'The Bachelorette' finale winner was feminism — but it's a tainted victory

At no point in the history of Bachelor Nation has identifying as both a feminist and an avid viewer been easy.
ABC's "The Bachelorette" - Season 15
Bachelorette Hannah Brown sits down with show host Chris Harrison on July 30, 2019, in Los Angeles.John Fleenor / ABC via Getty Images
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By Margaret H. Willison

The 15th season of “The Bachelorette” concluded Wednesday night on the most feminist note the series, or any of its related properties, has ever struck: Hannah Brown, a former beauty queen from Alabama, declared that she did not need a husband — her happy ending is the strength and self-knowledge she gained through her tumultuous season as the show’s lead. And then, like a cherry on top of the empowerment sundae, she went on to ask Tyler Cameron — an overwhelming fan favorite who had won her family over but whose proposal of marriage she had rejected two months earlier — if he’d like to get a drink and “hang out.”

In the real world, a 24-year-old woman (1) showing ambivalence about marriage and (2) asking a man out instead of waiting to be pursued would not count as revolutionary. But within Bachelor Nation? Hannah might as well have been dumping crates of roses overboard to declare her independence.

It can feel like the degradation of women is baked into these programs so deeply that no one vested in equality among the genders could possibly enjoy them.

As a feminist, I wanted to stand up and cheer. But — also as a feminist — two years ago, I promised myself that I would stop talking about the show on social media. As someone who hosts a weekly television podcast, I could not renounce the franchise altogether — knowing what’s going on in television is part of my job. But I knew that I could no longer present the show as a harmless trifle for feminists to dissect, no matter how much fun I had — or how many followers I gained — while doing so. And as much as I admire Hannah Brown, the franchise still has a long way to go before I will revisit that policy.

At no point in the history of Bachelor Nation has identifying as both a feminist and an avid viewer been … easy. Whether it’s “The Bachelor,” where 20-plus women compete for the attention of a single man in hopes of being the one offered a marriage proposal; “The Bachelorette,” where a woman is notionally given that same power of choice among 20-plus men but forbidden from initiating the expected season-wrapping proposal; or “Bachelor in Paradise,” the franchise’s most sloppy spinoff, where the power of choice swaps between the men and the women in the romantic equivalent of musical chairs, it can feel like the degradation of women is baked into these programs so deeply that no one vested in equality among the genders could possibly enjoy them.

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And yet, for years, I did. In 2011, “The Bachelor” sucked me in by bringing back its No. 1 villain at that time, Brad Womack. He was the Bachelor whose choice to reject both of the final contestants in his first season made him “the Biggest Jerk in America” and the only lead ever required to receive televised sessions with a therapist (to address the “commitment issues” that prevented him from “finding love” on a show where only two final engagements have ever resulted in marriage). Then, in 2017, I quit Bachelor Nation on a high note by watching attorney Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first, long-overdue black lead, get engaged to chiropractor Bryan Abasolo (whom she will finally marry sometime this month). For six years, I was in front of my TV every Monday night, laptop in hand, live-tweeting the show as one member of its audience of millions.

Although there was never a time when I was free from misgivings about any of the programs in “The Bachelor” family, watching along with my smart, feminist friends and excavating real insights about gender performance, toxic masculinity and dating conventions from the show’s syrupy sweet “journeys” to love felt vital and thrilling.

"The value gained from engaging with culture is as much about the quality of attention you bring to the work as it is about the work’s inherent artistic merit."

As a culture critic, I champion two primary axioms. First, when it comes to culture, there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure — anything that gives you joy is, by dint of that joy alone, worthy of your attention and nothing that should cause shame. Second, I believe that the value gained from engaging with culture is as much about the quality of attention you bring to the work as it is about the work’s inherent artistic merit. So while I would never argue that “The Bachelor” franchise is a great work of art, I think insights derived from analyzing the show can be incredibly valuable, and that arguing for the validity of the joy its audience experiences is important work.

And that was my position on the issue up until production on the fourth season of “Bachelor in Paradise” was shut down over allegations that a contestant had been sexually assaulted while a camera crew filmed it. Allegations that I greeted not with shock that such a terrible thing could have occured, but with surprise that it had taken this long for such allegations to surface when the environment seemed so primed for them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the studio’s internal investigation ultimately cleared all parties involved of any wrongdoing and production resumed, complete with an explanatory sit-down about the nature of consent.

If only Warner Brothers could have so easily dismissed my new awareness of the franchise’s seedy production reality. But it turns out, real people being badly damaged by a creative team’s choices is my line when it comes to whether cultural pleasure should generate guilt.

You’ll never make me feel ashamed about my love for Carly Rae Jepsen’s sugary pop music or romance novels. But the allegations about “Bachelor in Paradise” forced me to confront a dark pattern in the show’s choices, a pattern that continues to this day: Their producers value generating “drama” more than creating a safe environment for the people on their shows. When you take a contestant dismissed in his season for making violent threats against others and bring him back to your alcohol-fueled summer camp, when you seed the first black Bachelorette’s contestant pool with an alleged racist, when you cast men who are the subjects of open sexual assault charges, then, as a viewer, I can no longer avoid feeling implicated in the suffering those decisions create.

Once I acknowledged this pattern, I decided that the harm I did by promoting these shows as a fun subject for feminist analysis outweighed the value of any insight that analysis might produce. I could not quit caring about the show entirely, but I tried to consume it only second-hand (through my favorite recap podcast), and I stopped talking about it on social media.

Aspects of this season were so inspiring that I was almost tempted to abandon this rule. From the show’s first teaser trailer, wherein Hannah discarded her beauty queen sash and traded a fluffy ball gown for a sleek jumpsuit while Leslie Gore’s classic “You Don’t Own Me” played in the background, the season was sold as being as much about Hannah’s newfound empowerment as it was her “journey to love.”

And this was not an empty promise on ABC’s part. The late-season argument between Hannah and her suitor Luke Parker, both devout Christians, about what role premarital sex could have in the life of a godly woman was sincerely thrilling feminist television, with Hannah giving voice to a complicated, Biblically-grounded argument that Jesus loved her regardless of her sex life. Then, thanks to extreme malfeasance on the part of Hannah’s chosen fiance, ABC ended up with even more independence than it bargained for: They got the studio audience cheering itself hoarse as their Bachelorette broke off her engagement and embraced the single life.

It is an inspiring sign that, even for a franchise as steeped in old-fashioned misogyny as “The Bachelor,” feminism can still be great business. But particularly while domestic abuse allegations are playing a major role in creator and executive producer Mike Fleiss’ divorce, I think it’s worth pondering if watching “The Bachelor” and its partner programs is good business for a feminist.