Love, sex, and euphemism on a reality TV juggernaut
by Suzannah Showler
LAST WEEK, ON the penultimate episode of The Bachelorette Season 11—the traditional “Men Tell All” suitor reunion—things took an unexpected turn. When host Chris Harrison brought out bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe to face her twenty-some-odd recent exes, he paused before the usual Festivus-style airing of grievances.
“This show continually pushes the boundaries,” Harrison says, sans irony. “We’ve always had a fair amount of controversy, especially around issues of appropriate behaviour, gender roles, what should and shouldn’t be shown on television. These have always been issues we have embraced here on The Bachelor.”
Then Harrison addresses Kaitlyn directly: “You’ve made some controversial decisions on your path, your journey to find love. Those were your choices. I know you stand by those, and you are perfectly fine with the discussion around that.”
“Oh, yeah,” Kaitlyn agrees, sounding casually enthusiastic and all-Canadian.
“But what you’re dealing with is something completely different,” Harrison concludes. In front of the live studio audience, he goes on to display tweets and direct messages addressed to Kaitlyn on a large screen, and reads them aloud, vocalizing the Internet’s worst. “Unspread your whore legs and shut your filthy, diseased mouth,” Harrison deadpans. “She should just crawl in a hole and die.”
FOR THE PAST several seasons, The Bachelor has wiggled around in the shady middle of a Venn diagram of conservative values and cultural relevancy. Its deep heteronormativity has been the source of both its strength and its irony—its earnest insistence on traditional romance existing both alongside and for its spectacle.
Increasingly, the show is allowing fissures in its well-wrought romance terrarium, admitting evidence of both its production and its broadcast into the final edit. In the last three seasons, producers have found their way into shots with more and more frequency, and contestants have referred—both obliquely and directly—to the existence of things like, say, the cameras that tail them 24/7. In terms of its broadcast, too, the show is also hyperaware of its online reception, something it both plays to and monitors, knowing contestants’ Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat accounts are scrutinized for evidence of spoilers. Social media has allowed real life—or at least life in real-time—to intrude into the hermetically-sealed universe The Bachelor has constructed.
This season of The Bachelorette has been the best. It’s also been the absolute worst. The show has never felt more like a romping, stagey game show, but it’s also never brushed closer to the real behaviours—and their consequences—of modern life. With the sway of these contradictions growing, the Conservative-Relevant Venn diagram of the show is threatening to pull apart and separate entirely. Why? Because Kaitlyn Bristowe is the bachelorette.
Kaitlyn is a dance instructor hailing from Leduc, Alberta via Vancouver. She’s beautiful, and funny, and laughs with a crazy-lady cackle so dorky it crosses over into charming. She has a case of resting duck face that she seems to come by honestly, as though she was genetically engineered to be Instagrammed. She’s probably the straight-up coolest contestant the show has ever seen. Case in point: last season on The Bachelor, when other women vying for Chris Soules serenaded him with heartfelt ballads, Kaitlyn rapped about her pussy, and still went on to crack the final three. Unlike the show’s usual cull of the manicured, insecure, and melting-down, Kaitlyn is a grown-ass woman who knows who she is, and gives no fucks what you think.
Another thing: Kaitlyn likes sex. Not in a for-TV, attention-grabby way, but rather in a normal-woman-in-her-late-20s-who-dates way. Which is to say, she takes it seriously as a criteria for partnership (seems like duh to me, but, you know: America), but also, more surprising, she’s willing to crack jokes about it. This has been a part of her on-screen persona from the first, when she exited the limo last season and offered Farmer Soules the opportunity to “plow the fuck out of [her] field any day.”
Kaitlyn’s sex-positivity—or at least sex-normalcy—has been one of the highlights of this season. In fact, Kaitlyn’s whole demeanour has been a golden lining. But even all her gameness and jokes and Canadian-raised dipthongs haven’t been able to overcome a gimmicky opening night format change that has shadowed Kaitlyn’s “journey to find love”: rather than bringing in twenty-five men to pursue the affection of one woman, the cast of male contestants was allowed to choose (“choose”) between two Bachelorettes.
There was Kaitlyn on the one hand, and on the other was Britt, a mega-church-attending, blonde waitress from LA who is also beautiful—albeit in a too-made-up way—and has enough hair to reasonably cover four heads. She gives out “free hugs” (when do hugs cost money?) for shits and giggles, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion she’s a street preacher, which ranks high on the list of American past-times that freak me out. Her relentless performativity seems so deep-seated I’ve come to believe it’s a form of perverse honesty, the audience’s gaze so thoroughly internalized that putting on a feeling is truly experienced as the equivalent of having one. It’s a way bigger bummer than intentional duplicitousness. And in her earnest, full-time fakery Britt was in every way a traditional Bachelor contestant, primed to graduate into a traditional bachelorette.
Fortunately for those of us who found Britt sad and cringey, in the Madonna v. Whore face-off, the bachelorette this season scored one for us harlots. Obviously, the men’s “vote” for Kaitlyn was production-rigged—the real gambit being a roster of suitors more-than-usually likely to be guilty of the Bachelorverse sin of being “there for the wrong reasons.” In fact, a specific wrong reason: the pursuit of another, very different woman.
