Last night, like more than 9 million other humans, I tuned in to the season finale of The Bachelor. The difference between me and my fellow rapt viewers, though, was that I hadn't watched a single episode of this entire season. I didn't know about Ben, his self-perceived unlovability, his staggering genericness, and his valiant mission to turn "respect" into a buzzword. I couldn't have predicted that JoJo's daring "I'll-wear-a-romper-to-meet-your-parents" stunt would pay off. In truth, until last night, I hadn't watched an episode of The Bachelor in years.
I turned off the show for good after the second go-around for Brad Womack, whom I found uncomfortably tanned and suspected was some kind of low-key serial killer, the kind who doesn't get caught until decades after his death, when a burbling toddler pulls up an errant floorboard and discovers thousands of well-preserved skulls. I turned off The Bachelor (and its equally addictive but slightly less pernicious sibling, The Bachelorette) because I started getting this uneasy feeling in my stomach every time I watched it "ironically," like I had just swallowed a little bleach, but, like, I'd done it ironically, so why was I still vomiting up blood? To completely defang a Yakov Smirnoff joke: I started to feel like I wasn't watching The Bachelor anymore, but instead it was watching me. And what it was seeing were the shittiest parts of me: my tendency to get really judgmental, the streak of socialized competitiveness and misogynistic criticism that feminism hadn't completely stamped out of me, my deepest fears about my real worth as a woman, my refusal to share my box of Kraft macaroni and cheese with my loved ones.
I tuned back in last night at the behest of my editors as well as for myself, because I wanted to know: Was I right all those years ago to recuse myself, or was I just one of those feminist killjoys they like to talk about on Reddit? Was I being The Actual Worst? Or was The Bachelor truly as toxic as I remembered?
Having spent three hours staring deep into the dark heart of American pop culture, I can tell you that the answer is complicated. Yes, I'm absolutely the actual worst; this show is incredibly entertaining and fun as hell. It is perfect television. It's the kind of so-bad-it's-good-but-also-it's-actually-just-good television that brings people together by encouraging them to say hilariously bitchy things out loud and feel smart and morally superior and perhaps also empathetic and shyly (but proudly) romantic for caring so much about the love lives of total strangers. I was drunk and naked in the communal hot tub of American Bachelor viewers within five minutes. At the first commercial break, I was already texting my friend Hallie — a lifelong member of Bachelor Nation, who explains that she is "here for the Right Reasons" as a viewer — questions and insights about the now-obviously vital portions of this season that I'd been missing: "Why is Ben a human gym bag?" (This went unanswered.) "Ben is like if Ben Affleck was melting and somebody saved him right before he became a puddle." (This, too, garnered no response.) "Why aren't they doing the fantasy suite?" ("The fantasy suite was three episodes ago, girl.") "What. Did he fuck them both?" ("Three of them. Are you sucked in yet?") Reader, I was sucked in. The Bachelor was just like I remembered it: delicious, shiny, and chrome. I had been awaited in Valhalla. I was welcomed back with open arms.
And yet. Everything that I'd disliked about The Bachelor — which is to say, everything I dislike about myself, and about our patriarchal culture — was still there, too, standing at the gates, grinning madly, beckoning me into its cold and unyielding embrace. There were the women, reduced to their job descriptions, the color of their hair, their ability to emote and fuck at the right times and with the right amount of restraint lest they risk being "too much" or "an actual slut." There were the discussions about "pure" intentions, the constant allusions to God being invested in how this season might turn out, the women teetering and weeping and puncturing the grass in the heels they emptied their 401(k)s to buy while the dude stands in one spot and phones their fathers for "permission" to take on responsibility for their twentysomething daughters. There were Chris Harrison and his once-a-season side piece Neil Lane, the show's only trusted advisers, both of whom happen to be white men and both of whom, incidentally, have rocket fuel coursing through their veins and will outlive us all.
