Why Was The Bachelorette Constantly Criticized?

By Gennifer Eccles

The Bachelor franchise is a tricky one to watch through a feminist lens. While The Bachelorette can be empowering as it reverts gender expectations ー the men fighting for the women, having to be emotionally intelligent and vulnerable to make it far into the season, and yes, even crying ー other iterations, like the original show, The Bachelor, or the mega-successful spin-off, The Bachelor in Paradise, aren’t so easily surface-level feminist. The shows bring in all types of viewers, from my liberal coworkers, which include people of various races, genders, and sexualities,  to older white women, tween girls, and a plethora of other viewers. It’s no surprise that every season of a Bachelor show, the responses sweep from adoration to indignation. This latest season of The Bachelorette, featuring Hannah Brown as the lead, was no different. What was different, however, was how prevalent gender politics were during this latest season. This change in focus, largely due to Hannah’s own empowerment and outspokenness, revealed larger underlying issues with the franchise, both with the structure of the show and its very outspoken audience.  

As is the case of every season of The Bachelorette, Brown was constantly body-shamed or nitpicked for her outfits. While I wish I kept track of all the invasive tweets I saw throughout the season’s run, I do remember plenty of critiques, whether it was about Hannah’s eyebrows, the way she talked, or even the dresses she wore (as if she wasn’t professionally dressed). The 24-year old Bachelorette has had a rocky past with Bachelor Nation, as viewers call themselves. She was introduced to us through Colton Underwood’s season of The Bachelor. Viewers began to remember her name after a cringe-inducing first date with Colton, and she slowly grew to be a fan favorite after leaving the show, telling the camera that she deserves a fearless love in which she feels chosen every day.  

Right as Hannah was announced as the Bachelorette, Twitter was in a storm. Before Hannah’s season even aired, she already had a cloud of criticism, mainly over her conversational skills. Pre-Bachelorette Hannah had a tendency to clam up in high-pressure situations, like her first one-on-one date with Colton, or when Chris Harrison brought out five men and began an impromptu rose ceremony upon revealing her as the Bachelorette. Hannah, flustered, would stumble upon her words, or pause when talking, collecting her thoughts. People assumed the worst of Hannah’s season before she even had a chance to prove herself, and began to question her intelligence and readiness for the show.  

Source: Twitter @MattOverton_LS

Source: Twitter @MattOverton_LS

The criticisms didn’t stop there. Oh no, they had only just begun. During this latest season of The Bachelorette, there were a fair share of manipulative, lying, and cheating men. There was Scott Anderson, who had a girlfriend right before the show, whom Hannah sent packing night one. There was Cam, a man who, upon thinking that he would be sent home that week, told the other men he was going to tell Hannah a “sob story” in hopes of getting a “pity rose.” Infamously, there was Luke, who kept lying to Hannah the whole entire time he was on the show. Scarily, Luke wouldn’t take Hannah’s rejection of him for an answer, after she told him to his face to leave. Twice (!!!). And last but certainly not least, there was Jed. As People reported, Jed had a girlfriend up until the night beforeThe Bachelorette began filming. Though he claims they weren't serious, Jed and his girlfriend went on vacations together, met each other’s parents, and exchanged “I love you’s”. Jed lied to Hannah throughout his entire time on the show, even when he proposed to her on the finale episode. He didn’t tell her there was another woman in his life. However, instead of getting rightfully upset at these men, who were not on the show for the right reasons and didn't respect Hannah enough to be honest and give her the best opportunity at love, viewers instead blamed Hannah for these men and their actions. How could she not see that Jed was a liar? Why did she keep Luke on for so long, ignoring the red flags? The pretense was clear: how stupid is Hannah Brown?

