Last night, on the umpteenth iteration of The Bachelor, Iowan Chris Soules selected fertility nurse Whitney Bischoff to be his wife, or at least the person who poses with him on the cover of some tabloid magazines before they break up. Chris’ selection of Whitney over the younger, virginal Becca Tilley, who wasn’t quite sure she was ready to spend the rest of her life living on a farm in a depressed small town because she had appeared on a game show, was fairly predictable. But The Bachelor did, in fact, have a surprise in store for viewers who stuck out last night’s three-hour extravaganza—one as sour as a rancid lemon drop.
Bachelor host Chris Harrison announced that next season of The Bachelorette will, for the first time, feature not one but two Bachelorettes, at least at the very start. “The 25 men, on night one,” Harrison explained, “are going to have the ultimate say on who would make the best wife.” You know the guy is a pro because his lips did not pucker as he said this.
Harrison explained that Bachelor-nation had been unprecedentedly and deeply “divided” over who should be the next Bachelorette. Should it be Britt, a religious Los Angeleno whose hair on the After the Final Rose portion of the show was so confidently flipped over to one side it effortlessly suggested she was wearing a bathing suit under her sequined dress? Or should it be Kaitlyn, the cool Canadian with the rare knack for on-camera honesty?*
Despite Harrison’s insistence that both women had strong backing, the studio audience betrayed him, revealing this gambit, surprise surprise, to be all about the ratings. Harrison’s announcement brought the live studio audience to the brink of open rebellion: much concerned murmuring. The cheers for Kaitlyn far exceeded those for Britt, because there is no cultural product that proves women love the “cool girl” as much as men do quite as powerfully as The Bachelor. Kaitlyn—likeable, real, grounded, honest, sane—is the quintessential Bachelor cool girl: the woman other women watching The Bachelor could at least kind of imagine being friends with. When Harrison asked Kaitlyn what she thought about the new format, she proved her Bachelorette bonafides by answering honestly: “What went through my mind is, that’s not ideal.” (She then added, “But if that’s what it takes to find somebody,” in case anyone was concerned she might be a Bachelor-heretic.) Britt hid out in the neutered “it’s more than I can comprehend.”
Getting riled up about this format change—which will probably only last for one episode—is exactly what The Bachelor wants. It wants to engender a surge of strong feeling that translates into strong ratings. And yet, here I am, riled. The Bachelor, for better or worse, is characterized by cat-fighting amongst the women who appear on the show. Competition, back-biting, undermining, and accusations about “who is there for the right reasons” are all baked into the series, elements as essential to the format as roses, tropical locations, and the word “connection.” But female-on-female sniping is not the appeal of The Bachelorette, in which one woman gets to turn the tables and go shopping in a living Ken doll store. And yet this new ratings ploy means that the new season of The Bachelorette will begin in the spirit of The Bachelor, with two women competing against each other for men they don’t even really want yet.
The Bachelorette is, of course, not some zone of female empowerment. Last season, Andi Dorfman was called out for having sex with more than one contestant, even though that’s what expected of the male Bachelors. And as much as The Bachelorette is, allegedly, about the woman deciding what man she wants, whatever man she picks still gets to decide if he wants to propose to her. (Women asking men to marry them: not the fairy tale ending!) This is a last minute bit of reciprocity that puts The Bachelorette and her harem of men on a more even playing field than The Bachelor ever gets with his bevy of women. Still The Bachelorette is, theoretically, a show in which a woman gets to decide who will “make a good husband/tabloid cover co-star” that has summarily been turned into a show about “who will make a good wife”—and we already have The Bachelor for that.
Correction, March 10, 2015: This post originally misspelled Kaitlyn’s first name.