Almost every Thursday at noon, it is time to open WebEx for a video conference. This is not for a business meeting; it is for the weekly gathering of my local Toastmasters club. For the past three years or so, I have been attending these Toastmasters meetings and have found them a great way to develop speaking, time management, and leadership skills in a supportive and friendly environment.
If you aren’t familiar with Toastmasters International they are “a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. Headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, the organization's membership is approximately 280,000 in more than 14,700 clubs in 144 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators, and leaders.”
What does the program look like practically? Each participant selects a pathway based on their own speaking and leadership goals. Based on their chosen pathway, they review a series of educational materials online and then prepare a speech to practice the fundamental skills they have learned. In addition to the pathways, participants practice their speaking and leadership skills each week by participating in the weekly meetings. I have found my time spent in Toastmasters to be rewarding, both because of the professional skills I have developed, but also because of the new friends that I have made. I would recommend giving the program a try.
This month, as part of my pathway, I am practicing my ability to “write a compelling blog.” While I have had a blog off and on since 2015, this is a great opportunity to refresh the site, reflect on its purpose, and complete some long-overdue projects and updates. It is also an opportunity to get back to one of the reasons I started this in the first place: to practice writing about things I think are interesting.
So, this month will see eight new blog plots, including this one. Stay tuned for more updates and posts.
Where can love be found? Presumably, anywhere: school, the internet, a coffee shop, even, as Rihanna pointed out in her 2011 hit song, in a hopeless place. In 2002, that list grew and love could also be found on television.
Having never seen a single episode of The Bachelor, I thought I would be the perfect person to write about it authoritatively after several hours of research. This impulse was derived, in part, from a friend’s recommendation that I apply to be on the show. Regardless, I will briefly be presenting The Bachelor in three ways: Bachelor as text, Bachelor as subtext, and Bachelor as commodity. Or, in other words, what the show does, what the show says, and what the show is.
Part I: The Bachelor as text
On its face, the bachelor is a straightforward show. Twenty-five women compete for the affections of one eligible bachelor. Contestants and the bachelor go on dates to gauge their compatibility and each episode ends with a rose ceremony. At the ceremony the titular bachelor gives roses to the subset of women that he would like to keep around and get to know, ultimately leading to a final ~magical~ proposal.
In it’s imagery, unsurprisingly, the show leans heavily on romantic elements, elevating and magnifying the fantasy of the show to mythic proportions. There is a mansion, the women wear ravishing evening gowns, there are dates in exotic locations, the show provides the perfect diamond ring. There’s even a “fantasy suite.”
While proposal and possibly marriage are the end of the fairy tale, this pedestrian description of the show’s structure does not capture the essence of the themes that the show conveys.
Part II: The Bachelor as subtext
As you may have already surmised, the “reality” in this reality tv show is anything but. The critiques of the show are many and varied: it fetishizes beauty, it objectifies women, it exclusively celebrates heterosexual romance. As Caryn Voskuil enunciated in the 2006 anthology Television, Aesthetics, and Reality, “television may have the capacity to bring about social change, [but] more often than not, it is a mirror of societies’ values and beliefs - a “myth promoter” that entertains while maintaining the status quo.”
The Bachelor has no problem living in the status quo and promoting the existing myths about true love and fantastical romance. Its whole premise is based on these concepts. It takes existing social constructs of dating, both good and bad, heightens them in a ritualistic fantasy environment, and ends with an idealized amplification of those constructs pitched to the audience as reality. This show is not advancing the social discourse.
However, that unrealistic fantasy itself may be the escape its audience is looking for. The courtship depicted in the show is a far cry from the real dating world where, according to Pew Research in 2020, more than half of Americans say dating app relationships are equally successful to those that begin in person. But, with some 35% of app users saying online dating makes them more pessimistic, maybe a glimpse into a mythic fantasy, pitched as reality, where traditional values are never challenged is an appealing product.
While the underlying messages of the show may not be the most progressive, perhaps these concerns are overblown and the negative societal consequences only manifest if one truly believes in the show’s premise. Is anyone fooled? Does anyone think it accurately reflects reality?
