The Bachelorette is one of my favorite shows that I almost never watch.
These days, I can barely stomach an entire episode (why are they eighty minutes?!! Olivia Benson could solve two mysteries in that time!!!!), but in the summer of 2013, I watched all of season nine as it aired. I didn’t miss a second. I fell in love with The Bachelorette.
Like any love story, timing had everything to do with it.
The summer of 2013 was not especially hot in New York City, but it’s the hottest in my memory because nobody I knew had money for air conditioning, and we couldn’t afford to go out to air-conditioned places (unless you count the subway). It was rumored the office I was working in had air conditioning that would be turned on if clients ever came to the building. I have no idea if that was true. There weren’t so many clients, and they never came to the office. I don’t think anyone I spent time with that summer was making more than fifteen dollars an hour (I was making twelve). We were recent graduates with a recession mentality and happy just to have jobs. As a former film student, I was thrilled to finally be working somewhere that didn’t require a hairnet.
Despite living a twenty-minute train ride away from a city full of incredible bars, clubs, and restaurants, I spent most of that summer in friends’ small and sweaty apartments eating Hot Pockets, drinking Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Ritas, and living for those shimmering split seconds when rickety oscillating fans would point in my direction. It sounds shitty, but it wasn’t. We had enough cheap alcohol and imagination to make our own fun. It’s important to really understand how limited our nightlife options were. This is how something as mundane as watching a reality show that, at that point, had already been around for ten years became a major weekly event.
When my dude Megan suggested I come over and watch the season premiere of season nine of The Bachelorette, I wasn’t into it. “You’ll love it!” she said. I wasn’t sure. Love as a game-show prize is trashy, and if I was going to watch a trashy dating show, I wanted to watch one that went all in. What was the point if contestants couldn’t immediately be eliminated for not being fuckable enough? Why would I watch if there was zero chance of Bret Michaels suddenly singing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” for no reason (but also every reason)? If Tiffany “New York” Pollard wasn’t there to “mind-screw” other contestants, did it even count as a competition??
Then again, I had nothing else to do. I grabbed some bodega beer and headed over. I’d never seen the show before, but Megan was a longtime resident of “Bachelor Nation,” having watched every season of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette since its premiere in 2002. Chris Harrison greeted us, announcing that we were in for the most exciting season in “Bachelorette history” (something, Megan explained, he promises and delivers every season). He introduced Desiree “Des” Hartsock, the blandly beautiful brunette whose heart the men were competing for. She designed wedding dresses because of course she did, and she’d had her heart broken the season before by a blandly beautiful blond. “I’m looking for a love to light the darkness,” she said in a preview of the upcoming season.
“A love to light the darkness”? That was so corny! She couldn’t be serious. I cackled and took a long sip of my cheap beer.
Being skeptical of televised love is reasonable, but the root of my laughter was uglier. I laughed at her for being stupid enough to want love. I was only twenty-three, and I was so unsure I’d ever be able to get close enough to a man to love one that I convinced myself it was something I didn’t want at all. It was cowardly, but it felt brave.
After a quick commercial break, we got to meet the contestants. It was a deluge of dick. There were twenty-five men, all handsome in a could-play-a-young-dad-in-a-cereal-commercial sort of way (except for you, Drew! DAMN, you were something special! I’m still mad Des didn’t pick you. If you’re reading this, I’m single. And pretty. Not cereal-commercial pretty, but pretty enough. Go to the submissions page, email your number to email@example.com with the subject ATTN: ADRIENNE, and I will be in touch. XOXO). Some had tragic backstories. Some had pick-up lines. One guy walked out shirtless and asked her to “accept these abs.” (She did.) Everyone had to step out of a limo and walk down a red carpet to meet this chick. Des said she felt like she was “in a fairy tale” and was sure her “Prince Charming” was in the group. It was all so staged and ridiculous. Did people really take two hours out of their lives once a week to keep up with this shit?
Des mixed and mingled with the men in the Bachelorette mansion, and for the first time, I saw something resembling reality. One contestant, Jonathan, was visibly drunk and invited Des to the fantasy suite. I’d never seen the show, but I knew what the fantasy suite was. He was basically saying, “Wanna fuck?” and she VERY politely turned him down. So politely, in fact, that he decided to disregard her “no” and started following her around to ask her again. I could feel my stomach knotting. There were twenty-four other men in the house, not counting the people filming the show. Why wasn’t anybody helping her? Didn’t they see she was in danger?
Maybe they didn’t. Around seven months before the Bachelorette premiere, I was staying at a friend’s apartment. She’d gone to bed, and I was watching TV with her roommate, a family member of hers I’d known for a few years. We were all out earlier that night. We’d been drinking. He and I’d been flirting. I remember being flattered by the attention. He was older, he was cute, and he was rich. We spent most of the night arguing about the upcoming election, but we wound up holding hands and watching South Park on his couch. It was an episode I’d seen before. I was getting tired. He invited me to his room. I VERY politely turned him down. He stormed off to bed and slammed the door. I rolled my eyes, stretched out on the couch, and used his Canada Goose coat as a blanket. I fell asleep. As it turned out, the invitation to his room was just a formality, but that never occurred to me. I didn’t see the danger I was in.