A lot of my smart, progressive, feminist, Bachelor-loving friends argue that The Bachelor isn't sexist because the same shit goes down on The Bachelorette, right down to those "right reasons" screeds. But here's what trips me up about that defense: The rules of The Bachelor's game aren't just the rules of The Bachelor's game. They're the rules our culture insists women live by all of the time: (1) There's limited space for you; (2) You won't be able to claim that space unless you stand out from your competitors, i.e., other women; (3) Your ability to do so — your worth — is determined by your appearance, your relationship status, your "likability," and your ability to attract male attention; (4) If you're over a certain age and you're still single, there's probably something wrong with you; (5) You can't escape the omnipresent ticking of that biological clock; you need to lock something down, and soon; (6) But be careful when locking it down, because you can be a virgin or a whore, but you can't be both, and you can't be something in the middle, and you can't switch back and forth. Also, you're a whore if you have and enjoy sex with more than one person over the course of your lifetime. Sorry!
In other words, to pit women against one another in the interest of "entertainment" is redundant. Our culture already does this for us, from the moment we're born until the moment we find a man and are told to keep it tight so that the younger, hotter nanny doesn't steal him away. Men, meanwhile, have the luxury of playing The Bachelorette like the game it purports to be. To them, it's just a temporary upending of the power structure (even though, you know, they still get to decide whether to propose). In real life, they know they've got unlimited time, unlimited space, unlimited lives, and unlimited ammo; they can George Clooney themselves an Amal Alamuddin well into their fifties. While The Bachelorette doesn't come close to resembling real life, The Bachelor is exactly like real life, just twisted a little bit sideways, excised of unflattering lighting, and transplanted to the middle of the Caribbean. What better proof than the fact that the dudes fall into "bromances" on The Bachelorette, while the women of The Bachelor are reduced to middle school stereotypes, talking behind each other's backs and sobbing in the bathroom? Or the fact that, on last night's episode, both Lauren and JoJo waxed rhapsodic about how they'd been waiting for and dreaming about this day — the day of their ostensible marriage proposal — for their "entire lives"? Even Lauren's dad thanked Ben for asking for Lauren's hand in marriage by telling him, "There's nothing more a father wants than for his daughter to meet the man of her dreams." O RLY, Lauren's dad?
Let's get a little Martin Esslin up in this b: "Drama provides some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, sets patterns of communal behavior, forms values and aspirations and has become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses." So to laugh at — or even to sincerely emotionally invest in — a show that sees women grasping at straws/each other's immaculate hair extensions, just hoping to be validated in the same way they've watched other women on TV be validated for years, feels a little unfair, like throwing a bunch of starving people into a pit of old Subway sandwiches and cackling while they wolf down bits of stale Seafood Sensations. After all, these women are products of our culture, the same culture that worships at the feet of The Bachelor, subsequently reinforcing the same notions that make watching The Bachelor so much "fun." We're all eating our own tails, but because we're eating them together at Bachelor Viewing Parties and hate-tweeting throughout, validating and witnessing each other, they're a little bit easier to swallow.
It's important for me to note that nothing I've said or am about to say about The Bachelor is particularly revolutionary. Many a writer has filled the Internet with incisive think pieces about the inherent nastiness of the franchise. It's also important for me to note that I, too, am guilty of watching sexist bullshit and listening to sexist music and saying sexist things. I, too, am both a product and a perpetuator of the patriarchy, and sometimes I don't recycle my plastic takeout containers because I'm tired. And while I'm not here to make friends, I'm certainly not here to tell anybody what to watch or how to live their lives. I do think, though, that it's worth revisiting and re-questioning the notion of watching something "ironically," or even watching something earnestly with the knowledge that it might be a Men's Rights Activist's dreamscape, but you're aware of it and so is everybody else you know, so it's fine, and it won't really affect you or the culture at large, seeping into all of our brains like toxic waste into Alex Mack's pores and turning us into radioactive goo. My point, really, is just this: We may be watching The Bachelor for fakesies, but by doing so, we're making sure it stays on the air for realsies. We're making sure that its creators continue to get paid to propagate sociological nonsense that should've been killed and buried beneath Brad's floorboards a long time ago. We all built Chris Harrison's rose-strewn beach dungeon and regularly lock 25 eager women in there with him. None of our hands are clean, even if that Neil Lane diamond looks good on our fingers.