Part III: The Bachelor as commodity
After 263 episodes, the bachelor and its many spin offs have become a mass produced media product rather than a cultural text. Over those 25 seasons, there were 15 marriage proposals with only two couples currently together, as of this writing. These results savagely undercut the mythic romance narrative sold to the audience in the text of the show, making it unlikely that it is taken on face value. While the problematic subtext remains, the show is now being rigorously dissected and enjoyed through a collection of meta-narratives, narratives grafted on top of the repetitive framework of the show, rather than the surface-level text of the show
One such meta-narrative analyzes the show’s production logistics. How many instagram followers do the contestants have? How do producers make people cry or find the perfect shot to make it look like a fight occurred? Another looks at The Bachelor as sport. The Bachelor has many of the same attributes as traditional sports: weekly appointment viewing, suspense, narratives, ritual, and excitement. There are fantasy bachelor brackets and leagues. These meta-narratives are possible because of the decades-long commoditization and standardization processes over dozens of seasons. They heighten the enjoyment of watching the show, while abstracting above any problematic aspects or subtexts.
Which of these is the true bachelor? Should we believe what the show does, what it says, or what it is? Of course the answer is that it is all three at once. The Bachelor is a complex show, despite the repetitive traditions it has embraced over the years. It is a sports media product about finding love in an unrealistic reality. Which, when I put it like that makes it sound a bit appealing. Maybe I will have to give it a watch.
This post was adapted from a seven-minute speech presented at a Toastmasters club.
James Bond, secret agent, man of mystery, world traveler. Bond traverses the globe foiling devious plots from evil masterminds in the service of the Queen. To support his missions, his tech-savvy colleague Q equips him with fantastic gadgets. He has a watch that shoots lasers, a pen that shoots lasers, and a belt buckle that shoots lasers. Anything is possible.
One of his most notable gadgets is his car, a modified Aston Martin. But a car is only as good as the road it drives on, which leads us to his final secret weapon, The Interstate Highway System.
While Bond’s travels took him to far-flung, exotic places, today I want to write about the secret weapon we all have access to here in the United States. It transformed the way Americans live, it strengthened the U.S. economy, but unfortunately, it is facing an existential crisis.
The idea for a supercharged network of cross-country roads came from President Dwight D. Eisenhower after his own miserable experience traversing the country in a staggeringly slow 62-day trip, as well as his experience with the German Autobahn network in World War 2. The Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense highways, was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the same year that the Bond novel Diamonds are Forever was published.
While most secret gadgets are small and compact, the interstate highway system is over 48 thousand miles long. This is enough to (almost) circle the entire earth twice, making it larger than any other known secret spy gadget. The centrally managed construction created a logically ordered country-spanning network. Even numbers run east to west, odd numbers run north to south. Additionally, interstates have no at-grade road crossings, no stop signs or stop lights, and have limited on and off ramps. These small changes give cars the superpower to travel at greater speeds with fewer interruptions while also improving passenger safety. This increased speed transformed the average American way of life. The use of trains decreased dramatically. Interstates allowed for the suburbs to emerge, enabling workers (including spies) to live outside the city and commute into the city each day.
Beyond transporting people, the key benefit of the interstate system is its ability to rapidly move goods from point A to point B. They are literally the groundwork enabling commercial growth making the interstates the secret weapon of the economy. James Bond helps the U.K.’s MI6, the interstates help the U.S0.’s GDP. Everyday almost everything we eat, buy, or use is transported via Interstate highway at some point. In 2015 the department of transportation reported that 10 billion tons of freight was moved on roads. It also enabled domestic and foreign tourism creating demand for gas stations, motels, restaurants and most importantly, roadside tourist traps including the biggest ball of twine, carhenge (a stone henge made of cars), and the Spam museum.
These are monumental benefits, but James Bond always had Q to ensure his gadgets were always tip top shape. The U.S. has an army of Q’s constantly repairing our roads, but despite their best efforts, they continue to crumble faster than they can be mended. The federal highway system is funded, in large part, by a tax on gasoline. This tax currently sits at 18.4 cents per gallon, which is not a lot. The last gasoline tax increase was made by president Clinton in 1993. As a result, revenues have not been adequate since 2008 and billions of dollars of projects go unfunded every year. In 2017, The Infrastructure Report Card gave America’s road infrastructure a D. Imagine if James Bond was still getting paid a 1993 salary in 2021. That doesn’t buy many martinis. The gas tax should be raised. Alternatively, the federal government could devise another means to raise revenues to hire more Q’s to maintain our beloved interstate highways.
Now, an argument could be made that we shouldn’t fix the roads at all if they are being used by international spies. However, I would contend that we all need these roads. As described above, they are a fundamental part of American life, they are critical for our economic infrastructure, and despite their flaws, they should be saved from this crisis. The Interstate Highway System is a secret weapon that millions of Americans use use everyday, even if it does help a few pesky spies.
This post was adapted from a seven-minute speech presented at a Toastmasters club.