The Bachelor franchise has outlived many other dating shows by avoiding being easily pegged as a vehicle for cheap objectification. Yes, it’s romance in a highly artificial environment, but romance is all about artificiality—we all engage in it every time we plan a “perfect” date, be it a first date or a 10th date or a “date night” with our spouse. We all sometimes nurture the hope that the magic of love at first sight under ideal circumstances—the alluring eye contact with a “perfect” stranger—can blossom into something real. We all know someone it’s happened to, and we long to see it happen on TV, even though it usually doesn’t (given the dismal record of marriages produced by the show).
But that fantasy is a delicate one. The barest hint of cynicism or sleaze is enough to puncture that bubble. And three episodes into this season of The Bachelorette, I’ve already given up on the show.
Let’s start with the obvious. The gimmick of having this season’s bachelors vote on which one of two bachelorettes from The Bachelor Season 19 sucks. Everyone on the season premiere was aware of how much it sucked and repeatedly talked about how it sucked as much as they could without openly dissing the producers.
As one of the bachelors points out, taking two people who dealt with rejection last season and having them immediately deal with the possibility of rejection again feels a little cruel. Especially when one of the Bachelorettes, Britt Nilsson, is remembered by America for breaking down in tears when she was eliminated on The Bachelor. (One of the bachelors this time chooses to remind her of this by giving her a packet of tissues as his opening gift; Britt letting her demure mask slip to call this out as a “dick move” is a highlight of the premiere.)
But moreover, having a bunch of guys vote on which one of two girls they like better turns The Bachelorette into an inherently uglier—and less compelling—kind of show than it has ever been.
The whole reason The Bachelor has, historically, come off as less gross than storied American traditions in female objectification like, say, the Miss America pageant is that at least the latter pretends not to be about some kind of empirical ranking of men and women as desirable mates. There’s no “voting,” unlike more mean-spirited shows like Survivor or Big Brother; the Bachelorette gets to pick and that’s it. The casting gimmick whereby this year’s Bachelorette is always one of last year’s runners-up on The Bachelor underscores this—last year’s “loser” gets to be this year’s prize, because being rejected by last year’s Bachelor doesn’t mean there aren’t 25 other guys who want you.
In my eyes, that’s a really good selling point for the show, and key to what makes it fun to watch. At least maintaining the fiction that all of this year’s contestants are here because they think this year’s Bachelorette might be “The One” keeps it from feeling like 100 percent meat market, instead of just 85 percent meat market.
But Season 11 has thrown all that straight out the window. In the premiere, Bachelor Bradley cracks a joke when he pulls up to the mansion that “This feels like a seventh-grade dance,” and he’s right. The worst thing about seventh-grade dances is a bunch of guys standing around talking about which one of two girls they would rather bang when those two girls are standing across the room. And this season’s stunt is even lamer because it was so clearly a sham, as Kaitlyn was always going to win.
Just looking at the editing of the first part of the premiere, it was obvious. The producers ham-fistedly finagled the episode to make Kaitlyn look like “the underdog,” showing scene after scene of her looking downcast while watching guys hug Britt, playing quotes from her about how “Britt is a first-impressions kind of gal, and I’m the kind who takes longer” and “I know when people think of the Bachelorette they don’t think of some edgy loud girl from Canada.”
This is all obviously designed to make you feel bad for Kaitlyn and want her to win. More to the point, it’s all BS. Kaitlyn was the fan favorite going in and she did, in fact, advance further before elimination on The Bachelor than Britt did. The spunky “wild” girl who curses out loud and tells dirty jokes but is still really conventionally attractive is exactly what America wants to see—anyone who’s ever watched a movie knows that.
I had Britt pegged as a goner when we were most of the way through the first episode and all we’d really learned about her is that some of the guys thought she was way better-looking than Kaitlyn and that she disapproved of Kaitlyn “not taking the show seriously enough” and “breaking the rules” (by breaking into the guys’ private discussion to say hi). There’s nothing reality show audiences like better than contestants who don’t take the show seriously enough and break the rules. That’s ratings gold.
The elephant in the room: For the guys who are #TeamBritt, including Tony’s weird, over-earnest instant head-over-heels magnetic attraction to the “energy pulsating from Britt’s [ballot] box” in the voting room, what would happen when Kaitlyn won? Isn’t changing your preferences based on who wins the ballot count fundamentally contrary to the spirit of the show, which wants to convince us that love is untransferrable?
This gimmick has made for some strange, unpleasant TV. And it has shed light on exactly what this show should be trying to obscure: that the whole “soulmate” concept of The Bachelorette doesn’t make any sense at all. Kaitlyn gave props to Jared for admitting to her that he voted for Britt but is going to stay on the show to win her heart anyway, for being honest. I’d argue he isn’t being that honest, because the only logical explanation for his actions is that it’s really more about the awesome studio-financed vacation and the chance to be on TV than finding a bride (though based on this coming Monday’s episode, it looks like some of the bachelors may have other motivations)—but he doesn’t admit that. None of #TeamBritt does; now, several episodes past the premiere, they have all happily pivoted to pining for Kaitlyn.
With one exception: Brady, a singer-songwriter, left the show because he claimed to truly believe Britt was his future wife. I do give him props for this, except I kind of don’t, because abandoning a studio-financed vacation in an opulent mansion for a girl he’s known for a matter of hours does not, in fact, make sense. Then, of course, the show breaks its own rules again when Brady ducks out of the spotlight by bringing the spotlight with him, as the camera crew follows him to Britt’s hotel. In recent episodes, The Bachelorette has continued to chart this developing relationship in tiny, boring segments tacked onto the central storyline. The show is so determined to prove that it magically bestows love that it has revealed just how arbitrary (i.e., a guy you never chose to date shows up at your hotel room) falling in love can actually be. At least when there are cameras around.
I know it’s old hat at this point to accuse reality shows of ginning up ratings with increasingly stage-managed “surprises,” but the Bachelor franchise has started doing this in particularly clunky ways. As producers have been forced to deal with contestants who grew up watching The Bachelor and are thus well-versed enough in the show’s rules to game the system, they have concocted more and more elaborate twists in order to mix things up. There was, for instance, the season premiere when they decided to make half the women wait for three hours before carting in the second batch of women so that the first group felt maximally exhausted and insecure.
So the lamest thing about the Kaitlyn-vs.-Britt gimmick isn’t just that it’s mean-spirited. It’s that, in a misguided attempt to generate spectacle, it undermines the very basic—and yes, riveting—premise of the show. No one really thinks that 25 people auditioned for this because they were convinced that this season’s Bachelorette was their soulmate. But at least the show used to give lip service to that crazy conceit. Even House Hunters became impossible to watch once contestants admitted they were going on the show after they’d already bought a house. As skeptical as I am about the prospect of seeking true love through luxurious, exotic dream dates, I’m willing to believe if the producers will pretend to believe in it, too.