If you think of the Bachelor franchise as a house, this past week it underwent a serious remodeling, a gut renovation of a structurally significant room that has been causing problems for most of the show’s 17 years: the fantasy suite.
As viewers and anyone who’s passively absorbed a familiarity with the franchise already know, the fantasy suite is both a location and a recurring plot point. Toward the end of every season in what’s colloquially referred to as “the fantasy suite episode,” the leading man or woman has individual off-camera sleepovers in a swanky, romantic locale with each of the remaining contestants. It is, to put it crudely, the series’ sanctioned bone zone. Participants who have had the temerity to have sex outside of the fantasy suite context have been treated by the show and other participants as though they have done something exceedingly ill-mannered, not to say slutty. On The Bachelor, the only decorous way to make the beast with two backs is to do it in the fantasy suite and coyly smile about it later.
From the start, the fantasy suite was a pressure release valve, a way to solve an intrinsic problem for the franchise, which is the intermingling of sex and romance. Sex presents an existential threat to the romantic fairy tale that The Bachelor is selling: Nothing says not Prince Charming like the guy who sexually avails himself of a harem of isolated woman supplied to him by a major media conglomerate. The names that would be hurled at a bachelorette who did anything similar would be far worse. In order to preserve the romantic illusion that the “right” motives for being on the show are marriage, not sex and publicity, sex itself has been relegated to the fantasy suite, where it can be suitably, if not completely, romanticized, having less to do with desire and carnality than rose petals on the bedspread.
As the franchise has gone on, though, the fantasy suite has become widely understood by the contestants and the viewers as the place people have sex, even though the word sex is rarely, if ever, uttered. This matter-of-factness has become increasingly threatening to the illusory romance of the fantasy suite, and the show more largely. When the heel Nick Viall* asked Andi, in a reunion episode, “If you didn’t love me, why did you make love to me?” in the fantasy suite, he had latched onto the show’s internal logic: that the fantasy suite isn’t really a place to explore sexual desire or compatibility so much as to check off a meaningful box on the way to making someone your spouse. Nick was widely chastised for slut-shaming Andi, but he understood something fundamental about the show, which treats sex as a deeply suspect evaluative tool and lesser form of connection, right up until the moment when it becomes part of a bedrock commitment.
Although it was a place where women could choose to have sex with men, everyone needed to be vague and gauzy about what happened there, eschewing rapidly mainstreaming ideas about female sexual autonomy and choice so it could fit neatly into a narrative about finding a lifelong helpmeet. If The Bachelor coyly sanctioned sex in this particular setting, it is not, in any sense, sex-positive. Participants are coded as nice, wholesome, viable wifeys (and husbandys), or sexy and fundamentally inappropriate. Bachelors, in particular, are almost always skeptical and ultimately dismissive of the contestants they are strongly sexually attracted to, playing out some played out virgin-whore mishegoss on national TV.
By the time Kaitlyn had sex with Nick outside of the fantasy suite setting, and the show responded by scolding them and moving fantasy suite night up so the other men could “even the playing field,” the jig was up. The fantasy suite’s position as a box on the find-your-fake-soulmate checklist and site of male sexual one-upmanship masquerading as a woman’s choice was out in the open. The thing was broken, and yet, because it was the only place the show that dealt with sex at all, still fundamental to it.
Enter Hannah B. A former beauty queen and Southern gal, Hannah is the star of the latest season of The Bachelorette. A Christian, but not a virgin, she’s been a forceful and determined contestant, qualities that have been most on display when protecting Luke, a built and blond evangelical, from being bad-mouthed by the other contestants. Hannah sees something in Luke—she says that seeing him for the first time was the closest she came to love at first sight. But if Hannah had seen the footage the show’s viewers have, she’d know he’s a prideful jerk and a heel. He’s been the season’s villain, but nonetheless made it to the fantasy suite episode, along with three other bachelors.
From the beginning, Hannah treats fantasy suiting differently than almost anyone else has. She is psyched for it, and psyched, in particular, about the sex. “Gonna get down in the fantasy suite!” she sings to the camera. Her first date is with Peter, a nice guy as bland as unsalted porridge. They spend the afternoon on a boat dry-humping, then have a romantic dinner and retire to a room inside a windmill. Once inside, they open a box of supplies that includes condoms—the first time they’ve appeared on camera, although it’s likely they’ve been a staple in the fantasy suite all along. The condoms’ cameo is the equivalent of a sledgehammer to the wall: It’s more supportive and open about sex than the show has ever been, an admission that this is what the fantasy suite is for and that the powers that be are all for it.
