During their respective seasons, I watch both “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” I’m pretty invested in the franchise. I love the drama, the mindlessness and the excuse to hang out with my friends, snack and procrastinate on a weeknight.
Last week brought us the finale of this season of “The Bachelor.” If you don’t know the premise of the show, I’ll give you a quick rundown. The season starts with 29 women competing for a (supposedly) eligible bachelor’s attention. Each week, beginning with the very first episode, some women are eliminated while other women get roses and security until the next week. They travel to a few exotic locales all the while going on single and group dates and trying to deal with the fact they’re living with all of the other girls their love interest is dating. The show has its flaws, but I’m going to set them aside for this column to look at an unexpected positive.
The show, of course, focuses on the relationships between the individual women and the bachelor. It rarely shows the relationships among the women, unless the scene in some way contributes to some narrative of discontent. The women as we see them are either indifferent toward each other or actively negative. The network likes to show the audience instances of women mocking, doubting or trying to undermine others. The editing of the show often portrays the women in fierce competition; there are tears, gossip and aggressive confrontations. There is always a villain who can be picked out right away by experienced viewers, and a significant portion of the show is always spent on encounters between the “bad guy” and the rest of the women. When she is finally sent home, often in a way that is designed to maximize her embarrassment, there is a sense of triumph.
The producers work for drama on “The Bachelorette” too, when the house is instead filled with men. However, the tone the drama takes is different. The anticipatory scenes suggest violent, physical altercations. The outcome of a disagreement is fists instead of tears. On both shows, you’ll see pettiness. You’ll see hurt feelings, gossip and contestants seizing opportunities to convince the love interest that someone else is there for the wrong reasons. Despite the similarity in behavior, it seems the way contestants are treated often suggests there are far more instances of animosity and personal attacks among the women.
There’s an underrated highlight that comes out of the show, and it’s a surprising one. You have to search outside the two-hour episodes to find it because the network won’t show you. If you turn to the social media accounts of the contestants on the show, you’ll find that strong friendships form over the course of their competition. You’ll find that, sure, not everyone was best friends — that never happens when you stick 20 strangers in a house together. But all of them emerge with bonds to the other women, those who they were supposed to view as an obstacle between them and their happy ending. The network edits in such a way that they show the most contention and drama possible — they do this because the audience asks for it.
The world outside the show reveals the women care deeply about each other. They travel together beyond the show, they encourage each other, they support each other. In this season’s heartbreaking finale, the bachelor, Arie, proposed to one woman, Becca, before calling it off for a second chance with the “runner-up,” Lauren. The women banded together to show support for both Becca and Lauren and call out Arie’s immature and disrespectful behavior. It would have been easy in that moment to take sides and place blame on one of the women, but they didn’t. They reminded the nation of viewers Lauren wasn’t to blame for Becca’s heartache, and Becca herself shared her well wishes for the couple.
It’s important to me because I, and many others, grew up with the narrative that women always had to be in competition. In movies, in TV shows, in whatever media, we so frequently see female characters tearing down other women. We see “frenemies” and mean girls. It’s refreshing to see the way that real women (even if they’re in an unrealistic situation) behave when they’re not directed by a writing team who suggests drama is the only highlight of women’s relationships. Here, in maybe the unlikeliest of circumstances, where the situation could excuse competition and high emotion, strong and lasting female friendships formed.
The friendships don’t exactly redeem the show. Seeing the relationships that come out of it doesn’t make me feel better about the way the shows rely on manipulation and necessitate heartbreak. But they do make me hopeful, in a way. On one side, you see the women as the network wants you to see them: petty, dramatic, emotional and hoping to get a proposal at the end of the show, no matter the cost. But on the other side, you see women who wanted an adventure, who really did sign up to find love and who found it, even if it wasn’t where they expected.
Danielle Colburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.