In the first episode of ABC’s “The Golden Bachelor” — the new 60-plus addition to the decades-old “Bachelor” franchise — Gerry Turner, 72, puts in his hearing aids, dons a tuxedo and cries within the first three minutes of airtime. Gerry, our Golden Bachelor, has been widowed for six years. His wife, Toni, died suddenly, of an infection, and in describing her passing he cannot contain his grief. We see photos of their lives together, from young marrieds to parents, from middle-aged partners to retirees enjoying themselves on a boat. Gerry is uncommonly slim and good-looking and seems to have been so throughout these various life stages. Toni, whose age is not specified, ages less magically. Her waist and eyeglasses thicken, as these things tend to. Clearly these changes did not dampen Gerry’s adoration. The type of tears he sheds on camera over her passing reveal what looks like a deep and enduring love — the thing every contestant on the set of “The Golden Bachelor” is now competing to find with him.
Like the original, “The Golden Bachelor” presents around two dozen women, all vying for lasting happiness through marriage to a single, eligible catch. Other than the fact that contestants range in age from 60 to 75, the formula is familiar. Like “The Bachelor,” the season aims to end with a proposal. Like “The Bachelor,” most action takes place in a mansion full of bunk beds. Like “The Bachelor,” the contestants are typically lithe, sexy and hyperactive; some wear stilettos to breakfast, along with tube tops and hot pants and all manner of plunging décolletage; there are boobs everywhere, often huge ones.
As the contestants emerge from their limousines, one by one, near the start of the first episode, making grand entrances with their mermaid hair and Pilates abs and buns of steel and snatched cheekbones and pneumatic-looking lips, often all over Gerry within minutes, a truth seems to dawn on the septuagenarian widower: Older women are not what they used to be. They are nothing at all like what they used to be. As if to underline this point, one of the contestants emerges from her limo with curler-set gray hair, baggy dress and walker — only to rip the whole kit off, fling the walker onto the paving stones and reveal her true self. This is Leslie, a 64-year-old dancer and former aerobics champion in a tiny lace corseted minidress. Leslie looks about 40 and acts even younger.
The show, of course, is fun to watch. Many of the women are beautiful and spirited and accomplished. Gerry seems like a lovely man. Still, there is something here that sends a chill down my spine. The show has received glowing coverage from predictable corners (USA Today) and scored huge ratings for ABC. But is any of this actually good? For older people? Or even for younger people?
I mean, this is “The Bachelor,” a mainstay of reality TV — a certain amount of desperation and superficiality is built into the DNA of the genre. But plunging older people into this context and then valorizing them because, perhaps with some nipping and tucking, they can just about fit? This feels more like a denigration of aging. Some of these people have been on Earth for 75 years. Here is an opportunity for them to demonstrate that life, comfortingly, has many chapters — that there is always change and that this change is not only natural, but good. Instead, we get a tight-and-toned show in which success involves being able to repeat Chapter 3 for as long as possible. This version of freedom has nothing to do with wisdom or respite, with taking stock or giving back or the hard-won succor of age. It is about working extremely hard to remain the same as you were when you were younger (or maybe even more fabulously youthy), especially if that youthful you was wont to grind barelegged to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a tinsel handkerchief dress.
A state of nubile teenagehood already coats the age spectrum, from 8-year-olds with gel nails on Snapchat to middle-aged dads in hoodies on longboards. Now it is creeping ever further up the life span. Martha Stewart expanded from her cardigans and sheet-pan suppers to moue on TikTok and chitchat on talk shows about how she should date Pete Davidson. Madonna accuses critics of ageism as she rids her face and body of signs of time, to the point of looking like a different person. The idea of not aging is not only normalized but treated as an accomplishment.
No surprise, then, that one “Golden Bachelor” contestant shows up on a motorcycle or that another, age 70, flashes Gerry her “birthday suit” upon meeting him or that everyone stays up all night dancing in skyscraper heels, apparently bunion- and sciatica-free. Other than the odd passing remark about “ear candy” (code for hearing aids) or taking the bed nearest to the bathroom, this show — sold as a showcase for how fabulous and free growing old can be, and how “it’s never too late” to find love — actually negates aging, erases lateness. More than 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 in America every day; by 2034, there will be more Americans over age 65 than children. What we are being told is that they will be vital and relevant mostly insofar as they have maintained arms like Jessica Biel and off-the-chart libidos.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched a few episodes of the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls” with my daughters. Like any other woman of 50 who knows how old those mostly gray-haired characters were supposed to be — at the start of the series, Blanche, Dorothy and Rose were in their early 50s — I experienced some cognitive dissonance. “Do they seem like they are the same age as me?” I asked my 11-year-old. No, she said. They seemed “more comfortable, like grandmothers used to.”
Odd, but true: The kind of aging depicted on “The Golden Bachelor” is itchy and awkward. We hear a contestant say it’s nice to see older women enjoy how they feel in their skin; we hear contestants say they are breaking stereotypes of what it means to be old. But what good is that when those stereotypes are instantly replaced with “Girls Gone Wild” stereotypes about what it means to still be young?
In Episode 1, after most of the contestants have sashayed into the mansion, another woman emerges. She is 84. She is wearing a nice blouse and forgiving trousers and flat shoes, like a normal person in her 80s. She says she is Jimmy Kimmel’s aunt — Aunt Chippy, as featured on his show — and she just wanted to meet Gerry, as she was sure he was lying about his age. The gag is that she is not really in the game, because she is old. Sitting with the other women in the mansion, she says: “I don’t belong here. Those ladies are really something. Look at this one. I’m in the wrong place.” She is later caught napping; at least one person here is comfortable with where she finds herself.
But of course, Chippy leaves the set. I imagine her going home, making coffee, putting her feet up and calling a grandkid or an old friend to talk about the truly weird day she had, and how — thank God — she doesn’t need to be like that anymore, with the hair and the boobs and the sex. Because she was already young once, and even then it was exhausting, and now? She can’t even imagine.
Source photographs for illustration above: Brian Bowen Smith/ABC; Ricky Middlesworth/ABC; Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images; Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images.