Look, I don’t think I’m going to break the Internet by pointing out that on paper, The Bachelor—ABC’s 19-season dystopian reality romance novel of a show—is a feminist nightmare. It’s something Margaret Atwood might have dreamed up if she were a Hollywood sequel writer (Handmaid: The Tale Continues). In the show, 25-30 women—all with perfect bodies, flowing locks, and careers that fall generally along the lines of something a women’s magazine in the 1950s might suggest as a suitable pre-marriage career (Nursing: so many eligible doctors! Personal assistants: so many eligible businessmen! Swimsuit models: so many eligible … anythings!)—vie for the marriage proposal from a man they barely know, and with whom they might actually have nothing substantive in common. This narrative reinforces the point to a new generation of women and girls that their most primal drive in life is to compete for the attention of a desirable male (made all the more desirable, of course, by the competition).
The thing that made it all OK, though, or at least allowed us to rationalize away the internalized sexism/lizard brain that forced so many of us otherwise staunchly feminist women to compulsively watch (and tweet!) about The Bachelor, was the solid, cleansing presence of its sister show, The Bachelorette. The premise of the show is this: When the steam from the hot tub cleared and the mascara-streaked tears dried, one woman (usually the most likable one, jilted by the previous Bachelor for vague and often sexual reasons) would rise from the ashes to choose her prince from a stable of investment bankers, law students, and personal trainers who would, on camera, be reduced to little more than a Hugo Boss-clad amalgamation of resume, chiseled abs, and chemically-whitened teeth. Did it lead to true love? Almost never! But it did more than that. It made things fair.
But not anymore.
The new season of The Bachelorette, which premiered last night, features two of the women ultimately rejected by gentleman farmer Chris Soules (who was such a prize you got to give up everything meaningful in your life and move to live on a remote farm in Arlington, Iowa, like some horribly perverse version of Sarah, Plain and Tall). Bachelorettes Kaitlyn Bristowe and Britt Nilsson must now compete against each other for who will ultimately get to have a bunch of guys fight over her.
Their judges? The men themselves, who, after a single cocktail party, will get to decide which woman is worthy of their attentions. The women themselves have also been completely robbed of their agency: They’ve already been subliminally categorized by the show’s helpful editing as “The Funny One” and “The Pretty One” even though they are both insanely pretty and most importantly, insanely thin, which as we know is the sole factor that qualifies a woman for love. Thus, it’s not a question of whether The Bachelorettes like any of these men; it’s whether enough of these men like them. One lucky girl will get the privilege of being publicly rejected twice on national television.
Is it good television? Maybe. I watched last night’s episode (the results will be revealed tonight) with a mounting wave of nausea. And I couldn’t help but think: We’re being punished for Andi.
Andi Dorfman. The most recent Bachelorette, and the first in the show’s history as Wikipedia bizarrely puts it, to “acknowledge being of Jewish ancestry.” (Translation: She’s Jewish.) Andi Dorfman, who at 27 was already an assistant district attorney; Andi Dorfman, who cheerfully slept with all of her final selections because she’s a grown woman and grown women sometimes like to have sex with men they are dating even if they might not marry them. (And just in case you’re keeping score, there were two 26-year-old virgins in the subsequent season of The Bachelor.) Andi Dorfman, who went and broke up with Chris Soules (the subsequent Bachelor) because, hello, assistant district attorney, and why should she have to move to rural Iowa just to be with him; Andi Dorfman, who ultimately broke up with the season’s winner, Josh Murray, for career reasons, and now may or may not be dating the runner-up Nick Viall or Chris Harrison, the show’s host; Andi Dorfman, who was ballsy, who knew what she wanted, and who went for it.
The trajectory of American feminism has always been one-step-forward, two-steps-back—remember the ERA? This was all supposed to be done with 35 years ago, people!—but it’s especially disheartening to see this in entertainment that is specifically geared toward women. As for Kaitlyn and Britt, I hope they pack up all their fancy dresses and run off with each other. Now, that’d be a twist The Bachelorette would never forget.