Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Every Single Use of the Phrase "Open Up" in this Season of the Bachelor

A couple years ago, a friend coaxed another friend and me into watching The Bachelorette. “It’s horrible,” she said. “But that’s the point.” As the three of us watched (this was Jo Jo’s season) we began to notice that there were certain phrases that were used time and again-- by nearly every contestant on the show. It was almost as if they had been handed a manual of clichés they would all be expected to memorize and repeat for the camera.

My friend pointed out that whenever anyone did something the other contestants disapproved of, it was agreed that he was “not here for the right reasons.” Everyone was forever waiting to see whether they might have any “chemistry" with the Bachelorette. There were stock compliments, as well as stock put-downs.

Far and away the most commonly used phrase on the show, however, was “open up.” If a date went well, we knew this because the Bachelorette would announce, “he really opened up.” If she was struggling to make progress in “a relationship” -- as every pairing is known -- it was attributed to the fact that “he has a hard time opening up.”

Fast forward a few seasons to this current winter. Coaxed once again -- and actually, it didn’t take much coaxing (my friend couldn't watch the season with me, as she's in Tanzania, but I've provided copious notes on each episode so she won't get behind) -- into watching this most recent season of The Bachelor, I discovered that this rule of “open up” is not limited to Jo Jo.

In fact, it crosses lines of season, time, place, and gender. Everyone associated with anything Bachelor(ette) uses it. Aries says it. All the most recent contestants say it. I have collected the proof below.

And it shouldn’t really surprise us that this is the case. Somehow, this “open up” phrase is in fact the perfect encapsulation of the show’s ideology. It represents the producers’ underlying contention that all of these people on the screen -- in spite of appearances -- actually do have personalities. "They are in fact interesting" -- they are saying to us -- "we swear!"

And nested further within this ideology, like so many Russian dolls, is an endearing sort of Romanticism. A fundamental optimism about human nature. If we contestants on the screen seem at present to all be cookie-cutter white bread people with the same professions (personal trainer, real estate agent, technical salesperson) -- if we seem, to borrow a phrase from Ali Barthwell’s Vulture recap of the finale episode, like little more than “human Panera franchises” -- then this is not because of any true and fundamental boringness in our nature -- but merely because we are currently hiding our brilliance under a bushel.

We just need to learn how to let it out -- to “open up” -- and the light will come flooding out.

So, sure, the Bachelor may be sexist. It may be the most Bechdel test failingest show in history. It may have as its premise a brutally unbalanced power dynamic between a single man with unilateral powers of rejection and a bevy of women with whom he is theoretically "falling in love" over the course of the season, who are given no say in the matter -- it may exhale from every frame the beauty myth of our culture with all its unspoken and unexamined racism (blonde>brunette and so on down the line) -- all of that is true.

But it also -- thanks to this one phrase -- "open up" -- appeals to the unreconstructed 19th century liberal in me. It is a show -- and a phrase -- that could only be possible in a world that had abolished original sin. Only once we have had Channing and Emerson and Parker and all the rest telling us that no, actually, we are capable of goodness, our true nature is holy, rather than depraved, if only we would allow it to show from beneath the social artifices that keep it imprisoned -- only then could we have this notion that all you need to do is "open up," and all problems in interpersonal relations will disappear.

In fact, you could go so far as to say that if it were not for the Unitarians, there would be no Bachelor.

This is, as Joan Didion once wrote -- not referring, I'm afraid, to The Bachelor -- "an engaging period optimism [...] depending upon the Rousseauean premise that most people, left to their own devices, think not in clichés, but with originality and brilliance; that most individual voices, once heard, turn out to be voices of beauty and wisdom."

The actual romantic decisions made by people on the Bachelor may be informed by the unjust, irrational, and hopefully historically short-lived hierarchies of our caste society -- which codes fair skinned, thin, and blonde as the beauty ideal (and gee, what might that have to do with what we know about U.S. and European history?).

But the ideology in which these decisions are clothed is profoundly democratic.

No one is ever rejected on the Bachelor because they were not attractive enough, not smart enough, not rich enough (at least not officially). It is always because they failed the ultimate test of virtue -- they did not "open up." By implication, they -- their true nature, their true self -- is good, and interesting, and attractive. They just failed to let it show.


Here, as promised, is the evidence -- based on the meticulous records I maintained while watching this season:

Episode One: We learn that Arie "closed off" after the last time he was on the show. Thereby setting him up to eventually "open up" -- later in the season.
According to my notes, someone says: "Chelsea, I want you to open up." Maybe Arie. I have this marked as the inaugural "open up" of the season.

Episode Two: Bibiana says that Krystal won't "open up." So we know already she will be the villain of the season.
Someone says: "Chelsea really opened up to me." It has to be in the Bachelor handbook they pass out on your first day on set.
Arie to Jenny: "It's hard to open up." But we know it must be done!

Episode Three: Krystal says: "I love Lauren S, but she confided in me that she has a hard time opening up."
Can you really love someone whom you still refer to by the first letter of their last name, in order to set them apart from the multitude of other Laurens?
I asked this of myself in my notes, before I realized that Lauren B will still be Lauren B even when she wins the season and is the only one left.

