Yesterday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, new ABC Entertainment boss Karey Burke praised the producers of the Bachelor franchise for “a remarkable job” holding themselves to “ethical standards.” When reporter and Vulture contributor Andy Dehnart followed up by pushing Burke to explain what she meant by “ethical standards,” she discussed a recent episode’s unusually deft treatment of a contestant’s sexual assault and her own initial qualms about watching the show “as a feminist,” but then concluded, “If you don’t think those women have power, then you aren’t watching the show correctly. Those women have a lot of power, and they are using it well.”
Women do have some power in the Bachelor franchise, and it’s certainly more than they used to have. When the franchise began, The Bachelorette didn’t even exist, and in the 16 years since that show’s debut, a few landmark moments have hinted at sea changes: Kaitlyn Bristowe’s gasp-worthy departure from the show’s format to sleep with a contestant long before the fantasy suites comes to mind, and if we’re being generous, the opportunity for female Bachelorettes to even invite men into a fantasy-suite situation in the first place ranks up there, too. But one fundamental and archaic feature of The Bachelor and Bachelorette still puts the lie to any notion that the franchise empowers women: The Bachelorette never gets to propose.
On The Bachelor, the final elimination and rose ceremony is usually a combination of sweeping romantic proposal and tear-filled good-bye. The Bachelor stands solemn and anxious, often poised at the top of some sweeping exotic vista or at the far end of a twinkling, rustic cabin. He waits while each of the final two women approach him; the first one down the aisle believes she’s walking toward a proposal of marriage, and then instead of getting down on one knee, the Bachelor does his best to gently send her packing. The next woman down the aisle gets the prize: a grandiose marriage proposal from the man of her dreams, accompanied by a hideously outsize engagement ring provided by Neil Lane.
The Bachelorette is supposed to be a reversal of that formula. The Bachelorette stands at the ready, ball gown fluttering in some tropical breeze. One at a time, the two remaining men approach her. And then, rather than launching into her celebratory or farewell monologue, she must stand and wait there. Before facing the final rose ceremony, the men each select a giant diamond ring (again provided by Neil Lane), and then they both march down the aisle, take a knee, and ask for the Bachelorette’s hand in marriage.
What, if you’ll excuse me, the hell?! Setting aside the franchise’s relatively recent insistence that wedding proposals are absolute requirements for finale fodder (something that was less of a given at the franchise’s inception), the idea that the Bachelorette can’t be in charge of deciding to propose herself is absurd. Sure, she still has the chance to say yes or no. She’s still making a decision. But so often, cultural depictions of the traditional Western female romantic experience are about waiting and endurance, and that has leeched into our understanding of how reality should always work. Women wait by the phone for men to call them; they wait for a guy to make the first move; they wait to be asked on a date. They endure that long windup to the proposal, standing and listening while a man essentially pitches himself to her. Men take up space in the world, and women wait for them to pause before they jump in. Why, if The Bachelor franchise is about female empowerment, should that dynamic be replicated in what’s supposed to be the apex moment of female choice at the end of a season?
Andy Dehnart has been wondering this for a while, suggesting about Ashley Hebert’s Bachelorette season that “the finale and climax of each Bachelorette season plays out as if the man has made the choice, and it’s every woman’s fantasy to be proposed to in the most traditional way possible.” He has also pointed to the network’s promotional framing of The Bachelorette, like press releases that emphasize the agency of men deciding to propose in the finale.
It’s ridiculous that the Bachelorette is supposed to stand and watch silently while her two male suitors propose marriage, and that she has no say in having to stand, squirming, and endure a proposal from someone she knows she’s about to eliminate. And not for nothing, it’s also humiliating for the men! In The Bachelor, the final two women do stand and listen while the Bachelor delivers a speech about much he cares for them, waiting for it to eventually turn toward true love or a crushing breakup. But those women don’t have to listen to an entire proposal and then have it get yanked out from under them. The Bachelorette gives men the power to propose, and at the same time, it forces them to declare their intentions to spend their lives with someone who they know full well may be in love with someone else. It is a lose-lose scenario, and it never fails to strike the wrong tone.
I would love for Karey Burke’s stewardship of ABC to usher in a new era for the Bachelor franchise. It’s long since overdue, and small signs like Caelynn Miller-Keyes’s account of her sexual assault suggest that the series might finally be doing some vital self-reflection. But it will require a much more significant overhaul before the franchise comes anywhere close to empowering women. If it really wanted to start, The Bachelor-verse might reconsider its default, dated, unbalanced assumption that women shouldn’t get down on one knee.