It’s March in America, and if you are any kind of average citizen in this plugged-in, un-buckled, vegged-out nation, you’ve been soothing your winter malaise with a tsunami of television watching. You might even be seeking a little insight into the human experience, tuning into HBO and Showtime for their critically lauded helpings of suspense, hard-to-watch sex, and pathos. But there is a show, neither subtle nor intellectually sophisticated nor on cable, which contains greater nuggets of insight into the most written-about, lusted-after, projected-upon creature of American popular life—the modern woman—than premium-channel dramas ever offer. ABC’s The Bachelor, behind all the beefcake and buoyant breasts, unsparingly depicts the central struggles of women’s lives—and no, that doesn’t mean fighting for a guy. While the quest for true love might be the raison d’être of the show, it’s the prickly bramble of societal expectations, bilious intra-sex competition, and internal crescendos of self-doubt hiding beneath the Spanx and sundresses of the 26 female contestants that make for must-see TV.
Countless thinkers and gurus from Friedan to Oprah to Sandberg have attempted to dethorn the thicket of women’s interior lives, with some help from the editors of Glamour along the way, but it is The Bachelor’s great genius that for years it has simply played documentarian to it all. Producers have welcomed a primetime audience to view the rawest cuts of Girl World, whose laws govern the interactions of Upper West Side feminists and Bad Girls Club participants alike. What fuels the manic maquillage-application and irrigates the honeyed throats on The Bachelor is a cocktail that has been sipped by centuries of women. It’s distilled from both the oldest and newest of problems with hints of jealousy, bitters of quivering fragility, all sitting atop base notes of full-bodied frustration, making women drunk on an anger they can’t quite name.
Much like the discovery of the powers of Penicillin, The Bachelor stumbled accidentally upon its potency as an incubator of this dynamic. In the beginning, I suspect viewers watched because they thought that a happy couple might emerge from the dark tunnel of manufactured reality TV romance. This dream is all but dead now—only two marriages have actually materialized. When the season’s finale aired Monday night and Sean, the latest hunky white guy chosen for America to fantasize about on bubble bath-and-wine nights-in, made his “final decision,” a fair number of viewers were surely taking bets on how long the engagement would last while wishing that the whole crazy gang of girls was still around to stir up trouble. There’s only so long you can watch a guy deliberate over Neil Lane rings and pensively work on his lats.
My own Bachelor-watching started three years ago when I lived alone overseas, and found myself saddled with a magpie attraction to anything American-made. I was a purely ironic viewer at first, delighting in the stomach-churning feeling I got seeing the women deploy cringe-worthy tactics to catch the attention of the hunk. (The Bachelor rewards emotional promiscuity and fans will know that a declaration of love following a second or third date is nothing out of the ordinary.) For a while you are animated by the unreality of it all, by watching the silly sister wives go on dates that serve as blunt-force metaphors for falling in love—bungee-jumping off buildings and scaling cliffs are favorites of the show’s producers. You get to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude, too, because while you may not be the thinnest or the prettiest, at least you’ve got the good sense not to spill your lovesick guts on national television.
But what makes The Bachelor truly compelling is what happens when the cameras capture the women during their daily cohabitation in a prefab McMansion of broken dreams. Away from the object of their collective affection, lounging in yoga pants and fueled by white wine, the silicone sylphs eviscerate each other. Most of this season’s drama centered around Tierra, whose Cruella DeVille eyebrows and emphatically décolletage-driven style give her the aura of a villain from an early ‘90s teen soap where all the “kids” have been nursing pretty serious booze and pills habits for years. During the course of one argument, the 24-year-old calls a 32-year-old fellow contestant a “cougar” and proclaims that she’d never be caught dead on a nationally televised dating show at that age. During another row she declares, “No one will take my sparkle away. I’m not letting that happen.” She fakes medical emergencies as a way to get attention from Sean. Her sparkle, Tierra explains, is why other women are jealous of her.
It’s this dynamic that makes the penultimate episode of each season, “The Women Tell All,” so engrossing. The Bachelor can be something of a diminishing-returns experience if colorful characters don’t make it far enough—though this season AshLee, who can neither spell her name properly nor stop dropping the fact that she has abandonment issues, brought a certain unnerving intensity of purpose into the final three—so the episode is a chance to rehash old fights. Selma, this season’s saucy Iraqi (diversity!), told Tierra that she needed to learn to “hide your crazy,” and there were countless knowing glances exchanged between the almost-exclusively female members of the studio audience.
