At the start of some season finales, the host Chris Harrison and the bachelor will surprise Bachelor viewing parties. Accompanied by cameras, they knock on the doors of nice little suburban houses and surprise the groups of women who are inside getting ready to watch a new episode. While I sometimes can’t quite believe how excited they are to meet Chris Harrison (I frequently want to wipe that stupid smirk off his face), those fun teaser clips remind me that this show is about women.
The women are what make this show popular. Yeah yeah Ben Higgins is pleasant to look at, but his personality, in the words of one of my Bachelor-loving friends, is milquetoast. The personalities and journeys of the women on the show are the reason that women across America tune in every Monday. Watching the finale last night, we care way more about the feelings and lives of JoJo and Lauren than we do about Ben (especially after he made some seriously stupid decisions).
The classic catchphrase of the woman dubbed the villain of the season is “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to find love.” While this attitude highlights the competitive nature of the show, the odds are clearly stacked the other way. The friendships that are created between the women on the show are boldly displayed across the Internet and last much longer than the engagement that concludes the season. I love seeing these women retweet each other and post pictures on Instagram of when they get to hang out in real life; Carly was even Jade’s bridesmaid. They’re just like the friends I watch the show with. And after all, they just spent up to six weeks locked in a house together; making friends with your roommates in an emotionally tense and vulnerable time seems like a great and not unexpected outcome. Yes, it’s a competition, but the opportunity for female friendship is much greater than the opportunity for the prize of romantic love.
The Internet was thrilled to hear that JoJo would be the next Bachelorette. It’s a chance for redemption after she was so rudely dumped by Ben at the end of this season and besides, we really liked her all season. But The Bachelorette is much less popular as a show and many Bachelor viewers will not stick around for JoJo’s next shot at love. This is partly because it airs in the summer, that time when TV-watching is much lower. And it is partly because the format still feels a little weird, this men competing for women. That weirdness particularly manifests at the end of the season when a proposal is supposed to happen: the final two men usually each bring a ring to the rose ceremony. If she’s not quick and clear enough, a man on one knee will then get rejected. This doesn’t make sense – she’s running the show, she should be the one proposing! This uncomfortable dance highlights how you can’t just flip the genders on the show in the name of equality, sexist norms are still at play.
But I think that a larger reason that The Bachelorette is much less popular is that it’s mostly about men. And the men are very boring. The sisterhood of The Bachelor does not comfortably switch into brotherhood on The Bachelorette. The conversations that the men have in the mansion feel more stilted and less intimate; you find yourself rooting for a guy simply because he seems nice enough and has a mildly pleasant face. (This feeling is probably exacerbated by my being gay – perhaps straight women feel more interested in the male contestants). This is not compelling television – this is why ABC has introduced more gimmicks, especially last season with two Bachelorettes at the start and the return of a villain from a previous season. The female fan-base does want to watch Desiree and Andi and Kaitlyn take charge and be in control of their destiny and send those lousy jerks home as they call all the producer-approved shots. But with just one woman to root for as she’s faced with a sea of beige boring beta men, it’s not any surprise that women in living rooms everywhere tune out.
Women want to see themselves (and root for themselves) on TV.
Yes, this is a horrible premise for a television show. But I don’t think we need more feminist critiques of how sexist it is to make twenty five women compete for the love and attention of one man. Everyone knows that the premise of the show is sexist. I refuse to believe that the average viewer thinks this is real or natural (my friends say I have too much faith in the average viewer). Yes, send me more articles about how The Bachelor interacts with race, and how messed up it was that those two guys on The Bachelorette pretended to fall in love. I want to here about the potential and success of queer Bachelor look-a-likes on other channels and how soon we might see that on ABC. (Also, if you want to watch a more equal but still heteronormative dating competition, Bachelor in Paradise is fantastic).
But this TV show features women more prominently than any other network television show. And groups of female friends across the country will sit in their living rooms and dorm rooms together, see these female friendships and journeys form on TV, and appreciate that while the premise revolves around one dopey guy, this is a show about women.