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Alternate Reality

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N‘ve always liked Sandra Bullock. You have to admire her dual career as actor and producer, her attempts — I said attempts — to play strong female characters (hey, Miss Congeniality is a good feminist flick if you squint hard enough), and her willingness to make an ass of herself. So when she admitted on E!’s Revealed with Jules Asner that she was secretly obsessed with The Bachelor, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.
     You know you’ve watched it too: ABC’s car crash of a reality series in which one good-on-paper guy is surrounded by twenty-five self-hating women in desperate need of an engagement ring. The lucky bastard gets to take the girls on “fantasy dates,”then break their hearts, one by one, until he’s settled on a potential bride. The entire process takes six weeks. (Actually an eternity in TV time, when you consider the show’s forerunners: the live, two-hour special Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and the 1983 Brady Bunch reunion movie in which Marcia tied the knot with a man she’d only known for a week, hoping to one-up Jan again and beat her to the altar.) It’s easy to be appalled by The Bachelor, and the way it preys on the desperation of women raised on traditional values, exaggerates the cattiness of female competition and turns its contestants into items on a cheap romance buffet. But it’s also hard to turn away from.
     So, no doubt like Sandra, I eagerly awaited the premiere of The Bachelorette. This time around, the determinator is Trista Rehn, first runner-up on The Bachelor‘s premiere season. (Don’t call it a comeback: viewers fell in love with the perky physical therapist, but Bachelor No. 1 picked the chick with fake boobs instead.) Apparently, national humiliation couldn’t dissuade Trista from finding a husband by any means necessary, and now she’s lining up twenty-five suckers for inspection.
     At first, I worried that the gender-role reversal wouldn’t translate. What guy with half a brain would put himself up on the chopping block for one woman? And surely, male contestants wouldn’t care enough about the process to create dramatic tension: there would be no over-analyzing, no malicious gossip, no tears.
     But, by Jove, it’s working! After three episodes, The Bachelorette has matched — if not surpassed — The Bachelor in drama. The formula goes both ways — and provides a tidy little lesson about gender relations in the process. In a culture that’s so invested in the men-from-Mars-women-from-Venus mindset, The Bachelorette proves how similar we really are.
     Take the show’s first kiss, aggressively delivered by Trista herself. Alone with a date named Russell, she grabs his face and plants one on him — while he’s trying to express his feelings. A day later, when Russell misinterprets the moment (he thinks it actually means something), Trista pulls him aside, explains that she isn’t into aggressive guys and tells him to back off. When another date whines that Trista isn’t getting to know him well enough, she blows him off. (Why waste time on someone so high maintenance when twenty-four other candidates are waiting outside?) It’s irony on an Alanis level!
     Meanwhile, it’s the men — not Trista — who spout all the romantic clichés: “I just need to hear her reciprocate those feelings for me.” “I believe in love at first sight.” “This was meant to be.” When not emoting for the camera, the guys huddle around talking shit about each other. Several of them get teary-eyed when the ax falls.

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Meanwhile, Trista continues cutting an oral swath through the remaining contestants. (In upcoming episodes, she’s shown making out with multiple guys; unfortunately, though, not all at once.) It’s surprising that network television has allowed America’s Sweetheart to exhibit this kind of sexual aggressiveness and power, but for most of the women I know, this is as real as reality television has ever been. “Finally,” said a friend and fellow Bachelor addict during the second episode, “a chick on this series with some balls.”
     Interesting, The Bachelorette‘s nod to gender equality appears to be a trend. On MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Battle of the Sexes, teams of men and women compete in a series of mental and physical challenges. What would seem to be a lesson in the differences between testosterone and estrogen has turned out to be a counterintuitive surprise: the women have won the first two challenges, the second of which was decidedly physical. The guys’ Adonis-like physiques betray a level of body consciousness usually associated with women on TV, and they spend just as much time flaunting the goods. In the first episode, the men provided nearly all the high drama: when David (the emotionally unstable skinny dude from Real World: Los Angeles who got booted by his roommates) got into a heated argument with Puck (the emotionally unstable skinny dude from Real World: San Francisco who got booted by his roommates), their tiff ended in a puddle of tears. Yes, Puck actually cried.
     And then there’s Joe Millionaire, a rip-off of a rip-off with a typically obnoxious Fox twist: Twenty women are flown to France to “fall in love” with the Conan the Barbarian-esque heir to a $50 million fortune. Later, they learn he’s actually a construction worker who earns nineteen thou a year. It’s Cinderella with a sex change! Although the show isn’t short on gender stereotypes — the women are spoiled brats who want to be princesses; the guy is strong and, for all practical purposes, silent — the premise defies one of the most sexist assumptions of all: that men are supposed to be providers. Inside Joe, there’s a poor little feminist screaming to get out. Admitting that he’s looking for an “independent, resourceful woman” because he “won’t be able to provide,” the pseudomillionaire takes the ladies on “hard labor dates” — grape picking in the cold rain, coal shoveling on a train, manure slinging in the stables — to judge, in a sense, how masculine they can be.
     Reality shows are about as realistic as Joan Rivers’ face is naturally taut. This has been proven. But this season’s doozies are more true-to-life than any episode of Dawson’s Creek, Sex and the City or The Mind of the Married Man. So much of pop culture is constructed on a clear-cut separation between the sexes that The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire can actually teach us something. By giving people a little unscripted space to defy stereotypes — however unintentionally — they reveal the gender continuum we all exist on. Now, some macho meathead might catch an episode of The Bachelorette and realize that expressing a little emotion won’t turn him gay. Preteen girls might see Trista in action and dream about asking for their lover’s hand in marriage. Or they’ll watch Joe Millionaire and decide to make their own millions instead of relying on someone else.
     Of course, this might mean the end of Baywatch, but that’s the price you pay for evolution.  

©2003 Lorelei Sharkey and Nerve.com.