Australia lives for reality television. One of our highest rating shows, The Bachelor, regularly draws in a million viewers, has spawned spin-offs such as The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, and is a social media staple. The show has long been criticised for being contrived, sexist and trashy. Knowing this, why do we still watch it?
Much deeper than these criticisms lies an emotion known as schadenfreude. This German word, which literally means taking pleasure in another’s misfortune, encapsulates Aussie viewing habits. Be it through unsuitability, inadequacy or sheer humiliation, The Bachelor’s premise is to narrow the women down to a finale consisting of just two. We watch, weighing up the contestants in anticipation for the rose ceremony, where someone will be sent home. One by one, the women are cherry-picked by the bachelor, and we invest in this process of elimination with wide eyes, a vino in one hand and a box of Pizza Shapes in the other.
It is believed that schadenfreude is generally facilitated by envy. The notion is that, when someone is seen as more successful than us, we secretly take enjoyment when they fail. I can relate, reflecting on my own experiences as a survivor of Queensland’s ruthless senior school ranking system: the coveted ‘Overall Position’. When my ‘competitors’ got a bad grade, I felt a little better knowing I had the upper hand. But as an adult, it’s not something I’ve really encountered – consciously, at least – in my personal life.
TV, however, makes the reflection of this emotion seem more acceptable. It’s not like we know these people personally, and it’s not like their life is falling apart before our eyes. Many arguments on the morality of schadenfreude identify television as a healthy medium to indulge in it, as no one really gets hurt. We are afforded a guilt-free sense of escapism that makes us feel better about ourselves, as we believe reality TV contestants put themselves out there, so they have it coming to them.
Who better to test out this great nation’s schadenfreude than this season’s 23-year-old Cass Wood? Even if you didn’t watch the show, you know her as the obsessive, hungry-thirsty ‘Stage 5 clinger’ (so they say), who was dying to get a second shot with Nick ‘The Honey Badger’ Cummins. Wood had already dated Cummins before the show, so by default, her inevitable downfall was spectacular for Australians everywhere.
Watching Wood’s journey was nail-biting, and not because I was particularly rooting for her. It was more a result of seeing Twitter feeds explode each time she was humiliated on national television. Despite being preoccupied by the 26th leadership spill this year, our nation’s keyboard warriors did not disappoint.
I have broken Cass’s time in The Bachelor down to four distinct narratives to highlight just how predatory we can be:
She dated him already!?
Yo Cass, if you’ve dated already and it hasn’t really gone anywhere, he is probably not that into you! #TheBachelorAU
— Alisha (@Oohlalisha) 15 August 2018
I literally can’t believe Nick would have dated Cass in the real world… maybe he ain’t all that after all #TheBachelorAU
— Hayley (@hayhatty) 29 August 2018
When the viewing public caught wind that Cass had already made a connection with The Honey Badger, she became Public Enemy #1. How dare she enter this show with an unfair advantage over the other girls? ‘If she wasn’t good enough before, she most certainly isn’t now’ was the narrative that had us pouring the fuel, ready to ignite this schadenfire.
— Roger (@Roger_xxxxxxxxx) 13 September 2018
— Ava Ledger (@LedgerAva) 13 September 2018
Predictably, Cass went weeks without receiving a single date. I say predictably, because it’s TV gold to have the front-runner fall to the wayside, which I’m sure the producers had some influence over. Candidly, Cass aired her frustrations with fellow bachelorettes. She even confronted the bachelor to ask why he was giving mixed signals, only to be assured she was there ‘for a reason’. All the while, Australia called for her to be put out of her misery; she was crazy, obsessive, controlling, and definitely not good enough for Cummins. Humiliating for her, but Australia was loving it.
Hold your breath everytime cass has one of her 10 minute long hugs with Nick #TheBachelorAU
— Brodie (@broshaemcinnes) 27 September 2018
A producer had to step in and break up the hug after a Cass got her rose #TheBachelorAU
— Merryn Porter (@Merryn_Porter) 16 August 2018
When it became clear that Cass wasn’t going to get a date anytime soon, we needed more fuel for the fire. Everyone has felt like Cass, like the one you’re supposed to be with will slip away if you don’t act fast. A lingering hug may have eased her emotions for a few seconds, but not on Australia’s watch. As we now know, it wasn’t enough to win over Cummins, but it sure as hell revived the ‘clinger’ narrative and we continued to bask in it.
— Tricia (@Tricia52_) 27 September 2018
Brooke just got a huge kiss for “I really like you”. Poor Cass has been wearing his pubes in a locket around her neck for the past year and barely got a pat on the butt when he left #TheBachelorAU
— Merryn Porter (@Merryn_Porter) 27 September 2018
What the poor girl should have been told in week one. He’s just not that into you, and that’s okay, because you don’t need him anyway. Oh, what’s that sound? A barrage Bachelor fans, pitchforks in hand, coming to tear her down further after getting her heart ripped out on TV? Say no more…
Gogglebox provided invaluable social commentary on the schadenfreude evident in our living rooms. Some were rooting for Cass out of pity, some were vying for her to go home. Others took bets on how long Cass would embrace The Honey Badger when she inevitably received a rose each episode without a single date. Whatever stance was taken, Gogglebox showed the great extent to which viewers took pleasure in seeing Cass’s humiliation unfold before them. What’s more worrying is that Gogglebox is marketed as a show that says what we are all thinking. Therefore, if Cass is portrayed as a deserving target amongst Goggleboxers, we are told to embrace it too.
Referring to the earlier defences of TV-schadenfreude, The Bachelor, however contrived, exploits real people who have real lives to return to once the show is over. Although they attend a rigorous audition process to appear, they can choose to cease being on-screen personas when the season ends. Would we still engage in this schadenfreude if it was our best friend, who could easily be in Wood’s position?
Whether schadenfreude is healthy or not, I’m not here to ruin anyone’s fun. I only ask where we draw the line. Just an hour before The Bachelor begins, on the same channel, we sit down to watch The Project. The show of choice for progressive, socially-conscious liberals to escape the alleged sensationalism of A Current Affair and 60 Minutes. It provides insight into social issues, such as women’s rights and anti-bullying, to which we nod along, while sharpening our claws for another night of Twitter commentary and car-crash TV.