all the time the women spend together in various locations throughout the season) as she is with Ben. Later, when Leah visits Ben to expound on her anti-Lauren crusade, the episode intercuts Lauren reacting to the earlier sabotage, talking it over with fellow contestants Amanda and Emily.

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Lauren, Amanda, and Emily share a bed to discuss the night’s events. This scene is telling for several reasons: their physical closeness on the bed mirrors how female friends sit with each other in normal circumstances; Amanda is softly brushing Emily’s arm with her fingers, implying a strong bond; and, most importantly—considering the crux of the show lies in one of the women winning Ben and the rest losing—Amanda and Emily are comforting Lauren, even though they’re in direct competition with her. Were the logic of competitive reality shows to hold, Amanda and Emily should be happy that Leah is sabotaging Lauren. Instead, they’re angry on Lauren’s behalf, consoling her. “He doesn’t see what you guys see,” Lauren says in frustration to Amanda and Emily. She’s right: Her friends have spent far more time with her than Ben has, and know her much better. If this scene were removed from the context of the show, it could depict any group of female friends hanging out, chatting and worrying about a romantic relationship.

Leah tells Ben, “Lauren will be like, ‘Oh, if Amanda ends up with Ben, that’s great.’” Leah means this to illuminate how Lauren isn’t her genuine self with him, thinking that Lauren being okay—happy, even—with Amanda winning Ben casts Lauren in a negative light. It’s actually one of the sweetest statements of the show, and a demonstration of what must be a genuine friendship between Lauren and Amanda that viewers haven’t been privy to before the scene of Amanda and Emily talking with Lauren. In a show that’s all about winning, Lauren would be okay with losing, if it meant Amanda and Ben ended up together. Since at this point in the season, Lauren has one of the strongest connections with Ben, she must really like Amanda.

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These conversations are all shown because they make for brilliant drama, with Leah’s attempt to sabotage Lauren intercut with Lauren talking about it. Even more dramatically, Leah’s efforts backfire, with Ben telling her he feels disconnected from her and saying he thinks she should go, effectively eliminating her. Leah was upset and confused this episode, because she was the only one to not get a one-on-one date with Ben. So much of her time is spent crying, with Lauren H. (there are two Laurens at this point in the season) comforting her.

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Again we see these women showing real friendship to one another, even though doing so flies in the face of competitive reality show logic. Lauren H. tries to make Leah feel better by telling her that Ben really does care about her. There hasn’t been any sign of this strong friendship between Lauren H. and Leah before, but when it serves to show the backstory of Leah’s betrayal and treachery crafted in this episode, her friendship with Lauren H. is allowed to shine through.

Lauren H. comforts Leah after she’s eliminated
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Monday’s latest episode has a touching scene that shows how the remaining women react to seeing Ben eliminate Emily. Watching from the other side of a window, they sound incredibly concerned when it looks like Ben is letting Emily go, which is ostensibly a move forward for them. When Emily tells them she’s going home, they rush to hug her; Amanda, Jojo, and Becca start crying when Emily breaks down. They aren’t happy that they’re one step closer to winning Ben—they’re sad and upset that Emily is leaving, and Jojo even takes her confession-cam time to reinforce how bad she feels for her friend.

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The surface of The Bachelor—the cattiness, the competition between women fighting for a man, the backstabbing and drama—is a TV reflection of how women are expected to act and thought to be. We are supposedly in competition with each other for men, so we cut each other down. Condescending evolutionary psychology tells us that women are more focused on self-promotion to win a man than we are focused on meaningful relationships with other women. The Bachelor is designed to show exactly this. And in the broadest possible strokes, it does—but only on the surface. Look just a little deeper, and it’s apparent that the real love on the show is between the women. Their strong relationships last longer than the ones the show is supposed to create—a recent Bustle article listed some of the lasting friendships made between contestants. Even in an unnatural scenario designed to set women against each other, friendship triumphs.

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