With more than a decade on the air, ABC’s combined Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise is a massive moneymaker for the network. In the prime-time, “family” slot, both shows have always taken a giggling seventh-grader kind of approach to sex. And rather than being centered on healthy discussions of sex and relationships, these “tales of love” are more tales of women carrying the burdens of men while American viewers watch and judge. These romances, cast as the quintessential American love story, reflect a culture in which women are objects to be silenced, traded, used, and vilified when they don’t cooperate with what men want of them.
This season of The Bachelorette has one of our most brazen bachelorettes in the show’s history. Kaitlyn, who was on a previous season of the Bachelor, introduced herself to America by telling the bachelor in question that he was “welcome to plow [her] field any time.” And she’s not wasted any time in getting to know the male contestants on her show, telling guest star Amy Schumer in episode two that she’d already kissed every man.
Kaitlyn’s more relaxed attitude toward intimacy stands in stark contrast to the show’s overarching sexual politics. For the most part, the franchise will not talk about sexuality except in euphemisms and sly winks. The penultimate episodes of every season contain a more overt nod to sex, with the contestants and their prize getting an overnight stay in the “fantasy suite,” off camera, presumably to have sex. Any kind of mention or participation in sexual activity prior to the fantasy suite episode—aside from making out romantically on the streets of some foreign country—is edited to invite scorn and derision from the viewers via their participation in the hashtag and the eventual live “After the Final Rose” special.
It is vital to remember that so-called reality shows are structured and designed around a story that an editor—or group of editors—decides to tell. Producers then prod these storylines along in interviews, bringing up hot topics and leading questions to influence contestants’ attitudes in ways that suit the narrative. So the shamefulness and provincial attitudes surrounding sex on the show is not accidental; it is purposefully written into the structure of the show.
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Even when it comes to basic anatomy, the show dodges being frank with contestants or viewers. In a recent episode, Kaitlyn “pranked” the contestants by having them teach a sexual education course to fifth graders, a sequence in which the words “penis,” “sperm,” and “clitoris” were inexplicably censored while “vagina” and “egg” were left alone. Again, when it comes to sexuality, everything is euphemism; nothing is fact. Kaitlyn herself prefers referring to her own sexual experiences vaguely, as “intimacy”—creating a world in which men and women are unable to confront the fact of what actually happens in those “intimate” moments.
In week six, with the group dwindling and a new contestant persuading his way onto the show to amp up the drama, the show traveled to Ireland. This new contestant, Nick, and the bachelorette, Kaitlyn, had a one-on-one date that ended as good dates often do—with them engaging in private, intimate moments back in her hotel room. And now, instead of discussing the inability of men to handle a woman who is actively and openly sexual, Kaitlyn’s show is now all about the pain of keeping her sexual life a secret, pretending that she exists just for each man as they court her.
In the same week where Kaitlyn chose to engage in a romp with Nick, another contestant, the Ryan Gosling lookalike Shawn, is brought to tears by the mere thought of her having sex with another man. And in the following week, he comes to her privately, again and again, to force her to do the emotional heavy lifting he is unwilling to do himself. He consistently seeks reassurance, asserting his dominance over her as he makes her deal with his emotional breakdown over the thought of her sexuality being not entirely his to own. He behaves more like an emotionally stunted manchild than an actual adult, forcing her to mother him in a way that is almost Oedipal, even for this weird show. The show encourages and thrives on this drama, advertising with each new episode the “dramatic new developments” and “our most dramatic rose ceremony yet!”
But Shawn is not an exception to the male psyche represented by the show— indeed, he is the norm. The show, in reflecting and shaping popular culture, places women’s choices in the public sphere to constantly be vetted and understood by other men. Despite Kaitlyn’s protestations throughout the show that she emphatically does not feel guilty about having sex with one of the contestants prior to the fantasy suite, the show’s producers and writers clearly are developing that guilt into something to debate. Kaitlyn’s protests are immediately undercut by scenes of her worrying and crying and attempting to deal with the emotional weight of carrying the needs of nine men alongside her own.
What The Bachelorette refuses to acknowledge is that it actually is built upon a fairly open, progressive conception of relationships, while simultaneously undercutting those relationships through antiquated gender roles and dishonest sexual politics. The very function of the show is that a woman or a man exists in an open relationship with multiple people at once, and chooses—very formally and ceremoniously—the ones with whom she wants to continue a dating relationship. Dating multiple people at a time is a fairly normal practice. For many people, this kind of open relationship practice is their romantic orientation. However, the people on the show are seeking monogamy but must follow a relationship model, at least for the period of a few months, that does not itself reflect monogamy. A person who functions comfortably within the artificiality of The Bachelorette will need to be able to acknowledge the structure of the open relationship setup from the outset—something the show, in the tradition of its silencing of any frank discussion of sexual relationships, actively discourages.
Instead, the show provokes jealousy, ownership, and fighting. It is not a healthy setup by any means, but it is especially unhealthy for women who own themselves as sexual human beings and are unapologetic about that. In a normal, healthy open relationship, Kaitlyn would able and allowed to experience different levels of intimacy with many people. It would not be a source of consternation or drama. But because the men are encouraged to lay claim to Kaitlyn early on, and to do their best to ignore the fact that numerous other men are dating her at the same time, her own decisions about her body play a very small role in the actuality of her relationships. She is in charge—but only insofar as she can tell the men to leave. Aside from that, the men are free to fight, to be jealous, to cry and whine and lament her every decision, constantly analyzing each choice she makes for how it impacts them, as opposed to how it might be a good choice for her.
The show’s sexual politics reflect America’s complicated relationship with sexuality in general: that our society often requires women be pure, faultless, and willing to carry the burdens of everyone else in addition to our own. Our purity is necessary to our relationships, to the point where we are shunned and punished if we step out of line. We must have it all, carry it all, and be it all for the men in our lives. Likewise, we must speak carefully about our sexual lives, talking with euphemisms and winks and never being open and frank about what we want or desire. The acknowledgement of sex as something women do conflicts directly with the purity we are supposed to have. We should not and cannot know about sex—that is for men to teach us.
That this is sold to us as romance, as a happily-ever-after, is a farce. And the show does nothing to challenge or disabuse us, its audience, of this uncritical, unfeminist outlook on romance and sex. Indeed, the show encourages it, despite repeated assertions that the bachelorette is “in charge” of what happens to her. By opening up a woman’s choices and a woman’s sexual behavior for debate and discussion and “drama,” the show plays right into the idea that women exist for one purpose only—to please men.