It's not something I like to admit, but I spend every Tuesday night streaming this season of The Bachelorette. It’s horrible, let me get that out here right away. Still, I am definitely hooked. Even though it’s certainly not attempting to add any value to my life, I have convinced myself that watching The Bachelorette is a somewhat educational experience.
Like many progressive, feminist women, I live in a bubble. I spend most of my time with people who, like me, reject strict gender norms and outdated tropes about love. However, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are incredibly popular shows, and women buy in. I've talked to old friends who set their expectations based on the unreality of the show, and I think it's worth knowing what they're being sold.
My first exposure to the series was accidental. My brother and sister-in-law are avid watchers of The Bachelor. Last winter I came back to Minnesota from a four year hiatus, and I'll admit, they were my only friends. So when I got invited to eat Chinese food, drink wine, and watch some silly show, I said yes and started watching Chris' season of The Bachelor.
Chris was the most uncomfortable bachelor I could imagine (or maybe it’s always that bad?) and I spent much of the time refilling my plate with cream cheese wontons or playing with their cats. Basically the only redeeming part of the whole season was Kaitlyn’s insane laugh, so here I am watching her season of The Bachelorette.
Watching the show was a reminder to me that the weird world of gendered norms and expectations is still very real. It was like seeing a news story about something terrible a fraternity did, thinking it was outlandish, and then realizing that their behavior was probably more common than mine.
If Chris’ season is the norm, the girls buying into it are in for a lifetime of disaster. To sum it up for all of you people smart enough not to watch: by the end Chris chose between a woman who wanted to try it with him but wasn’t in love yet (shame on her for not being in love after a few weeks on a contrived TV show) and a bubbly, head-over-heels woman ready to move to Iowa for him tomorrow (leaving behind a career in Chicago that she loved enough to discuss frequently on the show). He chose the safe bet and, unsurprisingly, they broke up a few months later.
The majority of the men on Kaitlyn’s season are not any better. By giving the woman control, The Bachelorette is supposed to offset the weirdness of a show that takes a rich man and makes twenty-some hot women compete for his love. The producers must have been getting bored of semi-equality, so this season they switched it up. In the first episode, two girls competed for the attention of the men, who then voted for their favorite of the two. The woman chosen by the men, Kaitlyn, got the season, the other woman went home.
My cynical self is pretty convinced that this move was meant to resonate as a point of insecurity throughout the season, taking away the woman’s agency and saving the fragile male egos. More likely, they just wanted a larger viewership for the first episode.
The men with fragile egos definitely exist this season, but Kaitlyn's weeded them out quickly with her sense of control and direct nature (except Shawn, no one knows why Shawn is still in it). She’s broken essentially every rule on the show, never giving roses out at the right times, sneaking over to see the guys off-camera, and never leading someone on once she knows they’re not for her.
Though I sometimes question her taste (RIP Ben Z. and Jared), Kaitlyn is handling the bullshit that is her season incredibly well. In her words, she’s a “grown woman” and she can do what she wants. She slept with Nick early, and didn’t let herself be slut-shamed or feel guilty (though she did feel bad for fragile Shawn, who can’t really handle it).
The producers, as much as I want to hate them, have pretty much let Kaitlyn do her thing. The celebrity guests have been strong women (Laila Ali, Amy Schumer), the schedule of the season is completely different than others, and I never felt like the show shamed her for being a (and here I quote Kaitlyn again) “makeout bandit.” Instead of choosing between being wife-material and a “wanted woman” (which is what she told us Nick made her feel like), Kaitlyn has promised us that they are the same.
Intimacy matters in a life partner. And maybe the most shocking part of this idea is that it is revolutionary on the show. Because duh.
So who’s representing the anger at Kaitlyn’s agency? The men, of course. The best example of backlash came from Ian, the oh-so sophisticated Princeton grad who just couldn’t stand to be surrounded by sex jokes (who left us with final words about how he really needed to get laid, which was a nice touch).
Before leaving, Ian confronted Kaitlyn for making out with so many men on the show:
“I came here expecting to meet the girl that had her heart broken and was devastated by Chris Soles, not the girl that wanted to get her field plowed by Chris. And really I feel like I’ve found that there’s still that girl […] I really see you as a surface level person at this stage.”
Kaitlyn’s face hearing this is pretty priceless. And beyond the painfully hilarious quality of his ego, Ian’s statements point to a very disturbing idea of gender. Ian wanted to swoop in and own a heartbroken, devastated woman. He didn’t want the confident, silly Kaitlyn. He wanted someone broken enough to need him. In other comments he makes it clear that in his ideal world he is the one being chased, not the one doing the chasing.
He’s not the only one to question her intentions, but he’s certainly the most memorable. There have been multiple moments of men being uncomfortable with Kaitlyn running the show. She handles it well. When Shawn tries to give her an ultimatum between him and Nick, she bluntly tells him that she gets to figure things out for herself, and he stays. When Nick vents to her about Shawn, she writes them both off with a shrug as indulging in silly, petty jealousy. Then she just moves on. This season, drama isn’t a girl thing, and it doesn’t shake Kaitlyn’s confidence in her decisions.
On Chris’ Bachelor season, the dates are all straight out of a romance novel. The bloopers are removed, and viewers are meant to believe that when you go to Thailand with your boyfriend everything is seamless. I’m aware of multiple women who talk about this, with a swoon and a hope for the future. My favorite moment of the season was in the bloopers, when you realize that during the “romantic” boat trip, the whole crew got seasick and threw up the whole time they were filming the date.
Kaitlyn’s dates are sometimes amazing (taking a helicopter to a mostly untouched part of Ireland), but mostly really normal. The best example comes from the most recent episode. For her fantasy suite date with Nick (supposed to be the most dramatic and romantic) they walk around Cork, drink with some locals, then go to an old jail, where she tricks him into thinking their “suite” is a jail cell with a damp mattress on the floor. We see them in the morning having small talk over an average looking breakfast (in a real hotel suite, not the jail cell).
It’s also important to note that these overnight dates are happening before Kaitlyn meets the mens’ parents, another example of how she is bringing the show (slightly) closer to reality.
I hate the whole premise of The Bachelor(ette) and am confident that the setup doesn’t work (which is proven by its failure rate, I think approximately three couples total have stayed together). More often than not the show makes me angry, but honestly I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
As I think and write about gender, it’s good to know what’s happening outside my bubble. Plus, despite everything, Kaitlyn is making some strong points about female sexuality to an audience of people who may not already be thinking that way. So kudos, Kaitlyn, and if you realize none of those guys are for you, hit me up.