People watch The Bachelor for all sorts of reasons. Some do it for the fairy tale; some for the dresses; still others for the drama. I personally consider it a two-hour escape from reality, which is ironic given that the show bills itself as reality TV.
But this season feels different, and not because Arie Luyendyk Jr., the show's prince charming du jour, markets himself so. It's different because I am — we all are.
The last few months have seen a major upheaval in Hollywood and the media. Dozens of women have come forward with their stories of harassment and abuse, which in turn has led to powerful men losing their jobs. The #MeToo and Time's Up movements have forced a collective introspection into the power dynamics that govern professional and personal interactions. Sunday's Golden Globes highlighted this heightened awareness, with actresses using their red carpet appearances and acceptance speeches as platforms to get their message of activism and female empowerment across.
In that context, the Bachelor concept of having 29 women fight it out over a man seems tone deaf, almost too reminiscent of the casting couch, which also saw countless women vying for a single part, often putting themselves in compromising positions to please a man with another level of power. (The Bachelorette, which reverses the ratio, might feel a little different.)
Tweets like this one, used to tease audiences leading up to last night's episode, are especially problematic:
Viewing women as an assortment of cardboard cutouts, just waiting to be plucked out by a man, is what got us into this mess in the first place. At the root of The Bachelor is a power imbalance between Luyendyk, an attractive, tall, white man, and the slew of beautiful, ambitious women vying for his attention. And if this attitude was limited to gross dates like Arie and Becca's, which ended up being a way for him to throw his money around in the form of glittery dresses and Louboutins, that would be one thing. But The Bachelor franchise has not been immune to the sweeping wave of sexual harassment incidents. In June, production was halted on season 4 of Bachelor in Paradise due to allegations of misconduct on set. (No evidence of misconduct was found following an investigation.)
The real story remains murky at best, but appears to have involved a drunken hookup between Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, in which consent was questionable. As a prevention method against future incidents, the show instituted a drink limit for contestants, and a rule that they had to provide verbal consent to producers before engaging in sexual activity. This would have been progress, had the show not gone on to shamelessly exploit the incident as a plot line in an effort to garner viewership.
Then, in October, former Bachelor producer Becky Steenhoek filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros., the show's production company, and five producers — including two women — alleging sexual harassment. Steenhoek claimed that over the course of her employment, she had been subjected to “pervasive and persistent sexual inquiries and language," including personal questions like: “Is your vagina shaved?” “Have you ever sat under a shower faucet or touched yourself to masturbate?” “Have you ever fondled [testicles] before?”
As the Bachelor, Luyendyk has the privilege of not really having to pay attention to the dynamics of life in the mansion, which are a main draw for viewers of the show.
Watching Bibiana and Krystal fighting over who gets time with him the day after this year's landmark Golden Globes, I couldn't help but feel a stab of guilt. The Bachelor has always been a guilty pleasure, of course, but this wasn't "I could be doing more productive things with my time" guilt. It was "I am participating in a culture that treats women like disposable sexual objects" guilt.
It's no secret that the relationships we see play out on the show, both between the women in the mansion, and between any single woman and the bachelor in question, are heavily produced. There needs to be a villain to stir up drama for optimal rose ceremony tension. Last night, that was Krystal, a 29-year-old fitness coach from Missoula, MT, whose crime was to seek out not one, but two meetings with Arie after having a one-on-one date and securing a rose. To be fair, in Bachelor land, this constitutes a capital offense, and I don't blame Bibiana for calling her out on it. Both women are there to play a part in the journey that is finding true love in front of an audience of millions. But more than ever before, I was aware that I, too, was being produced. I was sitting on my couch, taking sides in this orchestrated catfight, complicit in a mechanism that has been used as a tool to control women for decades.
MeToo and Time's Up are products of female solidarity. In order to change things, women have to work together, not undermine each other. This is something that men, who were disappointingly silent during the Golden Globes, have yet to fully embrace beyond token gestures. They too have to rise to the occasion and recognize that their position enables them to help others. It's not enough for Arie to sit back and reap the benefits of his status, while ignoring the tensions swirling around him.
And so, I'm conflicted: Do I keep watching a show that provides me with (mostly) pleasurable entertainment? Or do I let my convictions win out? Can one be a feminist and enjoy dating shows? The truth is, I don't have a catch-all answer, although I am certainly a feminist, and would like to think that I can have vapid side interests without sacrificing my values. This is an issue I will continue to grapple with as an entertainment writer, as a woman, and as a human, in the coming weeks and months, as we all navigate a shifting landscape of sexual politics. What I do know, however, is that if The Bachelor franchise wants to survive, it must adapt, and I'm not sure it can.
This particular cultural moment is an opportunity for networks to take stock of changing social realities, and come up with new, more creative concepts — the question now is whether they will take it.