This article has been updated to reflect Monday night’s episode of The Bachelorette.
A few weeks ago, I described The Bachelorette star Kaitlyn Bristowe as “revolutionary” for her frank, unapologetic attitude toward sex on a show that had historically treated the word as taboo, and her remarkable ability to act like a normal person (i.e., sometimes be a total mess) while juggling multiple relationships within a machine of psychological manipulation and manufactured romance. A bit hyperbolic? Oh, totally. But I stand by it, especially after watching her stare down her slut-shaming cyberbullies like a champ on Monday night’s “Men Tell All” episode.
“I really like to think myself as a tough, tough person. I’m fine with people disagreeing with me or having their opinions, that’s okay,” Kaitlyn told the crowd when she came onstage. “But spreading hate the way people have been is not okay.” She then sat there as host Chris Harrison read aloud a sampling of vicious tweets and emails Kaitlyn had received after becoming the first star of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette to sleep with a contestant (before the producer-sanctioned Fantasy Suite dates) and talk about it. A sampling: “Shut your little whore mouth #slut,” “you need to unspread your whore legs,” a screed from a mother who hoped Kaitlyn would “crawl into a hole and die.” “I can handle it,” she responded. “It doesn’t feel good, but I can handle it.”
We all could see that cycle of judgment coming from a mile away. What’s unexpected is how Kaitlyn’s refusal to apologize for being a strong, sexual woman has forced a show so steeped in hypocritical traditionalism to pivot and defend its star’s libido. Granted, Chris Harrison never actually mentioned “sex,” preferring to use words like “controversial” and “provocative” to describe Kaitlyn and her “decisions” to break “unwritten rules.” But Kaitlyn’s influence finally seems to be forcing the franchise to acknowledge that in modern relationships between grown women and men, sex typically comes not only before marriage, but way, way before someone gets down on one knee. As Kaitlyn has said before, it’s only practical to test-drive your options before making a commitment that will last the rest of your life.
Without intending to do so — I don’t think Kaitlyn is at all calculating, which is what makes her impulse-driven careering toward matrimony (or not) so endearing and fascinating to watch — this 30-year-old Canadian dance instructor is advancing the conversation on female sexuality, and dismantling from the inside the franchise’s veneer of fairy-tale delusion.
Let us not dwell on last week’s installment of Kaitlyn’s journey, in which everyone sounded like they were being fed lines about “opening up,” or on how the show neutered Kaitlyn with the same “torn between three guys,” now “torn between two guys” edit that’s made every person who’s ever come on this show interchangeable. Instead, like Vulture’s all-star Bachelorette recapper Ali Barthwell, I’m going to write that episode off as pure filler and consider the record so far, which proves Kaitlyn to be the most progressive Bachelor/ette in the franchise’s 30-season history; the first star whose views on a woman’s right to sexual agency seem worthy of an era in which the Supreme Court has codified same-sex marriage.
Let’s take a look at that record. Twice, she’s engineered off-camera alone time with contestants: The time when she snuck into front-runner Shawn Booth’s hotel room and told him he was “the One” (producers clearly only found out much later, when Shawn drunkenly cried about it), and the night when she invited Shawn’s rival Nick Viall back to her room (and slimy producers recorded the sex sounds through a closed door). She is the first lead of this franchise to talk openly about sex, and to have spent a night of nookie with a suitor well before the producer-approved Fantasy Suite dates, when the field typically has been narrowed down to three, and sex is had but never spoken of by name. (Anyone who’s a longtime fan of the show knows there is a strict precedent of making out but no touching below the belt before the Fantasy Suite, unless it’s in the ocean and you’re the Bachelor.)
Then, not only did Kaitlyn have sex with Nick AGAIN, this time in the Fantasy Suite, but she also initiated with Shawn the first adult conversation about relationships that I can remember ever seeing. Last week, she became the first Bachelor/ette star to complete her Fantasy Suite dates BEFORE meeting the families of the guys she’s dating — meaning she slept with them, THEN decided which ones she felt strongly enough about to meet their parents. This has never happened in Bachelor/ette land. (That sounded insane even as I wrote it, but the show operates by rules of courtship that haven’t been standard since the early 20th century.)
