I am watching “The Bachelorette” for the first time this season as part of my ongoing education of shows and movies I missed, including “Friday Night Lights” and Akira Kurosawa’s catalog. While we are only two episodes into the current romp, what perplexes Wurtzel about the show actually made “The Bachelorette” make sense to me.
“The Bachelorette” is ridiculous. It reinforces a great number of pernicious ideas about what love is like and how marriage functions as a level in the video game of life rather than an ongoing project. But it is also structured to free its female star from a lot of the contradictions that vex modern women.
As the Bachelorette, Andi is supposed to look terrific. But unlike women who are not being filmed for a television audience, a network is there to help her meet the expensive and tiresome requirements of modern beauty with hair, makeup and wardrobe support.
The format of “The Bachelorette” means that Andi is going to date many men at once, and maybe even kiss and sleep with a number of them without making a commitment to any of them. But within this weird, closely observed little universe, the men who have signed up to court her have to focus on making themselves appealing to her rather than getting jealous. Andi is exempt from the sort of censure that she would risk if she were a normal woman without a camera crew on her. Testing out her romantic and sexual compatibility with her suitors is, at least for the duration of the season, Andi’s job (which also temporarily frees her from the conundrum of balancing work and life).
In pursuit of that job, she also has permission to ask for what she wants and to get emotional about it without fearing that she might lose everything. Where another woman might worry about appearing needy or demanding, on “The Bachelorette,” Andi can get frustrated when one of the contestants gets trashed and makes a fool of himself. When that happened, Andi gave the guy another chance. But the design of the show means that the other options that are not always out there for women are right in front of Andi. She saw them before her and sent the tippler packing.
And when Andi decides she is not interested in a man, she has a huge corporation and host Chris Harrison to back up her decision and to put space between her and the fellows she sends home. The first episode of this season included an odd subplot involving a contestant on other dating shows who crashed Andi’s introduction to the contestants, claiming he just had to meet her. It was an obvious setup, but Andi still got a choice about whether she wanted to meet the guy. When he did not meet her bar for a rose — which the Bachelorette gives to contestants who get to stay in the game — off he went.
In the wake of the Isla Vista massacre, bloggers have been documenting incidents in which women were threatened with violence or attacked for breaking up with men or rejecting their sexual advances. That a woman has the power to end a courtship, that her right to do that is absolute and not up for debate except on terms acceptable to her and that a big organization will enforce her decisions may be the biggest fantasy elements of “The Bachelorette.”
None of this changes that “The Bachelorette” is still heavily oriented toward conventional ideas about masculinity, femininity, romance, when to hit life milestones and what they should look like when you do. But as I have started to watch the show, I feel weirdly grateful to it. If nothing else, “The Bachelorette” makes it obvious that it takes a village led by Chris Harrison to live up to the standards young women are expected to meet. The rest of us, who have to live and love without that help — but also without a ticking clock and a national audience — can maybe give ourselves a break.