The Bachelorette is, at heart, an inadvertently genius piece of television.
Though I have always been perplexed by the magnetic grasp that the show takes over American (female) audiences, I had never seen an episode. Prior to this summer, my limited knowledge of the series came from idly browsing tabloid articles about contestants and conversations with a good friend who could spout out every relevant fact about each of the show’s seasons — as well as seasons of its accompanying brother series, The Bachelor.
To me, The Bachelorette was television made for middle-aged homemakers who spent their Monday evenings swigging grocery store wine and fawning over dudes with little personality but banging bodies. With a closed mind bred by all the critical theory courses I had taken in college, I thought that the show probably catered to the same demographic that enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey, but actively led PTA campaigns against public school sex education.
However, I watched this summer’s season in its entirety, mostly due to a desire to see what exactly it was about the show that appealed to the estrogenic masses (this isn’t to say that males can’t or don’t enjoy the show; however, it is marketed towards female viewers). I found myself becoming more and more invested in the show and its characters (or contestants, if you’d like to believe that the interactions aren’t heavily scripted).
The night of the season finale, I found myself on the edge of my sofa with a group of friends, clutching a Mike’s Hard Lemonade that I would need to calm my nerves and desperately waiting for the first few musical strains of the show’s opening credits. I genuinely cared about what happened to Desiree, this summer’s Bachelorette; when she gets her heart broken earlier in the season, I felt tears well up in my own eyes, as if some boy had just dumped me. I genuinely wanted her to find love, even if it was through candy-coated, Hollywood-produced means.
And I realized, upon finishing the season, why The Bachelorette is so clever. Not only does it appeal to our innate love of love, but it also activates our sense of associative happiness. We are partially jealous of Desiree, the Golden Girl who has 25 dudes — carefully chosen for optimal physical attractiveness, career success, and sensitivity-yet-masculinity. But, we want her to succeed; we want her to live out a modern love story that caters to all of own fantasies. We can’t fly out to Barcelona and Aruba at the drop of a hat, but we can live vicariously through her adventures.
Even the most hardened cynic can’t help but experience mushy-gushy feelings during the sweet romantic moments in the show (and there are a lot of those). Desiree, like all the Bachelorettes before her, is a modern-day Helen of Troy, and her visible emotional fragility as well as her yoga arms make her an easy figure to love — both for the contestants and the audience.
More importantly, The Bachelorette is a show with strong — though perhaps accidental — feminist undercurrents, unexpectedly upturning the male-female power dynamic in relationships that appeals to a traditionally patriarchal dating structure. Under that structure, we praise promiscuity in men — viewing it as a sign of masculine virility — but disparage promiscuity in women — viewing the same trait here as a sign of whoredom and sleaziness. However, The Bachelorette features a woman casually dating not one, not two, not three but 25 different guys at the same time. With the power to send guys home at a whim, she is the dominant partner in all of these relationships, the one with control.
Instead of questioning Desiree’s morals or slut-shaming her, we egg her on, cheering for her in front of our television screens when she goes on fantasy suite dates with three different guys and presumably sleeps with each of them within days of one another. We laud the very same promiscuity in Desiree that we would decry in any other context.
And Desiree, without realizing it, becomes a feminist heroine — a girl who gets to sow her wild oats with as much vigor as she wants until she gets the best possible crop.