Tear down those walls, Kaitlyn, you beautiful phoenix. Tear down those walls!
We’ve been witnessing one of the most formulaic shows on television having to chase its star, rather than the star bending to the rules of the show. Sure, Kaitlyn has gone along with things for the cameras (sumo wrestling, a blatant plug for Disney’s Aladdin musical, all those interviews where she has to say she could picture falling in love with guys she’s about to dump), but what shines through is her refusal to succumb to reality-show tropes. She is a rebel, defiant in her right to search, be fickle, make love when she damn pleases, and behave like an actual human being.
The show even altered its format for her. The rose ceremonies, typically the culmination of every episode, have been relegated to an afterthought, aired in the middle of shows because whenever Kaitlyn’s not feeling it, she sends the guy packing, regardless of when and where or how badly it complicates the editing. I mean, she dumped poor dentist Cupcake on top of a cliff in Ireland. On any other season I’d say that was for dramatic effect, but she’s been swift and decisive every time she’s ended a relationship.
And when it became clear that Kaitlyn was not someone who could meet the parents before meeting a certain part of the male anatomy, the show scrapped the usual “Hometown” visits that happen when there are four contestants left. The scene when Chris Harrison told Kaitlyn that she seemed to need more off-camera alone time with her men and that she would be picking three guys to take to the Fantasy Suite and then only two to meet their families was a bit patronizing, but it was still huge for a show so set in its ways to acknowledge that most people date and have an active sex life before they’re sure enough about each other to get parents and siblings involved, let alone get engaged.
The baffling thing here is how no one else in 30 seasons has done that.
Part of real-world intimacy is also, on occasion, acknowledging to your partner that you’re seeing other people and allowing him or her to react. Last Monday’s episode rotated around THE BIG REVEAL when Kaitlyn told Shawn she’d had sex with Nick. I’ve read cynical takes that believe the producers forced her to have that conversation, but how about we look at the evidence up till now and give her the benefit of the doubt for having a mind and using it? It seems obvious she’s leaning toward picking Shawn in the end. Would you want to create a scenario where your boyfriend/fiancé finds out you slept with another guy by watching you pull him into your bedroom on national television? Or would you want to try to lead with honesty while you’re still dating and see how the relationship holds up? Give Kaitlyn a little credit for being a big girl capable of making her own decisions.
What’s so mind-blowing is that, again, she is the first star of one of these shows who actually talks about normal-people shit like a normal person. Never, ever do we see anyone on these shows talk about their taste in music and what movies they like. In general, every time they sit down, they get right into how they envision the future and how many kids they want to have, and then every conversation afterwards is about the state of the relationship or opening up or not opening up or how they’re falling in love when the only interaction they’ve had was across a stage while singing country songs they’ve written about “the process,” or when one of them reveals the worst thing that’s ever happened to him/her in his/her life and gets a rose. I always remember back to this interview with one of my favorite contestants, Graham Bunn, where he said the best parts of his ultra serious four-week (!) relationship with Bachelorette DeAnna were the moments when they didn’t have to talk about marriage.
I’m sure there were many other really strong, sex-positive women on the show before. Bachelorette Jillian Harris (still the show’s all-time best-dressed) comes to mind, as does Bachelor winner (and tell-all-book author) Courtney Robertson. Last season’s Bachelorette Andi Dorfman, who left her job as an assistant D.A. to do the show, did talk about sex, but only after she was engaged. They all got traditional story lines, traditional edits, traditional happy endings. They were smushed into boxes. This is not to say there is anything wrong with them, but just that we ought to take note of a woman like Kaitlyn who, just by doing her own thing, has forced the box to smush around her.
The show will still probably end with a lot of drama over how much Shawn and Nick hate each other and whom Kaitlyn is going to choose. This show doesn’t seem quite ready for all the sex-positivity Kaitlyn was bringing to it. But at least for a moment we got a chance to see a real woman being real about sex on reality television. That’ll have to be enough for now.