Hannah Brown, the star of ABC’s The Bachelorette, was having a moment. Her date had gone sour. Way sour. Her beau, Luke P., was telling her that, to marry him, she’d have to be pure, the way the Bible said — and if he learned she’d had sex with any of the several other men she was dating simultaneously, he’d “be wanting to go home.”
Oh, but she had had sex, Hannah told him. Then she shoved him into a limousine, ordering him out of her life — and, as far as you could tell beneath the post-production blurring, flipped him the bird as the car drove away.
I glanced across the couch at my 15-year-old, wondering how she’d react.
We’ve been watching TV together for most of her life, for good and bad: Caillou, American Idol, cheesy teen soaps on ABC Family, the occasional snippet of a political debate that I force her to watch. But there’s been nothing quite so educational as this season of The Bachelorette.
ABC’s pulpy dating franchise has been around since 2003: 15 seasons of red roses, impossibly white teeth, and romantic dates filmed in deluxe locales around the world. (This March, there was a stopover in Boston, where Hannah and her beau-of-the-moment strolled through Faneuil Hall and visited the Celtics’ practice facility.)
The Bachelorette is not real, for all of the reasons that reality TV is not real: ABC chooses one eligible, cisgendered, hot-blooded American woman and offers her a selection of supposedly interested suitors, a couple of whom she must eliminate each week. It’s hardly a failproof matchmaking scheme; only six of the past 14 final couples are still together.
It is, however, irresistible TV: obsessively covered, recapped, and live tweeted, forever inviting you to yell at the screen. And in some ways, the show has become more meaningful as the dating world has changed around it, as the quasi-deliberative Match.com gave way to the swipe-left culture of Tinder, as the fallout from #MeToo exposed deep uncertainty over how hard it can be for a woman to say “no” — and also, over whether and when she should say “yes.”
So it’s not a stretch, when watching with a teenaged girl, to see The Bachelorette as a case study in how to navigate this new, confusing world. At this point in my daughter’s life, the birds, bees, and mechanics of various methods of protection have been thoroughly covered, in school and at home. But anatomy is the easy part. Much harder is figuring out what makes a healthy relationship.
That’s where The Bachelorette makes an excellent allegory. If you’re wondering what kind of person would make the best partner, the show serves up several archetypes. Among the final four finalists, my daughter and I had been rooting for Peter, The Nice Guy — solid, sincere, unguarded, even-keeled. We appreciated Tyler, The Body, who makes her toes curl but respects her boundaries. (“Good jooooob,” my daughter drawled at the TV, when Tyler told Hannah, “I would never pressure you.”) We were skeptical of Jed, The Operator, a Nashville singer-songwriter who may have gone on the show just to boost his career.
And, along with the rest of America, we were horrified by Luke P., The Bad Guy. You’ve met the type: the one who does everything to extremes, from turning a casual game of rugby into a vicious brawl to switching from the yin of a big-time sinner to the yang of a Bible thumper. He’s self-centered and possessive, qualities that Hannah overlooked for weeks, perhaps with some behind-the-scenes encouragement from the producers (a good villain makes for good TV).
So when that final straw finally snapped, it was glorious. “I have had sex,” she spat at Luke, as his jaw dropped so wide a blue jay could have flown inside and made a nest. “Yeah. And Jesus still loves me.”
It’s not a terrible thing for a 15-year-old to see a woman with sexual agency; the right to say “no,” after all, comes with the right to say “yes,” when you’re mature enough to choose that path. But the issue at hand was actually control. Hannah finally saw that Luke wanted to dictate her behavior, and that this pattern wouldn’t stop with a wedding ring. She extrapolated out, and set herself free. (Though, this being reality TV, it was fair to assume we hadn’t seen the last of him.)
And if you’re in Hannah’s shoes, freedom is glorious. Who else gets the chance to juggle 20 motivated suitors at a time? At the start of every date, another man tells her she’s beautiful and literally sweeps her off her feet. As a result, all season, she hasn’t really wanted to choose — before more than one elimination ceremony, she sobbed, chafing against the arbitrary rules of the show.
This, it turns out, is what my daughter likes the most about Hannah: She sees her not as indecisive, but deliberative. Hannah doesn’t want to choose before she’s ready. She realizes that she holds the most power before she makes a choice — and that saying “yes” to one of the men means saying “no” to every other option. She understands that sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is wait.
“You don’t own me,” Hannah declared before she sent Luke away. “You don’t get to decide what I can and can’t do.” My daughter and I were cheering at the TV at this point. “She’s good, see? Told you she’s good,” my daughter said, in admiration.
Joanna Weiss is editor-in-chief of Experience magazine. Send comments to email@example.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.