Last week, my 4-year-old wandered into my closet and plucked my highest pair of heels off the shelf.
Oh, cute! I thought. She’s playing dress-up! I watched as Phoebe chose another pair of heels, then, after careful consideration, her hot-pink Hello Kitty suitcase. ”Phoebe,” I inquired, ”are you running away from home?”
”No,” she said, hoisting the highest heels. ”I am packing these for when I go to be on the program The Bachelor. And these,” she said, showing me the second pair, ”are in case another lady forgets her shoes.”
Well, I thought, after I’d lifted my jaw off the floor, at least she’s a good sharer!
When you are, as I am, a devotee of trashy reality television and the mother of young girls, you will have some ‘splaining to do. What kind of feminist lets her daughter watch a show that reinforces the worst in gender norms and sexist expectations?
The truth is, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette offer teachable moments about how the media — and the world — work. As single mom Emily Maynard’s Bachelorette season comes to a close, here’s some of what my girls and I have learned.
1. Love’s got nothing to do with it.
”Why are all these ladies trying to date that one guy?” my elder daughter, Lucy, asked the first time she wandered into the TV room. So I told her the truth: ”They want to be on TV.” Whatever its original intentions, The Bachelor has become a shortcut to a career in media, where the ultimate goal isn’t a ring on your finger but a microphone in your hand. In my opinion, the show’s biggest ”winner” is Melissa Rycroft, who parlayed being dumped by Jason Mesnick into a legitimate career, from tabloid covers to a stint on Dancing With the Stars and now a reality show of her own.
Do I hope that my girls end up cavorting on TV in teensy swimsuits, sharing lip-locks, overused metaphors (rappelling is risky, but so is love!), and overnight dates with a man as bland as a bowl of fro-yo, a man who’s already kissed — and possibly more — a bunch of other ladies? Absolutely not. But on TV, looks matter. If feminism is, ultimately, about choices, can I begrudge the (inevitably thin, almost always white) “bachelorettes” for skinny-dipping and fantasy suite-ing their way to an actual media career? I’m not sure I can.
2. There’s no free lunch.
”I’m thrilled to be staying in the beautiful resort of (INSERT NAME!) on the gorgeous island of (INSERT NAME!),” the Bachelorette coos. And I explain the concepts of ”product placement” and ”promotional consideration,” hoping that my girls understand that they’re being sold something other than a fairy tale every Monday night.
3. Sisterhood is powerful.
After 16 seasons, the franchise has given us two marriages and three engagements I’m not holding my breath about. But it’s also produced real-life friendships between the former contestants, friendships that play out in life and on social media. For instance, when former Bachelor and current class act Brad Womack told a local ABC affiliate that he’d ”dodged a bullet” by not wedding Emily Maynard, her former competitor Ashley Spivey leaped to Em’s defense, tweeting, ”I’m sure they accidentally cut off the part where he said it was a diamond encrusted bullet, of course!” Season 14’s runner-up, Tenley Molzahn, also had Emily’s back on Twitter, saying, ”love that Emily has a spine and tells it like it is.” I suspect that these relationships — no offense, Trista and Ryan — might well be the show’s most lasting legacy.
4. Keep your words sweet, because someday you may have to eat them.
Remember Courtney? This model — she may have mentioned it a time or 200 — was the contestant who made it clear that The Bachelor is not a quest for true love but a game, and she would have played hard whether the prize was Ben, or Brad, or a set of steak knives. Courtney was in it to win it. She was, to employ the time-honored reality-show cliché, Not Here to Make Friends. My girls watched a crying Courtney reap the bitter fruits she’d sown on the Women Tell All reunion special, sniffling and sobbing as the other women called her out. Message: Be kind, always…and know clever editing can make even a good girl look bad.
5. Your mom will always love you.
My elder daughter is not the snuggly type. Ever since she was a baby, she’d squirm away from cuddles, flinch from kisses, and vigorously wipe off imaginary lipstick after Grandma managed to sneak a smacker on her cheek. But when Kalon called Emily’s 6-year-old daughter ”baggage” — and Emily subsequently went ”West Virginia hood rat” on his behind — Lucy started looking worried.
”You are not baggage,” I said, giving Lu the single hug she allowed me. ”You and your sister are the most important things I’ve done in my life.” If those are the messages my daughters take away from the train wreck that is The Bachelorette, I think we’ll all be fine.