Juan Pablo, the most hated “prize” in the reality show’s 14-year history, may have unwittingly sparked a movement among the bachelorettes.
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Exhibit A: One of this Bachelor season’s two blond finalists, Clare, snuck out of the suite she shared with other “contestants” late one night to frolic—and whatever else—with the “prize” guy, Juan Pablo. In past seasons, this woman would have become the de facto “villain.” Instead, Juan Pablo made her cry the next day by suggesting the protocol break was her fault (“slut-shaming,” the Internet correctly charged); and her fellow contestants improbably jumped to her defense during the show’s Women Tell All special last week. “Clare went out on a limb,” one of her fellow competitors said. “He willingly participated.”
Exhibit B: Opera singer Sharleen, who had been presented from the start as a career woman who wasn’t sure she wanted children (!), left the show of her own accord about halfway through the season, citing a lack of “a cerebral connection that I so need.” Because she obviously had killer chemistry with Juan Pablo, she added, “I wish I was a little dumber.”
Exhibit C: During the “fantasy suite” round of dates a few weeks ago, assistant district attorney Andi became the second to break up with Juan Pablo without waiting for a rose ceremony. In fact, she eviscerated him, citing his lack of interest in talking about anything except himself, his mention of his overnight with Clare, and his reference to Andi being there, as she told it, “by default.”
Exhibit D: Also during the Women Tell All, several of the women raked Juan Pablo over the coals for saying in an interview that he didn’t care for the idea of a gay Bachelor because it wouldn’t set “a good example for kids.”
The Bachelor still isn’t quite ready for its NOW card, but it’s fair to say this has been—cue host Chris Harrison’s extra-dramatic voice—the Most … Feminist … Bachelor … EVER.
Yeah, yeah, I know: That’s like naming someone the smartest Real Housewife—hardly high praise. But these little breakthroughs, after 18 seasons, means something: 1. That the people who go on these shows are not the most progressive bunch overall; and 2. That rules stated with authority, even with no real consequences for breaking them, is a force that can create serious oppression.
When The Bachelor started in 2002, the mere concept seemed unthinkable: Women competing for a man like a prize on a game show? one man would date dozens of women on television? This from a medium that once demanded married couples sleep in separate beds on sitcoms? But soon, it felt normal, even quaint, thanks to to all of those purposely execrable VH1 dating shows (e.g., A Shot at Love, Rock of Love).
What The Bachelor turned into was a mini-society even more determined than our own to elevate heterosexual marriage, strict beauty norms, and princess fantasies to a freakish degree. Quickly, the participants fell in line, punishing anyone in their weird little subculture for the tiniest rule infractions: for seeing the Bachelor outside prescribed dates, for expressing reservations about the “process” set out by the show, and most extraordinarily of all, for questioning the wisdom of sharing a man with several other women. The contestants even start to look (more) alike because they end up doing each other’s hair and makeup in their down time, as Jennifer Weiner explained in a fascinating breakdown of the show’s insanely restrictive beauty norms in the February issue of Allure.
Even more remarkable, the show’s once-a-year switched script, The Bachelorette, didn’t eliminate the ways these rules play against women. It definitely felt a little better to watch: Seeing the typically oppressed group in power is fun, and the Bachelorettes chosen tend to be more well-rounded, likeable people to appeal to the show’s predominantly female audience. But The Bachelorette still fetishizes fairy-tale weddings to Ken dolls as the ultimate goal in a woman’s life. (For brilliant, in-depth analysis of all The Bachelor/Bachelorette’s evils, check out Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back.)
Alas, I’m not convinced that this season of The Bachelor heralds a major change in attitudes: I think it might just signify the particular grossness of this season’s “prize.” In looking for its standard villain character, the show found only its Bachelor. (The death knell of the anti-hero trend?) If The Bachelor is brilliant at anything besides enforcing crazy rules, it’s having its cake and eating it too, throwing any given member of the cast under the bus whenever it suits the show.
It makes me wonder, however, if the set-up of The Bachelor, or any reality dating show, could ever be “feminist”—or even less anti-feminist. It could relax its strange, no-sex-unless-we-say-so rules, or provide several men and women with no single “prize” individual; but that would just turn into a televised bacchanal like The Real World, Big Brother, or Paradise Hotel. (Remember that gem? No? Just me?) Surely the casting could get far more diverse, not just in racial and body-type makeup, but also in lifestyle choice: For starters, a real career woman looking for her equal could be The Bachelorette. (We could move a step closer to this next Bachelorette season, which must be Andi’s for the taking if she wants it—the show always casts the most-talked-about, most-liked Bachelor contestant in its next iteration, making the show a never-ending soap opera.) We could get a gay Bachelor or Bachelorette presented with more taste than previous cut-rate attempts like Boy Meets Boy.
But in the end, reality shows require artificial rules and stakes, not to mention certain physical types, to make them into what networks see as entertaining TV. And the only way that can truly be feminist is for the women subjected to these enforced norms to rise up against them far more than they’ve done on this season of The Bachelor. That would be even more mind-blowing than a Bachelor couple actually staying together.
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