These criticisms were missguided; Hannah was manipulated by these men, and obviously didn’t know the whole truth. While we saw what happened when Hannah wasn’t in the room, she didn’t. When she learned the truth, she immediately acted upon it. She asked Luke to leave when his red flags were abundant. Hannah sent him packing, twice.  Despite Luke’s alarming behaviors, people criticized Hannah for keeping him on for so long, so much so that she felt the need to apologize in one of the final episodes to a live studio audience and, well, the whole world. Hannah shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for trusting someone, as she’s wont to do in a show where all the men are supposedly there for her and her only. The thing is, Luke is a charismatic, conventionally attractive, manipulative man. Haven’t we all been there before?  Viewers were reactionary and lashed out on twitter, effectively blaming Hannah, who was consistently gaslighted by Luke, for him staying. Viewers were also quick to blame Hannah about the Jed situation. How could she not realize he was there only for his music? Why did she stay with him after he told her about his girlfriend? What these questions and disapprovals don’t take into account is everything Hannah didn’t see or know at the time, whether it was Luke’s threatening behaviors and actions, or Jed’s true intentions and past relationships. These men were putting on a show for Hannah, showing their best selves. It might seem naive to trust them, but that’s what the show is all about.  

Unlike previous Bachelorettes, Hannah was outspoken with her sex life. She had no shame in her sexuality, and instead was empowered by it. You can tell she gets joy out of a physical connection, much like she does with an emotional one. Hannah’s not afraid to be completely herself to the audience, making her one of the most refreshing, charismatic, and honest leads in quite some time. But with her candor came a larger discussion on sex politics and slut-shaming. It’s no surprise that Hannah was slut-shamed for her prior sexual experiences or the ones she encountered on the show, but it coincided with many viewers (and Luke) condemning her actions as “un-Christian.” Throughout the season, Hannah’s faith was brought up, whether she was searching for answers late into the series by reading bible passages, discussing her interpretation of Christianity with the aforementioned Luke, or several other scenarios. The watershed moment was during fantasy suite week, when Luke told Hannah that if she had slept with any of the other men (she had), that he would take himself out of the running, because he believed sex should only be in marriage. He added a little addendum, saying that he knew Hannah would do no such thing. My mind exploded, as did Hannah’s. The ideology that sex before marriage is sinful is outdated and filled with misogynistic  undertones. Today, if a woman has sex before marriage, she is generally decried, as seen this season. But if a man waits to have sex? People begin to question if he is a “real man,” as seen on Colton’s season of The Bachelor. While the act of sex jeopardizes a woman’s identity as trustworthy, honest, pure, and moral, the opposite is true for men, who are considreed weak. 

Along with Luke and Hannah’s differing beliefs, viewers’ reactions to Hannah’s sexual experiences highlighted the double standard between men and women. While multitudes of people were shaming Hannah about this particular “sin,” there was little to no derision against Peter, who Hannah had sex with during their fantasy suite date. Instead, many applauded Peter for his sexual prowess, all the while shaking their heads at Hannah for exploring physical intimacy with her partners. This pattern continues with past Bachelor contestants and leads. Nick Viall, Season 21’s Bachelor, was not heavily criticized for having sex with some of his final women, but rather celebrated. After his fantasy suite with Raven Gates, a finalist in his season, the show aired a montage of a very happy Gates, who had allegedly experienced her first orgasm. This scene presents sex as a postive for Nick, focusing on his skills in the bedroom, much like how Peter was handled this year. Yet Bachelorette leads have been very hush-hush about their sex lives during the show, leading to a sense of scandal and outrage when leads like Hannah, who put all of herself out there for us to watch, openly discusses sex. 

A lot of these sexist critiques against Hannah have been made by women. According to Creator IQ, 94 percent of viewers for Hannah’s season were female, and 68 percent were between the ages of 18 to 24. If these reports are accurate, then a majority of the viewers are young adult women, falling in the grey area between Generation X and Z. These women were in their seminal years of upbringing as feminism became a more hot-button issue and more insinuated into everyday conversation. 