Episode Four: Arie: "Sienne was very open and vulnerable tonight."
Arie: "Someone who was very open and vulnerable today was Tia."
Arie: "The first step to finding [a partner] is to be vulnerable and to be open to this."
Krystal: "I want to open up and really develop a relationship with him."

Episode Five: Unrelated to the catalogue of every use of the phrase "open up," I just wanted to note for the record that Arie makes a visual reference to the Big Lebowski in this episode. He's dressed like the John Turturro Jesus character, which is why they zoom in on his name tag, and why he licks the bowling ball.
I just wanted to make sure this was clear, since according to my friend who egged me on to watch this, there was much consternation and disgust on the internet about why he would do such a thing. I feel the need to spring to the defense of a good homage.
Krystal: "I'm trying to give you the floor to open up and show a different side."

This is also the episode in which we learn that Krystal's mom worked in a bowling alley, and for some reason this is meant to explain why she is erratic and mean-spirited in the presence of bowling. I am reminded of another bowling-related trauma that has been described on TV -- that of Frank Grimes, who lived "above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley."

Episode Six: Tia: "Hopefully she's more comfortable and opens up."
Kendall: "I definitely think Lauren is slower to open up."
Kendall: "... but maybe she won't open up as much as she needs to."

Arie says of Lauren B: "I feel like I didn't get to know her, because I think it's hard for her to open up." 
Then he says to her: "I know it's hard for you to open up."
Lauren B: "It's a trust thing. I feel like I can't open up until I trust somebody."
Lauren B: [a bit later] "It terrifies me that I'm not going to be able to open up enough."

My friend by this point in the season had already called it that Lauren B would be the ultimate victor -- because "she seems boring enough." I, novice that I am, still thought that having no discernible personality would be a disadvantage in the show, rather than the key to success. 

I also didn't realize yet that anytime someone confesses to not being able to open up on this show, that is a sign that they are already launched on a character arc, the culmination of which will be that they do in fact triumphantly "open up."

Also, I eventually came to realize that the only significant thing that any of them have to open up about is the fact that they have difficulty opening up. This makes for the beautiful circularity of all of the show's conversations. 

In truth, none of these people has anything much to say to one another. So they are left to the same old tired device. One of them admits that it is hard to open up. And this in itself constitutes a form of opening up. So, the other can then say, "gee, thanks for opening up."

Krystal: "I'm trying to open up and trust Arie."

Episode Seven: Someone says: "Tuscany really makes me want to open up."
Lauren B: "It's hard for me to open up." 
Okay, we get it already.
Arie: "I've really tried to get Lauren to open up." (From my notes: it's like she's a pickle jar at this point.)
Arie: [to Lauren] "I know it's hard for you to open up."
Lauren replies: "I'm really glad you opened that up."
Arie: "I love the fact that you're so open with me."
Well, that was a fast turn-around!
Arie: "Tonight she was so open and was really just herself." This on the basis of one half-sentence.

Episode 8: Kendall: "I'm not as comfortable being vulnerable and open."
Kendall: "Part of me is afraid to open up."
Arie: "I love that you're being open with me."
He has exactly the same conversation with every one!

Kendall: "I love the fact that I can be so open and so vulnerable with you."

(As far as I recorded, this is the last use of the "open up" phrase. This season had a notoriously controversial finish, which I won't go into here. Let's just say that I told my friend that, deep down, I sneakily kind of liked Arie for being so controversial and spoiling everyone's fun. I then asked if this made me a terrible person. To which she replied: "It would make you a terrible person, except everyone's fun in this case is a heteronormative, misogynistic artifact of white privilege, so it's kind of a wash.")


So, there you have it folks. So long as we all "open up," nothing can go wrong. If we listen to our heart, if we go with our gut, if we wait for the "chemistry," if we trust "what feels right," then we cannot go astray. Those gut feelings and heart stirrings could not possibly be informed by such ugly things as sexism and racism. They are pure. The ugly things in us -- the cruel things -- do not come from within. They are merely the distortions of our surrounding society. It is only when we strive to please others, to satisfy others' expectations or standards of good, that we end up doing harm. 

It is no more nor less, at last, than that legend that Oscar Wilde bid us inscribe as the motto of the modern age. As he tells us in his essay on the Soul of Man Under Socialism: "‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written."

It is the same lesson that Tolstoy imparted in his Resurrection, in speaking of the moral corruption of his young protagonist Nekhlyodov, under the influence of his fellows in the army: "[A]ll this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others."

It is the message of that famous line of Whitman, which the poet Jim Moore tells us he mailed in to his draft board on the day he refused to go to Vietnam, choosing prison instead: "Dismiss whatever insults your soul."

What are any of these, in short, if they are are not the ideology of "open up"?

It's an ideology that's easy to make fun of. This "open up" advice. This Romantic doctrine of authenticity. This spurious notion of the self. 

But, just my luck, it happens to be my ideology. 

So I am a sucker, in spite of myself, for this repellant show, The Bachelor

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