Will You Accept This Feminist Critique of ‘The Bachelorette”?

I second that performative feminine emotion

I have watched a lot of reality TV, and what happened during the current season of The Bachelorette is uniquely weird. Setting all the artifice of shooting a reality show during COVID-19 aside (“I quarantined for two weeks to be here, and she doesn’t even feel a spark!”), the show sidelined its central character, the titular Bachelorette, four episodes into her season amid rumors that she, you know, fell in love with one of the contestants. Last month, Clare made a tearful exit as her replacement Tayshia, Bachelorette 2.0, stepped out of a pool, soaking wet in the sunshine, in an ABC promo reminiscent of  Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And with nothing else on TV to really distract me right now, I got to thinking: what exactly does ABC think they’re doing here?

The answer, I think, has to do with, well, capitalism…but also a skill that Tayshia has weaponized and Clare, despite her best attempts, hasn’t: palatable displays of feminine emotion.

Too obsessed, too selfish, too intense

At age 39, Clare was the oldest Bachelorette. She originally joined the franchise to get away from her abusive ex-boyfriend, and after Juan Pablo Galavis stood her up at the altar in 2014, she earned a badass reputation after delivering a triumphant speech, saying in part, “What you just made me go through? I would never want my children having a father like you.” This season marks her fifth appearance in a Bachelor-related television show.

For those reasons, the prospect of Clare’s season excited me. Here’s an example of an older woman who’s hot and desirable, and taking what’s hers. In her first date, rather than setting up a corny dodgeball-themed event with a celebrity guest—that was the second date—she literally just asked her suitors to affirm her. Clare is incredible.

“Fuck. This bitch is a genius!” writes Ali Barthwell, who recaps The Bachelorette for Vulture. “We’ve done variations of this kind of group date before, but let’s cut out all the poems and raps and talent show demonstrations. Just stand a safe distance away from me and tell me I’m beautiful in front of everyone else.”

From the jump, though, Clare has gotten an extremely frantic and needy edit. She latched onto contestant and former Spirit of Halloween model Dale from the moment he stepped foot out of the limo, saying to the camera, “I think I just met my husband.” And since, he is her only focus; Production has even floated rumors that they were talking online before filming started, a big no-no.

Let’s take a step back here. Clare has done what she set out to do: wore lavish gowns, macked on a bunch of finance bros and somehow snagged one that’s willing to walk her down the aisle. But while she might have gotten engaged for real, she failed to keep up the artifice of the show long enough to keep the rest of the guys, and the viewers, engaged.

A few seasons back, Bachelor Colton Underwood did this when he zeroed in on Cassie Randolph, a woman who now has a restraining order against him. Cassie showed the minimum amount of interest possible throughout his season, and quickly earned the label of “there for the wrong reasons” (i.e., Instagram followers, not love). Colton at least made it to the final three, where Cassie ended things because she was not prepared to get engaged in a week. Instead of continuing with the program, Colton literally ran after her back to California, leaving his two other girlfriends, Tayshia included, back in Portugal.  Colton’s obsession and intensity was definitely lucrative for ABC, which portrayed him as heroic. He’s fighting for love!

Very quickly, Clare lost control of her own story, and her natural intensity and apparent obsession with Dale slipped from exploitable to problematic. The villain of her own season, Clare had to go.

“Clare is someone who believes or was made to believe that her feelings are too big. That the way she feels things and experiences them makes her difficult to love, to be around, to find love. That she’s Too Much,” writes Barthwell. “When you’re a Too Much Woman, the idea that someone exists who can see the largeness of your feelings is incomprehensible.”

The Bachelorette is a modern marriage plot
Dale and Clare, true love forever on ‘The Bachelorette’.

Earlier this year, I read Rachel Vorona Cote’s book about feminine expression in the Victorian era, Too Much, and as I watched Clare’s unstifled, ugly sobs as Chris Harrison hides a semi and  tells her, “You’ve just blown up The Bachelorette,” it reminded me of her words:

“A weeping woman is a monster. So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter. Women who are one or more of these things have heard, or perhaps simply intuited, that we are repugnantly excessive, that we have taken illicit liberties to feel or fuck or eat with abandon,” she writes. “On rare occasions, we might revel in our excess—belting out anthems with our friends over karaoke, perhaps—but in the company of less sympathetic souls, our uncertainty always returns. A woman who meets the world with intensity is a woman who endures lashes of shame and disapproval, from within as well as without.”

Nothing modernizes the marriage plots of old like The Bachelor, and its gender-bent spin-off The Bachelorette, where young people must accept someone’s proposal before actually knowing them in order to win the hearts and minds of the American public, along with numerous Instagram advertising deals. And so, it makes sense that the show would display outdated social norms . The rules of the game—for it’s definitely a game show—are pretty finite: Be young, amiable, positive, very Christian, open up about your feelings early, but don’t share anything too dark or intense, tell The Bachelor you’re falling for him quickly and offer him emotional validation, and above all, stay out of the drama.

