How The Bachelor has made me a better feminist

A year on, my 85-year-old Oma is still reeling from the death of her husband. My mother tells me that she is unbearably lonely living in her large semi-rural house, often going days without speaking to another human being.

I stand in the kitchen listening to my mother worry. My Oma calls her crying from loneliness sometimes. I wonder out loud why Oma doesn’t just enter into a Golden Girls situation with some female roommates who could become friends. My mom tells me Oma doesn’t like to be around other women because they gossip. “Your Oma prefers men,” she says plaintively.

My childhood friend tells me about the epidemic of women ruining men’s lives with accusations of sexual assault. She goes on to tell me about a woman who was caught on camera having a threesome in public with two men. Men are men, she tells me, but “that stupid woman should have known better.”

Meanwhile I watch as this same friend endures a parade of lying, cheating, and drug dealing boyfriends, without understanding that she doesn’t deserve this behaviour from a partner. Her father told her how men are — all of them cheat, that’s just a fact — but this is only because they have to put up with women, who are the worst.

As the years have passed, my awareness of gender disparity has steadily increased, as has my rage at being treated as less than. However, my feminism at times has been a rather selfish and impersonal endeavour: I wanted equality for myself, and I also wanted equality because it makes sense: women are human beings who differ only slightly from men.

But The Bachelor taught me that women should also be treated equally because they’re delightful. I don’t think I ever had a true understanding of the unique qualities that women bring to the table until I became a Bachelor stan: the intensity, the intelligence, and the pure hilarity.

First let me say that I get your Bachelor hatred. There can be no argument that it promotes harmful heteronormative ideas about romance, and it’s a startlingly conservative piece of propaganda that may or may not have caused the US to elect a raging tyrant. And also you think it’s so dumb. Fine. But one thing I know to be true is that The Bachelor has featured some amazing women, and watching them has given me a new appreciation for the human beings who call themselves female.

I’ve been a Bachelor fan for a relative short time in Bachelor Nation years. I started watching during Juan Pablo’s season in January 2014 — and oh what a season it was! — and haven’t stopped ever since. I don’t feel guilty about it and I resent the people who tell me the show is garbage.

The show has some major problems, most egregiously that the producers think they should be congratulated for having the first protagonist of colour after 21 seasons of unrelenting whiteness. (Juan Pablo is Venezuelan, but also light-skinned and just the worst.) But I find the show to be honest in this sense: it’s a reflection on everything that’s wrong with America, and its attempts to remain apolitical are absolutely futile: relationships are one of the deepest forms of political expression.

But for all the sad messages we get about race relations, gender roles, and celebrity culture in America, the women of The Bachelor are a gift that never stops giving. For those uninitiated in the intricacies of reality TV, each character gets an edit. The producers can choose to make a character look like pure evil or the Virgin Mary incarnate based on the clips they choose; this characterization has little to nothing to do with the subject’s real life proclivities, and this is common knowledge among all reality TV consumers.

The girls who have had good girl edits over the years are actually my least favourite: people like Whitney Bischoff (winner of Chris Soules’ season) and Lauren Bushnell (winner of Ben Higgins’ season) were portrayed as sweet, nurturing, and boring as all hell. As a feminist, I will fight for their right to be boring, but I won’t root for them on The Bachelor.

A marginally more interesting edit is afforded to women who tend to be outspoken, dedicated professionals. People like Andi Dorfman and Rachel Lindsay came off as smart, opinionated, and not here for your bullshit. Andi straight up left the show after spending the night with Juan Pablo, which hilariously highlights one of the key problems with the whole set-up: contestants don’t spend more than a few hours with each other at a time, and rarely alone. By the time Andi got a chance to really talk to our boy JP, she realized that he was the actual worst, and she was pissed. This is not the girl who sobs in the back of the limo asking why she is so unlovable. She woke up, said “hey! I’m a fucking attorney — what am I doing here?” dipped, and subsequently got chosen to be the next Bachelorette (because attorneys need love too).

Rachel too had her own moment of wondering wtf she was doing there, and the edit made her come across as delightfully intense and human, rather than employing the easy trope of the hysterical woman. Granted, everyone around her was wasted, so she barely stood out, but I liked that she had her moment of thinking the whole thing was garbage, then calmed down and talked it through with Nick. I spent the whole season in awe of her, as she was always so articulate and composed. I’m incredibly glad she didn’t end up with Nick, because that girl is gold and I cannot wait to watch her as the Bachelorette.

