How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate-Watch “The Bachelorette”

As the romance-reality show begins its twelfth season, it continues to embody contradictions in our culture's view of femininity.

by KOURTNEY PARANTEAU

On Monday night, a summer-long love affair between a woman and her nearly thirty suitors commences. Around the country, hundreds of bottles of rosé will be uncorked, pajama pants with nicknames embroidered across the asses will be slipped on, and Twitter will light up with exclamation points.  

Jojo Fletcher, Season Twelve’s titular “Bachelorette,” begins her “journey” to find true love. Meanwhile, an audience of mostly women tunes in, pressing pause on the routines of singledom, married life and everything in between to envy, sneer, cringe and heckle the 25-year old Texan’s suddenly complicated love life.

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JoJo Fletcher, the latest iteration of reality TV’s “Bachelorette”

And even though “The Bachelorette,” in many ways, demonstrates the very worst inclinations of gender politics in the U.S., the show also provides a continually updated cheat sheet to American attitudes on relationships, while also endowing supreme power on a woman, her taste and her pleasure.  

Recent televised reactions to the “Bachelor”-verse include E’s “Burning Love,” an outright parody; Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” a show focused on the dramatics of a production team for the fictional but obviously “Bachelor”-inspired “Everlasting;” and the Huffington Post’s “Here to Make Friends,” a podcast whose hosts “lovingly snark on the Bachelor” and its adjacent shows.  These new media products both confirm the sustainability of the franchise while also highlighting the intricacies involved in enjoying it.  To call the series “good television” would be incorrect, but to ignore its potency would be a careless denial of the rise of a feminized marketplace.  

“The Bachelor,” which debuted in 2002, morphed with the tides of reality television, and what once appeared to be little more than a televised Harlequin romance novel mutated into a human centipede of its own relevance.  Bachelor Nation’s classmates in the first wave of reality TV include the recently canceled “American Idol” (which also premiered in 2002) and the increasingly irrelevant “Survivor” (2000).  Both of those shows remained too faithful to their own formulas, while “The Bachelor” and its spinoffs enjoy a larger audience than ever by existing within a self-sustaining ecosystem.  A disgraced contestant from “The Bachelor” becomes “The Bachelorette,” a disappointed “Bachelorette” contender ascends to the position of “The Bachelor” and so on until the apocalypse takes us all.

The shows have an obvious appeal to conservative ideals, and a blatant disregard for feminism’s increasing presence in popular entertainment. “The Bachelor”’s glimmer, though, still outshines the glare of the omnipresent Kardashians because the pleasure of watching toggles regularly between guilt and disgust on one hand, and empathy and solidarity on the other. Unlike the Kardashians, the women who appear on “The Bachelor” resonate not as multi-headed monsters representing everything unattainable by the majority of their viewers, but as individuals.

The trick of the Kardashian/Jenner tribe relies on the fakery of choice.  Like ordering from a Taco Bell menu, the women of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” are composed of the same ingredients in varying portions, while “The Bachelor” at least offers its audience viable, differentiated points of subjectivity.  Yes, favorites invariably come interlocked with villains, and the scapegoating of women will remain the show’s most deplorable downside.  But through the spectacle of narrative through-lines, the show inadvertently grapples with the underlying topic of feminist film criticism at its core: who deserves to be looked at and what does the look of the camera hold?  

During a season of “The Bachelor,” the answer is routine: the camera follows whichever woman provides the biggest spectacle.  Whether it’s tears, tenderness or tequila, “The Bachelor”’s gaze adheres to the pageant of distress and glitter.  But “The Bachelorette” feels more conflicted: the camera wants to ogle the male contestants as a stand-in for the bachelorette, while at the same time commodifying her to her suitors–and to viewers.  The camera, and with it the audience of “The Bachelorette,” continually jostles between subject and object, never totally landing on a secure host for its gaze.   

The most recent season of “The Bachelor” dwelled more on the sister-wife quality of the contestants than the unavoidably competitive nature of the show itself.  Though “The Bachelor”’s premise codes its audience as male-gazers, “The Bachelorette”’s run  now confesses the subjectivity of the other side.  Of course there were catfights, fabricated rumors, barely veiled racism and insults based on unachievable beauty standards. But if last season’s “The Bachelor” was any indicator of the potential of “The Bachelorette”’s imminent season, there were also mood-breaking tensions which acted like mile-markers for the dated bedrocks of the franchise.  In one episode, Caila questions her own expectation to perform vunerabilty for the pleasure of Bachelor Ben.  In another, two contestants of color, Jami and Amber confront Jubilee, a Haitian refugee over Jubilee’s claim of being the only “real black girl”.  Both instances reveal the stitching of the show and help tatter the appalling nature of the narrative beats and tactical casting in ways  not even parodies can achieve.  

The producers of “The Bachelorette” as much as promised a “diverse” bachelorette for this upcoming season, only to slowly step away from this expectation by casting Jojo, Bachelor Ben’s runner-up wife-to-be.

Although Jojo may not change the pattern of “The Bachelorette” the way Caila or Jubilee might have, her time as a rose bestower will, like all other eleven seasons,  depict a female with the power to choose and therefore eliminate men. It’s not the act of picking, precisely, that makes the show a multi-layered confection, it’s the reactions of the men., Having beentoo often the picker, the one who swipes left or right, or calls a girl back, or “ghosts,” they now suddenly face a rejection that even the premise of the show did not prepare them for.  

Some of these men will short circuit when rejected by Jojo, some will breathe deep into another man’s face until their nostrils look beyond repair, and some of them will let America know that their dream girls are their moms  All of these embarrassing moments can serve as a catharsis  for women who are told to smile, get leered  at the gym,or are harassed for no apparent reason by male passersby.  

For every way that “The Bachelor” feels icky because it preys upon the insecurities of young women who’ve grown up soaked in pop culture’s hyperbolic gender biases, “The Bachelorette” pivots toward watching men whose unquestioned privileges bump and scrape against one another until they humiliate themselves into a rejection limo.  

To look for the heart and soul of this show would be like looking for the bones of a hologram.Seventeen of the twenty bachelors are no longer  with their final rose recipient, and only three of the eleven bachelorettes remain with theirs, proving the show’s overshadowing of true love by the spectacle of courtship and its follies.

The show’s very premise goes against all the good advice your best friends tell you in your hour of need.  Take care of yourself.  Take time to heal, ignore romantic inclinations until you’re over your previous relationship.  And whatever you do, do not nosedive into twenty other relationships on national television.

No, that advice goes against the fast-paced, high-stakes, “now or never” attitude the whole show embodies.  Contestants are stripped of their cell phones, cut off from  books and television, and plied with an open bar.   The goal is unfiltered self-centeredness, and the results often feel like an inversion of Terrence Malick movies like “Tree of Life”–an excruciating amount of narrative for little, if any, visual payoff.  The sweeping landscapes, helicopter rides, pool parties and tanned abdomens will compete against each other until they are all worn out and our appetite for visual stimulus is completely sated.  

 

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