Folks who cry, pick fights and seek out their shared boyfriend for emotional consolation, generally speaking, go home. And, as a viewer, there is something so wild about watching grown-up, real life, professional women scream at each other over a bottle of champagne. There’s a part of me that knows she’s breaking the rules; but equally, I feel delighted in such an unbridled emotional display. It’s like a peak into something private, dirty or secret.

Unlike contemporary real world spaces that still stifle, scoff at or outright reject open displays of feminine emotions like in the Victorian era, producers have built reality TV on that foundation. It’s one of the few places where more tears equals more money. And thus, female emotions are only useful if they’re profitable. In other words, The Bachelor and Bachelorette are tiny microcosms of the worst conservative aspects of anti-feminism, and teach us a lot about the restrictions we place on feminine expression in the real world: it’s acceptable on screen so long as you can exploit it.

Tayshia wins the battle, Clare wins the war, we are all losers
The Bachelorette
Tayshia and Zac: headed for the performative altar on The Bachelorette.

Reality Steve has already spoiled Tayshia’s storyline. But even without that magical foreknowledge, you can guess that the show will certainly paint her in a flattering light as the heroine who conformed to the antiquated rules of this dystopian reality show and weaponized her feelings to earn ABC a lot of views and dollars. I know, because it’s the edit she got as a contestant during Colton’s aforementioned fence-jumping season. He left behind her beautiful face at a coastal resort in Portugal to follow his lost love back to the U.S., an event she took in graceful stride, a tasteful single tear rolling down her cheek.

Tayshia’s tragic backstory of young love and young divorce, while a little bit neater than Clare’s, is still useful, exploitable and controllable for production, and thus, is the story they give us instead. She is young and poised and way less messy. Barthwell calls her The Bachelorette’s “platonic ideal.”

Citing female pop culture figures like musician Lana Del Rey, Vorona Cote writes of “our cultural fetishization of feminine sorrow,” like in The Bachelorette. “[H]er hyperperformative ennui is sly—[she] is never fully self-effacing, and her investment in the fantasy implies that it could be just that, a tongue-in-cheek presentation of eroticized sadness that has endured since Ophelia,” she writes. “[T]he image sticks to Del Rey all the same, rendering her desirable through her specific hyper-feminine emotional fragility: a woman who, by her own account, is both fucked up and down to fuck; sad, but never too far gone to paint her pout into a deep crimson.”

That fetishization is the sweet spot The Bachelorette and most reality TV tries to occupy, churning out characters who can perform the artifice of baggage without any actual emotional consequences for that baggage. Contestants must perform the ritual of opening up about their seedy pasts as a gesture of vulnerability and investment, but not actually demonstrate any unsavory behaviors as a result of those experiences. And Clare’s rabid pursuit of Dale did not make the cut; too weird, too intense, it’s gotta go.

In the end, this is a marriage plot, and The Bachelorette has already delivered: Clare and Dale are now engaged! After only days of dating! It is truly unbelievable, but Clare is firm that this is the man of her dreams.

“[W]hen you got here, it was like electricity for me, because I knew that I had just met my husband,” Clare told Dale as they got engaged. “You embody everything that I want in a man, everything just like my dad had. You’re kind, you’re strong, you’re compassionate, and I just am so in love with the man that you are. You made me feel like everything that I’ve ever been through, it was all worth it because I’ve got you right now. And most importantly, you’ve shown me that you’d never run away and never leave me. And I’ve never, ever had a man that would stay. And you continue to show up for me. And I promise you, I want to show up for you each and every single day. You make me so happy.”

Yet, Clare’s edit as the loser, the monster, the girl who blew up the Bachelorette persists. Which I have a hard time understanding, because the show can’t have it both ways. You can’t design a world for a real human being with a life and feelings to fall in love forever in two months, and then balk when someone does it in two weeks. Your Bachelorette met someone, clearly expressed her feelings for him, had them reciprocated, and now they’re going to marry. She did the thing!

And as many a Jane Austen novel has before me, I’m inclined to close the book, end the story, and stop learning anything more about our love birds here. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t end as Lizzy and Mr. Darcy fight over window dressings; it ends, perfectly, magically, as they say, “I do,” and spend the rest of their lives together ridiculously happy. And the Bachelor universe requires the same kind of blind trust in happily ever after from its fans, in order to have literally any return on our investment of time. So, I will block them on social media and choose to just really hope that Clare got her man.

But I cannot stop thinking about Tayshia, who now needs to keep this rocky season afloat on a river of her tears. Tayshia, like Clare, is useful as long as the franchise can exploit her. She inherited a group of 16 guys, including two former professional athletes, three fitness coaches, and a Harvard grad. Let’s hope one of them is, somehow, the man of her dreams, and either way, that she has a savings plan in place for when ABC puts her out on the curb.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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