So why does The Bachelorette, a show catered to women, have viewers criticizing the lead while giving the men the benefit of the doubt? First off, the structure of the show is a breeding ground for dissent. Since viewers have an inside look into a lead’s life for several weeks, they start to feel like they have a right to critique the lead. But we must keep in mind that while Hannah was gracing our screens once a week, or even more, we are all just strangers to her. The show itself isn't real. Since when have I had 25+ men at my beck and call, all there to fall in love with me? Never. And it’ll never happen. But as viewers, we get invested in this premise, despite its incredulousness. The show’s premise, and its sister shows, are all rooted in domesticity. The finale is supposed to show a happy couple’s engagement. This “happy ending” carries the promise of marriage, the distant dream of kids and building a life together. The Bachelorette is a show, when you boil it all down, about a woman who is fulfilled after finding a husband to-be. Since the show is rooted in worn out and sexist ideologies, it’s no surprise that we see comments reflecting those old-fashioned beliefs. Additionally, The Bachelorette is hyper-focused on one woman. Women and female-presenting individuals have been taught to find the worst in themselves and others and to be wary of other women. When we invest two hours a week into one woman's journey for love, it’s easy for us to fall back into old and sexist habits. This hyper-awareness leads to a pattern of thinking that we must consciously push back at, despite the relative ease with which these thoughts intrude our minds. 

Secondly, Hannah doesn’t fit the “Bachelorette box,” while the men do. Yes, we did have a larger than usual amount of questionable characters, but we also had the shy guys, the guys who never got any airtime, and the sweethearts you knew wouldn’t win (I see you, Peter and Mike!). But Hannah? She rejected the traditional presentation of The Bachelorette. Rachel E. Dubrofsky writes in her book, The Surveillance of Women on Reality Television: Watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette that the “ideal women,” the Bachelorette in this case, has the following ten qualities. Here are the ten stipulations for an ideal women on the show, according to Dubrofsky: 

  1. Show her emotions and feelings, but not too many too soon. 

  2. Confess her feelings and emotions, but not too much or too soon.

  3. Show that she is willing to take the risk to find love by overcoming the contrived setting of the series, but not acknowledge the contrived setting.

  4. Show a comfort with surveillance, but pretend she is not being surveilled.

  5. See the process of the series as a therapeutic experience, but not change herself.

  6. Reveal herself increasingly on the series, but never reveal anything new or startling.

  7. Be empowered through her choices, but give up power to her emotions and to a man who will make important choices for her.

  8. Willingly participate in a harem, but eschew the values of a harem.

  9. Accept that her man is not being monogamous, but make herself available only to him.

  10. Claim that her representation on the series is under her control...even though she has little control over this.

While the ninth requirement does not pertain to Hannah, as she is the Bachelorette instead of a contestant on The Bachelor, the rest do. And how many does she keep in accordance with? Only one - number ten. The rest of them, Hannah destroyed throughout her season. We’ve seen her crying and furious on the show, breaking the first rule, and confessing these feelings to the men right from the get-go.  Hannah was furious upon discovering that Scott had a girlfriend back home, showing the men, and the rest of the United States, that she could be angry and decisive when needed. On Colton’s season of The Bachelorette, Hannah was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of being surveilled all the time, and while this discomfort isn’t as obvious on her season, viewers can easily pick up her awareness, whether it’s by calming herself down from intense emotions or thinking before speaking. Another thing Hannah blows out of the water? The idea that she has not changed. Hannah is outspoken about how she is a more empowered woman after her time on The Bachelorette and is more at ease with herself after the show wrapped. Hannah also put herself above a relationship, breaking off her engagement to Jed, thereby breaking rule seven, and was comfortable exploring physical connections with the men on the show, breaking the eighth rule as well. As for not revealing anything startling, well, I’ll just say two words: Peter, windmill. Cue the fanning. 

Hannah is completely different than other any Bachelorette we’ve had. While I found it refreshing, the critiques viewers had were in response to her not abiding by these unspoken rules. Some found it crass that Hannah would reveal personal details, that she was immature and not “ladylike” (whatever that means) if she got angry, and others wished she was more comfortable in front of the camera. The examples go on. Through it all, Hannah was true to herself and committed to the process, which was enough for me. But for other viewers who might have been expecting the same old same old, they were taken aback, and sometimes outraged by this more realistic, nuanced, and feminist portrayal of what really happens when a women is surveilled day and night as she attempts to navigate 30 different relationships with men. While Hannah might not have gotten the fairy tale happy ending, she got something much better: a sense of security and self-love. I call that a win.