The Crushing Reality Suite Week 2: Is The Bachelorette Feminist? (NO)

Is The Bachelorette feminist? No. But at times it reflects social progress. And if you want to know how, stay with me while I explain why Meat Chad’s villain edit is sort of countercultural.

I’ve been watching The Bachelor franchise since 2009, when I was a college student enamored with frat culture and that bland mainstream aesthetic. Or as Emily Greytak, a loyal Bachelor fan and director of research at a gender-equity-focused nonprofit, described it, “You’d never see someone who…looks like they belong in Greenpoint.” Although this season, there was a Bachelorette contestant whose profession was listed as “hipster.” He had slightly longer hair and looked like a sane Adam Driver. He was quickly sent home. “It’s not just that the contestant’s look is gender normative,” Emily noted, “it’s that it’s so middle-of-the-road. There are very strong, unstated boundaries for [contestants’] look and feel.”

While ABC has been a leader (thank you, Shonda Rhimes) in creating a new generation of race-integrated and minority-led shows, the Bachelor franchise is notably pale (but also really tan) in comparison. A close queer, male friend told me that watching The Bachelor recreated the experience of watching the popular kids in high school make out with each other while he was still closeted. His observation points to the franchise’s general lack of inclusivity: it is aggressively straight and Christian-centric. It reinforces outdated ideas about marriage and gender. When I watch The Bachelor, the leering shots of thin, tan, 23 year-old bodies rouse discomfort and insecurity. Watching The Bachelor also inspires weird athliesure shopping binges. In short, the Bachelor franchise is dated and cowardly; bad for me and bad for society.

But here I am again watching. (I say to myself: Daaamn, Shayna, back at it again with this white hetero garbage TV.) And I’ve been wondering what keeps me, and other feminist-identified women watching. Emilia Diamant, who re-capped for us last week, explained how she watches the show, in part as a protest against leftist conformity: “There’s a kind of militancy about what you’re allowed to consume in leftist spaces, and I want to watch whatever I want to watch, which includes Real Housewives and The Bachelor.” Emily Greytak said that one incentive for watching the show has been her desire to see if it will reflect any larger cultural change: “I keep watching in part because I keep thinking or hoping that something will change. No one discusses politics on this show, and political issues are glossed over. I keep waiting for them to address something of substance; I keep thinking that there will come a point in time when this show will no longer be gross and sexist.”

That time has clearly not arrived. But we have seen some small, incremental change over the years, and those changes are reflected in some ways in The Bachelorette:

  1. Sex

The Bachelorette represents a change in traditional sexual mores: each season the Bachelorette has overnight dates with all three final contestants. And though she presumably sleeps with three men consecutively, the Bachelorette remains desired by contestants and beloved by American fans. This is some modulated kind of sexual liberation.When the topic of slut shaming came up in Andi Dorfman and Kaitlyn Bristow’s seasons, Chris Harrison and fans sided with the Bachelorette, defending her integrity. I was surprised to see the term, “slut shaming” used at all on The Bachelor. Ma’yan’s Director of Research, Beth Cooper Benjamin feels that the discussion of “slut-shaming” in reference to the show is itself a leap forward in the interrogation of gender norms on TV.  She remembers hearing “slut-shaming” invoked in critical responses to Juan Pablo regretting his underwater hookup with Clare, and telling her, “I have a daughter, I don’t want her to see what happens, if she sees it.” Until that point, Beth reports, “I had mostly heard the term slut-shaming in explicitly feminist circles and Slut Walk signage.”

  1. Love

Even the acknowledgment that people have the capacity to love more than one person at a time is a more sophisticated and complex way of understanding love. Of course there are limits to what the franchise can stomach: though the Bachelor or Bachelorette can have the capacity to love more than one person, at the end of the day they must choose one monogamous partner. In retrospect, the Bachelor or Bachelorette “always knew” that the person they ultimately chose was “the one”.

The show is ostensibly about love and commitment. And this focus on love and valuing of emotional vulnerability is countercultural.

The part of me that wants to watch this show is the part of me that craves more open discussion in our society about our need for love. While watching the show I thought of the Diane Ackerman quote that bell hooks uses in her preface to All About Love: “As a society we are embarrassed by love. We treat it as if it were an obscenity…love is the most important thing in our lives, and yet we’re reluctant to linger over its names…”

Of course we are compelled to watch The Bachelor but feel strange about it. We are watching something that is overtly about the search for true love. And of course both men and women are drawn to something explicitly about love, despite it being seen as something mainly for women.

  1. Masculinity

On the last episode of The Bachelorette, the men went on an infantile fire man-themed group date. They dressed as firemen (only porn actors and toddlers and Bachelor contestants dress up as firemen) and competed with each other through a strenuous obstacle course to rescue Jojo from a faux burning building. While female contestants on The Bachelor often compete in sports theme-dates, they’ve never competed to rescue the Bachelor.

Male contestants are expected to be muscly saviors. But they are also lauded for wanting love and being emotionally open. That is not traditionally masculine.

Yes, the franchise’s understanding of emotional vulnerability and intimacy is severely limited. On the last episode of The Bachelorette, Derek went on a one-on-one with Jojo and told her about his past relationship:

“I wanted to move forward in my relationship. But there was an ulterior third party member [in her life]. So that did not proceed…I’ve never told a single person about this.”

After sharing this awkward, removed and very passive account of past emotional pain, Derek is thanked for his openness and vulnerability. Both men and women on the show are encouraged to share these unprocessed stories of past trauma during five minute windows of time in order to demonstrate that they are serious about love and commitment. This is very #problematic.

Yet, the show’s emphasis on being emotionally open and ready for love is a departure from how we usually see traditionally masculine men.

The villain this season is Chad, a meathead misogynist who seems to be literally obsessed with protein powder. He is a caricature of masculinity. Chad criticizes the other men for being too effeminate, calling out deficiencies in their height and strength. He pretty much calls them gay and pussies. He becomes enraged by the (admittedly lame) song that the contestants write and sing about the Jojo. Btw, the lyrics to this song are “Jojo, Jojo, Jojo, Jojo etc.”  Chad says, in response to the song, “I will NOT write a song about how much I love her. I’m gonna keep eating meat and drinking protein shakes until I win.”

The show seems to be asking us to reject the idea that “real men” do not overtly pursue true love. The franchise is perhaps expanding our understanding of what men can be and rejecting caricatures of masculinity. So congratulations “Bachelor nation”, we’ve found ourselves another reason to watch next Monday!


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