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November 22, 2002
Patriarchy, New and Improved

Back Talk Any feminist, female or male, who has seen ABC’s The Bachelor was repulsed. For those who have missed this fine media offering, a carefully selected lunk of a guy—in the most recent case, Aaron—is presented with a harem of 25 also carefully selected young women, all slim, all conventionally pretty and most blonde.

After sampling all the wares, he rejects them one by one until he has chosen the one he likes best. It’s not unlike a 4-H competition of prize heifers, except the women weigh less and get to go to fancy resorts. Nor is it unlike the inspections in 19th-century slave pens, except that the women are mostly white, privileged and, I’m sorry to report, there of their own free will.

Women who railed against the sexism of the Miss America pageant, TV detective shows and Mr. Clean commercials in the early ’70s must not believe what they are seeing. Feminism aside, the notion that anyone would select the person they’re going to marry in six weeks of fantasy dates in hot tubs televised to millions of people is creepy.

Nothing from the real world that binds people together or makes them fight like Rottweilers—religion, politics, money, racial attitudes, child-rearing practices, whether you squeeze the toothpaste from the end or the middle—is allowed to enter this fantasy world. Human relationships are depoliticized here, reinforcing the notion that women and marriage are, and should be, outside the realm of citizenship and civic culture.

Worst of all, the show has been a smash among young women. The demographic group most prized by advertisers, women ages 18 to 34, have made The Bachelor a huge hit and prompted worries about the survival of its competition over on NBC, The West Wing. From dawn till dusk, ABC’s chat room has been abuzz with postings from avid fans. So, as a crotchety, 50-something feminist, I want to know what the hell has happened to this generation of young women?

Of course, as soon as I ask that, an admonition I have always raised nags at me: If young women en masse are embracing a media offering, then we need to figure out why. Just as Madonna in her boy-toy phase and the Spice Girls with their Wonder-Bras and mini-skirts spoke to millions of girls and young women about what has come to be called “girl power,” The Bachelor’s popularity tells us something about post-feminism and how young women experience their situations within, yes—I’ll use the word—patriarchy.

So I turned to an invaluable source, my teen-age daughter and her friends. My daughter loves the show, and loathes watching it with me, because my stream of invective makes it hard for her to follow what’s going on. But here’s what I hear these girls saying: They know the show is sexist. (They naively counter that since ABC is going to run The Bachelorette in the winter, the network isn’t sexist.) Many of them do not find Aaron—an amiable, tall, sandy-haired guy with not much light behind his eyes—all that desirable.

But for them, the show is not about Aaron, it’s about the 25 young women. Female viewers see an array of personas, identifying with some and rejecting others, as they calibrate what kind of woman succeeds in a world where appearance and personality still powerfully determine a woman’s fate. Helene, the one Aaron finally chose, was enormously popular with young women—the chat room confirms this—because she was cast as “the smart one.” Confident, with a sense of humor, Helene was also not overly adulatory of The Man, unlike some of the other contestants. My daughter and her friends did not like the contestants who were wimpy and needy, air-headed, manipulative, untrustworthy, backstabbing or bitchy.

The show, in essence, offers highly normative female “types” into which most women allegedly fall and ropes viewers into damning certain behaviors while applauding others. Thus girls are urged to place themselves on a post-feminist scale of femininity to determine how far they have to go to please men without losing all shreds of their own identity and dignity. In the process, young women calibrate, for better and for worse, what kind of female traits are most likely to ensure success in a male-dominated world.

But Aaron is being judged, too. The show is a metaphor for the persistence—dare I say, desirability—of patriarchy, but in post-feminist clothing. With all of Aaron’s faux soul-searching about people needing to be honest and sensitive and not wanting to hurt any woman’s feelings, he embodies the lie that patriarchy ain’t so bad now because it has been humanized by women.

Viewers tuned in to see if he would confirm girls’ worst suspicions that men (and, by extension, a patriarchal system) go for superficial qualities and women who stay in their place—or whether he would embody the new and improved sensitive-new-age-guy patriarchy, the kind that supposedly “gets it.” His choice of Helene confirms the latter.

Now it is true that many young women loathe this show and find it completely degrading to women. But millions don’t. They flock to The Bachelor in part because they want to participate in a process that reinforces what kinds of femininity ensure survival, and what kinds do not, in a world still run by men. In so doing, they become complicit in perpetuating an ethic from the ’50s: that women be judged first and foremost by their bodies, faces and personality traits, rather than their brains, integrity, courage, talents or, heaven forbid, political convictions.


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