The rote explanation for this kind of behavior, commonplace on The Bachelor, is what we’ve read about in feminist diatribes for years—women feel threatened by other women because the barriers to entry into a lot of fields—both professional and dating—are much steeper, the former thanks to good old sexism and the latter to the statistical fact that there are simply more of us in the world. We become zero-sum thinkers. In the workplace, we perceive female coworkers not as allies, but as threats; at bars and on reality TV shows, we call other women whores as a preemptive strike of sorts. And if you think this is a problem that the power class is exempt from, I’d direct you to accounts of in-fighting in the early days of Ms. And, more recently, Jodi Kantor’s snide reporting on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which included rumors of a “feminist row” between the Lean In author and Anne Marie Slaughter, of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” fame.
The solution to this problem is simple—be nicer to your sisters—and while I’m all in favor of that, I also can’t help thinking that the feelings of America’s women are being trivialized by that imperative just a bit. Yes, of course, we really should stop that kind of talk. But women aren’t inherently pettier than men, which is what the whole, “Oh, just stop and be nicer, girls” thing seems to imply at times. What we are, I think, is a whole lot angrier.
Because it’s not a theatrical kind of anger most of us suffer from—there aren’t that many table-flippers, though I can sympathize with the impulse—it’s easy to mislabel this emotion we experience as simple stress or anxiety, or to condescendingly conflate our fury with PMS. But it isn’t a quavering tapioca pudding of sadness I’m talking about, it’s a steak-and-potato rage, the kind that builds up quietly and then drives with gale-force fury. It’s the kind that comes from pure frustration—the frustration that makes you want to cry in the bathroom at work or in a dressing room or while you’re lying in the dark next to some so-so schmuck. Being a woman, especially a young woman on her own, as many of The Bachelor contestants are, is a hell of a lot of worry. Do they think I’m a pushover at work? What if I never make enough money? Am I going to die alone? What if I’m pregnant? What if I’m sterile? Is my inability to look good in skinny jeans having an adverse effect on my dating life? How often do I have to get that waxed? And there’s the umpteenth condescending guy at a party who plainly thinks you’re just a bit dense because you’re wearing flawlessly-applied liquid liner (which, by the way, requires a lot of hand-eye coordination, so good for you). If those things don’t just snowball after a while into an emotion you can’t call anger, well, then slap my ass and call me Susan, because I don’t know what anger is.
Perhaps the best and most heartbreaking exhibition of this particular kind of female anger on this season’s Bachelor came from Sarah, a sweet blonde who, because of a birth defect, only has one arm. She is, of course, intimidatingly beautiful, but also incredibly relatable, not because her disability makes her less threatening but because she is the one woman in the house who is frank about her insecurities without being sob story-esque. When Sean sends her home, she gives a speech, hiccup-filled and poignant, that a lot of us can relate to: “I wanted to stop him before he started because I knew what he was going to say but I wanted to hear his explanation because it’s always the same. … I just don’t want to be told forever how great I am and what I deserve.” Yes, some of this was just plain old hurt feelings about being rejected, but there’s a whole lot more buried beneath those sobs—Sarah is cool and confident and has a great job in a fun city, but it’s also pretty apparent that she feels like she hasn’t really gotten things right. Her being sent home was just the impetus for a whole lot of tangled feelings about being a woman to come tumbling out. This isn’t how she imagined things would be. This isn’t what life was supposed to look like.
At the end of the day, what adds to the anger building inside of us is the sneaking suspicion that the girl sitting next to you has got the whole tilt-a-whirl of modern womanhood figured out, and that, like Sarah, you’re never going to get it right. That’s a defeating feeling, whether you’re vying for a meathead on national television or smiling fiercely at a dinner party celebrating your roommate’s latest promotion.
The women on The Bachelor aren’t competing for a man so much as they’re competing for a life—for their vision of how things are supposed to unfold. That’s why The Bachelor, a vacuum of heteronormativity and assuredness about marriage and family, makes such perfect sense, and why it has a certain Isle of the Lotus-Eaters effect. Your own vision of how things are supposed to work out might center around career or financial stability or baking croissants in a sunny California kitchen all day like Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated rather than marrying a former Kansas State linebacker. But the impulse is the same. These 26 women, every season, want more than anything to impose some order and structure on their lives. They know the swirling sense of chaos; they know the feeling that nothing will ever go your way and that you will never be truly happy unless you will it to be so with every fiber of your being and shove aside every obstacle to have it. It’s not a pretty way to be—never said that—but there in the hi-def of primetime, you can’t tear your eyes away from the humanity of it all.