"I love that some people are upset about [there being two Bachelorettes]," declared Chris Harrison on HuffPost Live Monday afternoon."[If you're upset], it's probably an issue you have with yourself or with other women." As two of the women who’d had a problem with it, we’re not perfect, so we’re always willing to consider that it’s a problem with us. We decided to go into that night’s premiere of “The Bachelorette” with open minds, ready to see the female empowerment Harrison promised.
We hoped against hope that the whole two-Bachelorette thing wouldn’t be as 1950s terrible as we thought it would be. Unfortunately, it was worse.
“The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchise isn’t exactly known for its progressive depiction of modern love. Slut-shamey, whitewashed, heteronormative romance is what these shows promote each season. But the one thing “The Bachelorette” has always had going for it is that a woman is in control of her own romantic narrative. Twenty-five lackluster men have to declare their desires for families, marriage and true love, wooing one woman who could at any time send them packing in tears. This season, we’re denied even such small flipping of the normative script in favor of giving straight men “a little bit of power.”
The end result was a premiere that pitted two women against each other, harping on their differences and repeatedly pointing out just how “devastated” one of them would be by night’s end.
“Kaitlyn shocked the girls with her jokes. Britt shocked the girls with her intensity,” explained Chris Harrison, introducing each of them. “One of them shed a lot of tears, the other shed something else…” (Yes, Chris, we know that the “something else” is Kaitlyn’s bathing suit bottom. Nothing more scandalous than not-even-fully-nude skinny dipping.)
The two women were essentially presented as one-dimensional caricatures of themselves, defined by very specific (and traditionally undesirable) character traits: Kaitlyn by her overtly-sexy humor, and Britt by her overtly-expressed emotion. Chris Harrison may as well have framed the season as a battle to the reality TV exile between the slutty slut and the crying trainwreck -- two things that women, especially women who are trying to impress men, are never supposed to be. (And two things that men, no matter how naked or teary they get, never can be.)
Some found the whole narrative to be oddly familiar…
Love this season of The Bachelorette. It's about time the mainstream media presents women as enemies who must fight for men
— Erin Gloria Ryan (@morninggloria) May 19, 2015
Defenders of the gambit have pointed to the two-Bachelor season -- season 6 -- as evidence that the device is neither sexist nor degrading. Jay Overbye and Byron Velvick got through it, after all! But things have changed since 2004. For one thing, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes are now drawn from the runner-up spots in previous seasons; while Jay and Byron were new to the ABC family when their season premiered, Britt and Kaitlyn both spent weeks on “The Bachelor” before being brutally dumped on national TV. Britt notably slumped in the driveway after being sent packing, wracked with sobs; Kaitlyn was totally blindsided after a fantasy-worthy fantasy suite date. Why put them through more insecurity-inducing judgment and competition, with an extra scoop of national embarrassment for one lucky loser?
But embarrassment is drama, and drama is ABC’s bread and butter. Though one could easily gather that the 25 guys all greeted both women, their approaches were sliced and diced to make each girl, in turn, look like an awkward reject. As we watched bro after bro swoon over to Britt, breathing sweet nothings in her ear, and saw Kaitlyn bravely cleaning her teeth with her tongue and grimacing in the background, it was hard not to flash back to the most public romantic rejections of our lives -- the boys we flirted with at parties who were just using us to get to our hot friends, or our long-time crush who walked over to us at the homecoming dance to ask the gorgeous cheerleader standing next to us to dance. Each Britt and Kaitlyn, in their “in the moment” confessionals, copped to feeling hurt by repeatedly watching men enthusiastically show preference for their romantic rival. “I know I have value,” Kaitlyn insisted forlornly. Yikes.
Harrison’s promised empowerment and camaraderie clearly was left abandoned on a cutting room floor somewhere. Aside from Britt’s undermining comments about Kaitlyn and Kaitlyn’s overt discomfort with Britt’s presence, the two barely seemed to interact, instead flying around trying desperately to charm as many fratty, underemployed men as possible.
And here’s where the premiere got really, really grim. One thing we didn’t, perhaps naively, account for in anticipating a two-Bachelorette season: What would happen when 25 tipsy guys got together in a room to vote over which woman they wanted to go cliff-diving and eat dinner by candlelight with? The answer: The kind of objectifying, reductive conversation women often aren’t privy to. It’s a gross reality to see men pick women apart like pieces of meat to their peers, debating which one is a trophy wife and implying that two pretty faces are essentially interchangeable.
Viewers found it disturbingly cavalier:
Honestly, this is like listening to my brothers decide what to order in for dinner. Kaitlyn? Britt? Indian? Sushi? #thebachelorette
— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) May 19, 2015
The first night, at least, was all about what the men wanted. According to Chris Harrison, they wanted both Britt and Kaitlyn on the show, so Britt and Kaitlyn they got. Then they got to kick back and let these two women jockey for their general masculine approval, while they downed Fireball on the rocks and casually weighed the ladies’ respective value. Even “The Bachelor” doesn’t subject women to that level of humiliation.
So, Chris, maybe we do have a problem -- a problem with seeing two women being reduced to sexist cliches, forced to duke it out for the affection of terrible men. But maybe (probably, definitely) it’s ABC’s problem, too.
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