The next day, Hannah meets up with Tyler, a dimpled dreamboat whom she can’t keep her hands off. They get massages, and Tyler takes over; cue more dry-humping, this time on a massage table. At dinner, Hannah decides not to have sex with Tyler because she already knows their sexual chemistry is great and she’s less sure about their emotional communication. Tyler doesn’t bat an eye, and the two go off for a night of making out and telling each other everything is amazing. Hannah’s sex-positivity has, to this point, already totally upended the show’s tropes: Typically, chemistry guy (Tyler, in this case) does not stand a chance against nice guy (Peter), but by having sex with the nice guy and insisting that chemistry guy behave like a nice one, she has mixed and matched the cliché, making both men seem less reductive in the process.
Peter and Tyler have also, to this point, demonstrated lots of decent ways to be: sex-having and not jealous, not-sex-having and cool about it. There’s a throwback interlude with Jed, in which the show plays coy about what happens or doesn’t, and then comes her date with Luke. At dinner, Hannah toasts all they’ve had to overcome to get there. Luke agrees and says that he’s “ready to make history:” He wants to talk about sex. Failing to read the room at all, Luke launches into a speech about how he assumes he and Hannah are morally on the same page, but “If you told me you’re having sex with one or multiple of these guys, I’d be wanting to go home.”
Hannah listens calmly and then responds with increasing anger. Who does he think he is? He’s being so controlling! “Sex might be a sin, but pride is too and this a pride thing,” she says. Why is he trying to tell her she’s not a good Christian? Having sex just crosses her off his list? What about all his bad qualities? “You’re trying to make me not feel like a woman of faith … you’re holding people to a standard you don’t live up to.” Luke tries to backtrack—he would understand if she had “slipped up”—but Hannah’s having none of it. “I don’t slip up!” They trade Bible verses, and if the conversation doesn’t seem all that sophisticated, it’s still heartening that Hannah doesn’t back down, doesn’t cede religious authority to him. At this point, Luke is just trying to extricate himself, but she’s enraged. “I don’t owe you anything at this point!” she says as they head for the car, where she lowers the boom. “I fucked in a windmill,” she tells him, sending him on his way. To the camera she adds, with a wink, “And guess what, we did it a second time.”
In the days since the episode aired, Luke and Hannah have feuded on Twitter, and Luke’s cause has been taken up, as one would expect, by some religious sites. But The Bachelorette has also taken sides, and its side is Hannah’s. The show all but cheers as she slaps down a dude who thinks he gets to tell her what to do with her body. The fact that said dude is expressing a more extreme version of the show’s own long-standing skittishness about the fantasy suite—that calling too much attention to what goes on there will make people look slutty; that it has actually presented people as slutty to manufacture some drama—is of no concern. Hannah is the wrecking ball the Bachelor franchise so desperately needs.
In Hannah, The Bachelorette has found a righteous, unabashed, sex-positive woman, one who is in step with the contemporary moment and yet still cloaked in Jesus. The Christian ethos that swirled underneath so much of The Bachelorette’s squeamishness about sex—that it was supposed to be something you did with, if not the person you were already married to, at least the person you were going to marry—gets effortlessly updated by a God-fearing woman whose faith insulates her, and the show, from charges of hedonism and immorality. Hannah vacillates between full sex-positivity—“Intimacy is so important to me, I want to be entangled with someone, my body is your body and your body is my body”—and a more provisional, it’s wrong-but-it’s-still-all-right defense—“I have had sex and Jesus still loves me.” But it doesn’t really matter. The show is happy to latch onto her enthusiasm and a whole new gloss on the fantasy suite—no longer some dirty secret, but a site of female empowerment. She has articulated and affirmed a wholesome—yet sexy!—vision of the fantasy suite that the show couldn’t speak for itself, but that it will, I expect, borrow, on and off again, in perpetuity.
Correction, July 19, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Nick Viall’s last name.