‘The Bachelorette’ Is Trying to Sell Us Feminism

Can a reality dating show ever really be feminist, even with two women leads? Do we need it to be?

‘The Bachelorette’ Is Trying to Sell Us Feminism
Photo:Craig Sjodin (Getty Images)

Ahead of the premiere of The Bachelorette in May 2015, my colleague and I asked then-host Chris Harrison how the show would address concerns that in casting two leads at once, Kaitlyn Bristowe and Britt Nilsson, it planned to pit the two women against each other.

His response was… well, just read it: “I love that…some people are upset about it, ‘cause obviously we’ve hit a chord, and we’ve hit something personal in the people that are upset,” Harrison told us. “It’s probably an issue that you have with yourself or that you have with women. I think you’ll be very proud of how the women act tonight. So if you have an issue with it, that’s probably within you!”

As Harrison’s attitude pretty much predicted, Bachelorette fans proceeded to watch in horror as Bristowe and Nilsson were quite literally pitted against each other, forced to compete for the votes of 25 meathead suitors in order to advance another week and win the chance to date said meatheads on their own. “It was definitely unexpected, and I was shocked,” Bristowe, who ultimately prevailed and went on to be the lead of season 11, said of the experience at the time. “I wasn’t excited about it.”

Seven years later, the two-Bachelorette concept is getting a second life, as Rachel Recchia and Gabby Windey rise from the ashes of Clayton Echard’s absolute trainwreck of a season of The Bachelor. And franchise creator Mike Fleiss has assured skeptical fans that this time things will be different!

“See, no drama!” he tweeted on April 6, alongside a smiling photo of Recchia and Windey. “Just two friends helping each other find true love!”

Fleiss’ underlying promise, here, seems to be that the Bachelorette is taking a stab at ~feminism~. But can a reality dating competition ever really be feminist? And perhaps the better question: Do we need it to be?

The Bachelor franchise, like any for-profit entertainment venture, is first and foremost a cynical project. There is a fundamental conservatism baked into the very premise of the show–it is, after all, just an old-school marriage market, gamified for TV. The social politics of the show do shift, but only when forced, and only ever-so-slightly. (It took years, including a class-action lawsuit, massive fan campaigns, and very public criticism from the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, for the franchise even to meaningfully consider racial diversity.)

The tidbits that have begun leaking out about the new dual-Bachelorette season’s format do not suggest the kind of women’s empowerment it seems to be going for. Recchia and Windey will reportedly be dating from the same pool of men, and one can imagine the many ways this dynamic could be milked for maximum drama: They’ll be into the same guy! The men will compare the two women in misogynistic ways during their in-the-moment interviews!

On the other hand, having two Bachelorettes means giving each woman an ally who is not a producer–a source of emotional support who is not fundamentally incentivized to exploit them. And that gives me, a professional consumer of reality dating shows, some glimmer of hope, I guess.

Friendship has always been the best thing to watch unfold on this franchise, between The Bachelor, The Bachelorette and Bachelor In Paradise. Even as the show leaned hard into tropes about catfights, claws coming out, and the oft-repeated mantra, “I’m not here to make friends,” the same-gender friendships are always a happy byproduct of a show centered on the search for a spouse. And it’s Recchia and Windey’s overt show of solidarity in the face of emotional trauma – their Bachelor, Clayton Echard, professed his love for three women, and eventually broke up with Recchia and Windey in tandem–that secured them the dual Bachelorette slot.

“Watching you both support each other in Iceland, and also how you have tonight, that was really the big reason why we decided to give you both a shot,” host Jesse Palmer said during the March 15 live Bachelor finale as the two women screamed and embraced in delight. A calculation was made: If conflict between women can drum up ratings, perhaps the sweeping melodrama of friendship can too.

The Bachelor franchise is as popular and ingrained in the culture as it is, precisely because of its simplicity. The lead (usually white, always cis and straight) systematically whittles down a pool of singles until there is one woman or man left standing. The final couple gets engaged, one of the heartbroken gets elevated into the lead role, and ta da! The cycle continues.

It’s this consistency of form that makes even the slightest deviations from the familiar a powerful tool for creating drama and anticipation. Colton Underwood jumped a fence. Echard told three women he was in love with them. Nilsson and Bristowe competed for male approval. Perhaps Recchia and Windey will be there to make friends.

The calculus is still a cynical one, but Fleiss and his fellow executives understand that casting Recchia and Windey as competitors rather than allies will, in 2022, come with a cost. Either way, The Bachelorette won’t be some bastion of feminism. And the thing is, we really don’t need it to be. At its core, it’s a reality show that offers us an escape, ironically, from reality. Feminism demands far more from society than a few throwaway images of feel-good, girl power-ism. And luckily for womankind, the fate of a political movement does not rest in the hands of Mike Fleiss.

Reality television is at its most dynamic and useful when we can consume it skeptically and recognize it for what it is: a funhouse reflection of dating culture. It’s certainly no feminist achievement if The Bachelorette trades its catfight metaphors for friendship bracelets, but at least it’ll maybe be less of a total fucking bummer.

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