In short: Kaitlyn was set up. She was billed as the fun one who’s DTF, and then left to sift through a pack with a 50-50 chance of preferring a God-fearing quasi-virgin. This represents a reversal of power that even past contestants—whose faux-jobs and public-personae live and die with the franchise—have called out as “disgusting,” and “degrading.” This from Sean Lowe, Bachelor 17, who married his pick on ABC’s dime, and is himself a mega-churchy, born-again virgin. (Colour me just another slutty Canadian, but I don’t understand where Bachelor casting gets its line on virgins.)
The result of all this is a season that has not followed its usual, well-slicked course of episodes that end tidily in rose ceremonies, nor final relationships that hit their preordained ascending benchmarks: meet the suitor’s family, have sex in a “fantasy suite,” meet the bachelorette’s family, propose. Instead, Kaitlyn’s rose ceremonies have turned up early or mid-episode, becoming secondary to other, more pressing dramas. She has shed pursuers at a quicker-than-usual rate, with men either dropping off voluntarily or self-immolating because they were never really in it to begin with. Some of these have taken the form of to-her-face, slut-shaming screeds.
And then, week 7, the ultimate derailment: Kaitlyn goes on a date, and has sex. Banal in the real world, scandalous on The Bachelorette. On past seasons, pre-fantasy-suite-ordained sex has been implied or suspected, but never before has it been openly discussed and its fall-out worked into the show’s storyline. The deed is done with Nick Viall, a cagey software salesman whose very presence on the show is a rule-bender: he’s a past contestant who turned up mid-season to make good on flirtatious social media exchanges made with Kaitlyn pre-filming. He persuades Kaitlyn to let him join the pack, and the rest is history.
From coitus incident onward, the show structurally implodes. First slowly, then at an accelerated rate, like a building demolition set off by a hook-up. Within a week, the show has added a new euphemism to its lexicon of Bachelor-speak: “off-camera time,” meaning sex. Kaitlyn is given an injunction from production—delivered via host Chris Harrison—to get more of it with two more contestants. The production schedule is re-jigged, and Kaitlyn must immediately halve her number of suitors from six to three. Rather than proceeding to hometown dates back in America and then on to an exotic locale, the show remains stagnant in Ireland for another several episodes for even more chilly, wind-whipped cliff dates and two catch-up hook-ups, to even the playing field. Kaitlyn has essentially been sentenced to remain moored on the Green Isle until she’s slept with enough people to be allowed off it.
In another change that has an air of punishment about it, they quickly plunge down to the final two and, in lieu of hometown dates, stage brief, awkward visits with the finalists’ families in a Salt Lake City hotel suite. None of the contestants appears to have any connection to Utah, so presumably this is an off-season bargain choice. The message: Kaitlyn has proven herself insufficiently wholesome for the usual meet-the-parents shtick, and so begins a cheap hustle to the end. In the meantime, production begins to groom the third-place finish—unflappably lovely, handsome-bland Ben H.—to become the next Bachelor.
Kaitlyn went on a date in which, rather than acting as an on-camera approximation of herself, she behaved exactly as she—and a lot of other women and men—would have done in real life. And by doing that, she might just have broken The Bachelor. The sudden jettisoning of the show’s usual production schedule has managed to make the last several episodes feel not freer, but rather more constrained. Without the predictable structures and mores to lean on, everything seems stranger, emptier, and stagier. Gaps and questions lurk on the edges of every shot. Why are they there? When are they going to leave Ireland? How are we supposed to feel right now?
CHRIS HARRISON'S DRAMATIC reading of scenes from the social media reality that Kaitlyn now faces in her actual, daily life as a person was shocking. Afterwards, the audience and the men both gave Kaitlyn, who kept her shit together, a standing ovation. There was something moving about it, in the way that humanizing the vast, ungrippable Internet always is, but it was also disturbingly hypocritical. The Bachelor has always relied on its lowest common denominator of viewers to feel the exact sort of vitriol Kaitlyn is now subject to, but to have this only motivate their viewership, not actually come out of their mouths.
The show is now transforming Kaitlyn’s experience into a cyber-bullying awareness campaign. But the problem isn’t really cyber-bullying: it’s the rank, unfettered woman-hatred in the conservative world The Bachelor loves and needs for ratings. The Bachelor’s coded lexicon is a way of making exactly the “issues” Chris Harrison refers to into symbols: roses and off-camera-time and right reasons become substitutes for things like appropriate behaviour, gender roles, sex. The Bachelor’s codes further estrange signifiers from the feelings, actions, and social orders they signify. The show is at its most fascinating and its ugliest the further it leans into that estrangement. Thing is, out there in the real(ish) world of the internet, people don’t quietly admonish your off-camera time; they tell you to shut your dirty whore mouth and die. This—and the grown-ass woman who brought it to the fore—might be the reality that breaks this long-standing bastion of reality TV.
The Bachelor has always been about the codification of feeling. What I love most about the show is that those feelings can be, and often are, very real and very human, both in spite and because of the absurd, arbitrary, and sometimes even gross system in which they’re bred. Kaitlyn Bristowe busted that system not only by giving herself over to normal behaviour at a normal time, but by breaking with the show’s language game and saying “we had sex” out loud. It was something a real person would say, and something a really vile internet heard.
Really, what I’m looking forward to is next week’s debut of the second season of Bachelor in Paradise—the franchise spin-off that throws former Bachelor contestants together at a secluded beach resort and lets them drink as much as they want. There, without the illusion of matrimony, or unbendable rules about when and where grown ups should have sex, things could get real.
SUZANNAH SHOWLER is the author of Failure to Thrive (2014). Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maisonneuve, Hazlitt and The Walrus.