While I admire the women who get the smart, strong woman edit, they are a very small part of why I watch The Bachelor; that dubious honour goes to the women who get a bad girl or the notorious crazy edit. These girls are thought of as the biggest victims of the franchise, but they are my favourite and they have taught me that women don’t have to be likeable or conform to the rigid behavioural norms assigned to women to be absolutely the best—in Bachelor speak, “they aren’t here to make friends,” but these are exactly the kinds of girls I’d be delighted to break bread with.

First I want to acknowledge that the way that “bad” veers into “crazy” becomes “troubled” turns into “mentally ill” is pretty problematic in some of these women. It is The Bachelor and I don’t think there’s any question that people are being exploited to some degree. Of course the women have consented to this, but their consent bears the marks of a society that has taught them to “do whatever it takes” to find Prince Charming, and in some cases, I do think mental illness complicates this.

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But “bad” does often veer into “crazy,” and in the “crazy” is often where women find a twisted version of empowerment. Corinne from the most recent season was first a villain who “wasn’t here to make friends;” then she was the napping, nanny-having spoiled girl; after her persistent sexual advances were repeatedly rebuffed, she veered into the territory of hysterical woman; after being rejected by Nick to come in at fourth place, Corinne’s last statement to us is that she is through trying to please a man. Along the way, she gave us some real gems: “my heart is gold, but my vagine is platinum,” “how do you make a voodoo doll specific to a person?” and, well, here are like a million more. This girl is hilarious and obviously does whatever she wants, which enrages some of the contestants. But why shouldn’t she sleep through a rose ceremony? It kind of seems like a fresh slice of hell.

Ashley I. is another notorious quasi-villain turned favourite, noted for her propensity to laugh-cry on demand and her laser-sharp focus on the woefully unworthy man she is convinced is her One True Love. (I feel like his name is Jared, but it could just as easily be Matt or Braeden. SNORE.) Yeah, Ashley seemed a little desperate, and on Bachelor in Paradise we were all rooting for her to finally ditch that snooze fest of a dude and get it, but I think we’ve all been there: clinging to the hope that a guy you’re desperately in love with could someday love you back. I get it, girl. Through her tears and schemes and acknowledgements that she’s being ridiculous, Ashley I. became all of us. I just hope she’s finally gotten to the point where she realizes that she doesn’t even like the guy that much, and wonders what all the fuss was about.

Either way, she is a delight to watch, and in watching her I have realized that a girl can be demented in her willingness to embrace all things typically thought of / derided as feminine—the overwrought expression of emotion, the head-spinning vanity, the raw need to be loved—and it can be like kind of cool actually. Ashley I. made me realize that it’s ok to be a woman, and if your version womanhood is a little much, that’s not a bad thing: just laugh at yourself through your tears. The tears don’t mean you’re weak.

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There are so many other figures I could discuss (Ashely S. 4 life!!) but I think Clare is an important person to touch upon. Rarely has a woman been so explicitly punished for expressing her sexuality (by noted chauvinist and douchebag Juan Pablo), and rarely has she been so villainized for, well, nothing much as far as I remember. Perhaps everyone in the house hated Clare for a good reason, but it sounded like she kept to herself because she was shy and awkward, and then just happened to be a frontrunner. Whatever.

What I do remember was that she had that night in the ocean with Juan Pablo (ah, who doesn’t remember), was subsequently shamed by Juan Pablo himself (not gonna get a repeat that way, buddy), yet continued to hang on. What woman hasn’t had doubts about a dude but stayed longer than she should have?! Clare had finally had enough during the final rose ceremony, in which Juan Pablo did not ask her to marry him. She told him she “would never want my children having a father like you,” to which Juan Pablo responded with this zinger: “OK.” Goddamn, Clare, we have all been there, but not all of us have shown such strength.

Feminism has been a journey for me, but I’m getting to the point where I don’t only fight because I think it’s right and because I want a better life for myself. I also fight because women like Clare, Ashley I., and Corinne exist: smart, strong, weird women who aren’t trying to be your Gone Girl or, even, awake girl. I really really like women, and The Bachelor has helped me to realize this. We could spend a lot of time enumerating The Bachelor’s flaws, but I am grateful for this fresh perspective of women that it provides me. Now hopefully when I am 85 and alone, Corinne and her nanny will be available to move in.

But here’s one lady with her big words who isn’t invited:

bleh

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