Why are the women crying? It’s the 19th season of The Bachelorette, and for the first time ever (italics courtesy of the series’ breathless narration), there are two heroines: Brunette Gabby, an ICU nurse from Colorado; and blond Rachel, a flight instructor from Florida.
They were both hard done by Clayton last season on The Bachelor, and franchise creator Mike Fleiss has paired them – allegedly – so they can support each other through their journey; discuss the 32 guys who’ve come to woo them; and feel more empowered than if either had been solo.
The Bachelorette is not supposed to be weepy – she’s supposed to be the boss, flush with power, serenely evaluating her potential life partners, making her own rules, charting her own path.
Yet from episode one onward (episode five aired Monday night), both Gabby and Rachel’s tears have been so constant and so copious they could fill the Los Angeles reservoir. And the show is revelling in it.
The original Bachelor premiered 20 years and 26 seasons ago. It was an instant smash – sexy-time voyeurism to perk up dull Monday nights – and soon began spawning spinoffs: Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise, Bachelor in Paradise: After Paradise, The Bachelor Winter Games, The Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart and several international editions (including three in Canada).
But watch a few minutes of any prior season of The Bachelorette, and you immediately see it’s the iteration Fleiss is least comfortable with. The Bachelorette is a patriarchy in microcosm: Nine of its 10 directors are male, as are all three of its writers.
Fleiss’s other credits include Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire (so scandal-ridden it prompted People magazine to ask, “Has TV gone too far?”), The Cougar (men in their 20s compete for a 40-year-old divorcee), and five horror films.
He and his staff bros are not only sad when there’s just one hot Bachelorette to wear the teensy bikinis and slinky evening gowns they favour. We also can feel their squeamishness, that there’s something unseemly about so many dudes surrendering control to one woman.
Fleiss tried to rectify this in Season 11: The 25 suitors got to choose their Bachelorette, voting between Kaitlyn and Britt on “who would make the best wife.”
This season found another work around, then dressed it as girl power in such a pseudo fashion the subtitle might as well be Gaslight on the Way to a Catfight. Because in the biggest twist ever, what Fleiss and company quickly realized – or more likely, what they knew all along – is that the minute you introduce a second woman into any patriarchal situation, it becomes a competition between them.
Again and again, the show sets up Gabby and Rachel to be adversaries. “We don’t know how this is going to work out!” host Jesse Palmer repeats throughout the first episode. “Who gets to date who? What if they both fall in love with the same man?” To drive home this point, after both women express a liking for Nate, a sexy electrical engineer, the cameras linger on Rachel watching forlornly as a helicopter flies off carrying Gabby and Nate to a date.
The women say, repeatedly, that they don’t want this to be a competition. They quickly advocate for dividing the men into two teams, so they know which guys are here only for me. In a flash, the show spins that into a different kind of competition – one of humiliation.
In interviews and overheard conversations, the men talk about “choosing a lane” (as opposed to, um, a person). Suitor after suitor tells Gabby they prefer Rachel. The minute Gabby is suitably beaten down by that, we are treated to suggestion after suggestion that Gabby’s men like Gabby more than Rachel’s men like Rachel. Cue the tears for both women.
Even the system the show devised to divide the men into teams is rigged. If Rachel offers a rose (an invitation to stay) to a guy and he says he’d rather be on team Gabby, instead of Rachel getting to pick someone else, Jesse comes and takes away that rose. (Italics mine this time.)
As a result, each woman gets fewer suitors, and both feel rejected rather than chosen. (“There hasn’t been a week I haven’t been rejected,” Rachel says. “I shouldn’t be feeling this sad.”) The men have realized they’re the ones with the power, and they’ve become obnoxiously choosy.
By episode four, contestant Hayden was calling Gabby and Rachel the b-word – not-so-secret code for whenever there is more than one woman at a time in any given place – and the women were a wreck.
You know what the Bachelor never says? “I’m scared.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” “Maybe I’m too broken to love.” But Gabby and Rachel are both saying all of that, as well as, “Now I question why anyone ever accepts my roses.”
You may be thinking that this is a ridiculous television show: That the contestants are being moulded into characters, directed how to act, told what to say, and that none of it means anything. Fair. But I believe that our entertainments represent who we are, especially our staggeringly popular entertainments.
Three million people are watching The Bachelorette every week; the show consistently scores the highest in the key 18-49 demographic. The girl-fight format is clearly a winner, and here’s why that’s concerning.
Around the world, the more patriarchal a society is, the worse women fare: Job inequity, income inequality, maternal mortality (the U.S. rate is shocking), physical and sexual abuse.
The U.S. is not kind to women – now that their Supreme Court struck down the abortion protection of Roe v Wade, it will become even less so – and Canada is far from flawless.
The more we’re titillated by seeing women as objects or prizes or punching bags, the more we can stomach it. A series that pretends to give women a seat at the power table and then yoinks the chair away as they sit reinforces that patriarchal structure, and implants a lasting cultural bruise.
“The men have the control and they know it,” Rachel says after yet another twist.
“This is my nightmare,” Gabby concurs.
In the previews of episode six, they’re still crying. They’re not wrong to.
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