As someone who only watches football once a year, solely for the Super Bowl halftime show, it’s not a huge surprise that I don’t participate in any fantasy leagues. Except for one: The Bachelor Fantasy League.
For anyone alive who still isn’t familiar with “The Bachelor” (is there room for one more under your rock?), the long-running reality TV series follows one man (or woman, on “The Bachelorette”) trying to find love with dozens of members of the opposite sex through wacky dates in exotic locales. In the weekly episodes, the number of contestants are whittled down, each presented with a rose as a symbol of advancing in the competition until only two remain, leaving the bachelor or bachelorette to propose after just six to eight weeks of filming.
In the fantasy league, you earn points for correctly choosing who gets a rose in each episode, who gets sent home or my personal favorite: a true or false question about whether Nick (this season’s leading man) and one of the 30 contestants share time in a hot tub together. (Spoiler: The answer is always true for that question.)
The league makes watching the two- or three-hour episodes more fun and interesting, and my league is made up of family and friends—including a few coworkers. So the morning after the first episode of this new season, those colleagues and I were chatting about the show around the (proverbial) office water cooler. A coworker not in our league, who doesn’t watch the show, shouted, “You can’t be a feminist and watch ‘The Bachelor.’”
That stopped our conversation and we jumped back into more professional tasks. But her comment stuck with me. Does my feminist card get pulled for watching “The Bachelor”?
No, it doesn’t. I don’t think the two things are connected. But it brought up a lot of rich conversations when I asked other women about their thoughts on feminism and “The Bachelor.”
Most women I talked to scoffed at the show and it’s one-dimensional portrayal of women (in this season’s case, the participants are mainly described in the context of their previous romantic relationships or, in one case, one woman’s relationship with her nanny). The show oversimplifies these real, multidimensional women into memorable storylines. There’s Danielle M., whose fiancé died, perhaps destroying her one chance at love. There’s Danielle L., who hasn’t been in a good relationship, ever. And there’s Corinne, the 24-year-old who relishes in having a nanny take care of her.
I also heard about how “The Bachelor” is scripted for our amusement, how we as a community treat women as objects whose primary focus is finding a husband, and how we want to talk about this show to younger female viewers.
But it’s simply television, right?
A friend who joined me at the Women’s March in Augusta in January said, “Watching a show has nothing to do with being a feminist or not. A feminist is someone who wants equality between (or amongst) the sexes and therefore women should have the same freedoms as men.”
With the rotation of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” both men and women get an equal chance to court and be courted in the pursuit of true love. They also have an equal chance to be portrayed unfairly and inauthentically, with producers creating personas for the audience to cheer for or collectively hiss at as the season’s villain.
My friend continued, “Now a different question would be, Is ‘The Bachelor’ a feminist show? You can certainly argue that it continues gender stereotypes, but watching a show doesn’t make you more or less of a feminist.”
While the gender stereotyping doesn’t feel like we are making progress on equality, the show does tap into our individual want for love, whether we describe ourselves as feminists or not.
Emma Gray, the executive women’s editor of the Huffington Post and cohost of The Bachelor/Bachelorette podcast “Here to Make Friends,” was quoted in a Vogue article speaking about why educated women, celebrities and feminists love watching “The Bachelor.”
“It taps into all of these really base and often regressive ideas our society has about how love and sex and courtship should look,” Gray says. “‘The Bachelor’ hits us in that really vulnerable part of ourselves where we all want love and fulfillment.”
Roxane Gay’s piece, “The Marriage Plot,” in The New York Times spoke about her relationship with the show as an educated woman and a feminist.
“I am 39. I am single…Many a news story tells me finding true love is likely a hopeless proposition. Now is the time when I need to believe in fairy tales,” Gay writes. “I know how damaging fairy tales are for women…but still I watch ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette.’ I suspend my disbelief and common sense. I mute my feminism…Maybe true love isn’t out there for me, but I can sublimate my loneliness with the notion that true love is out there for someone.”
A coworker in the league points out that maybe it’s more than just happily-ever-afters that we want to see.
“Maybe we watch ‘The Bachelor’ because, despite how ridiculous the concept is, the majority of these women are incredibly relatable,” she says. “Their stories, their vulnerability, their courage to put themselves out there on national television to find happiness is admirable.”
“We all claim to be independent women, but we all want that connection, either romantically or through female camaraderie,” she adds. “Maybe this is a glimpse of the sisterhood that we crave—despite being forced to compete against one another, these women overcome all obstacles that the producers throw their way and still manage to care about each other.”
One thing is clear: If “The Bachelor” wants to be viable to self-described feminists, it could do without the stereotyping of both genders.
“Just stop encouraging and enforcing the stereotype of women as victims or women tearing each other down to impress a man or for the sake of entertainment,” one coworker says. “The values I want to impart on the future are strength, courage, love and equality.”
It was recently announced that the next Bachelorette will be the first African-American lead in the franchise’s history. It’s progress, but I am not giving ABC a pat on the back for something that was, frankly, long overdue. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
I find hope in a popular reality show making a real attempt to tackle race. Maybe a frank talk about gender and stereotypes will be next?
Oh, never mind, they’re getting in the hot tub!
Katie Bell is a Portland-based freelance writer who has contributed to publications throughout Maine, New England and London.