When Jonathan asked Des to the fantasy suite a third time, she told him he was making her uncomfortable and kicked his creepy drunk ass out of the mansion. That was it! He was out! Just like that! This was a fairy tale—the dishonorable suitor was banished from the kingdom forevermore! The other men applauded, and I laughed, but it wasn’t cynical. I was happy he was gone. I was genuinely rooting for Des. She may have been a human game show prize, but seeing the power she had over these men was intoxicating.
Men made me feel powerless. I was terrified of them. Inconveniently, I also really, really wanted one. The office I worked in that summer, the one that wasn’t air conditioned, was full of them. They were around my age, they were creative, and they were cute, and, at one time or another, I had crushes on almost all of them. The Adrienne I was the year before, working at a restaurant in Queens, would have been so jealous. She never met men. The few guys she worked with were fresh out of high school, she was too poor to go out, and online dating wasn’t an option because she didn’t have a smartphone or laptop, and she wasn’t about to set up an OkCupid account at the local library. That little thirstbucket would have been thrilled by what was comparatively an embarrassment of riches. Forty-plus hours a week with all these age-appropriate, acoustic-guitar-playing, definitely-used-to-keep-a-journal dudes?! JACK. POT.
No longer that little thirstbucket, I was not thrilled. Liking these guys was not fun for me at all. I don’t want to say it was torture because only torture is torture, but it was bad. Any teensy bit of interest any of them showed in me would be met with two percent excitement and ninety-eight percent terror. I couldn’t see a best-case scenario. Maybe I would start dating one of them, but if it did go well, they would probably want to go to the fantasy suite at some point. My last visit was extraordinarily painful, and I didn’t know when I’d be ready to go back.
Being wanted was scary. Being unwanted was scary. Being alone was the only way to be safe.
I did go on a few dates with one. I even texted him one night saying my roommates were out of town and he should come over. I immediately regretted it but kept telling myself, This is OK, this is what people do, you are a person, calm down and BE A PERSON! He replied saying he’d come by later. Oh shit, oh shit, your roommates aren’t home, what if something happens, WHAT DO YOU MEAN “WHAT IF,” SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY GOING TO HAPPEN, YOU JUST INVITED IT TO HAPPEN. Maybe just turn off your phone just turn off your phone just turn it off and tell him it died and you can deal with it tomorrow YOU CAN’T DO THAT BE A PERSON ACT LIKE A PERSON THIS IS WHAT PEOPLE DO. I don’t remember, but I probably replied “cool” or some such monosyllabic nonsense. I waited for my phone to buzz, saying he was on his way. The idea of getting this message made me miserable, but as the night went on, I became equally upset that it wasn’t coming. Was it worse to be wanted or unwanted? I stayed up worrying all night. He didn’t come over. I was relieved and disappointed. Being wanted was scary. Being unwanted was scary. Being alone was the only way to be safe. That morning, I resolved to stop dating altogether. It was weak, but it felt powerful.
Des, now left with two dozen potential “Prince Charmings,” was about to do enough dating for the both of us. I was very impressed with Week One of The Bachelorette, but Week Two was a revelation for a very important reason. You will notice the word “reason” is in bold. There’s a reason for it, and the reason is, in Week Two, I was introduced to “the reasons.” Those familiar with The Bachelor/ette already know exactly what I’m talking about. “The reasons” are the existential force that drives the drama in the Bachelorette universe. Why are the contestants there? Are they there for “the right reasons” or “the wrong reasons”?
“Reasons” suggests a plurality, which is misleading because, as far as I can tell, there is only one right reason and one wrong reason. The wrong reason: to be on a popular TV show. The right reason: to fall in love/become the greatest husband/wife the Bachelor/ette could ever have. There is no worse sin you can commit in the Bachelor/ette universe than being there for “the wrong reasons.” It is punishable by instant elimination; a dramatic, dehumanizing speech from the person you were just dating detailing how much you suck; and several confessionals from other contestants attesting a) you do, in fact, suck, and b) the Bachelor/ette is a hero for even continuing to do the show after meeting your suck ass.
“The reasons” are the show’s morality, and they were explained to me by moral philosopher Soulja Boy in what I guess is technically a rap song called “For the Right Reasons.” Watch it until it hurts you.
You’ll notice several white men dancing around (I’m fairly sure the only black person in the video is Soulja Boy, but I can’t confirm because I do not want to watch it again). These were the contestants. Watching these ludicrously not-Ludacris men dancing in a hip-hop video, rapping about how pure of heart they are, was absurd. I laughed really hard, harder than I’ve ever laughed at any show that was trying to be funny. They were really doing all of this to get a girl to like them? I was officially a convert, spreading the Bachelorette gospel to my office, inviting more and more people into Megan’s tiny living room to watch it. The antics became more amusing as the weeks went on. There were (embarrassing) songs sung. There were (embarrassing) poems written. The men had (embarrassing) little catfights. I might be misremembering, but I could swear Ben, an adult male with a human son, actually said, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” They were all silly, and they were all men. THESE were what I was afraid of? Maybe I was watching the show for the wrong reasons, but sitting around with friends and laughing at these guys for two hours once a week was an incredible release.
I was also tuning in to ogle the contestants. Chris was as cute as he was terrible at writing poetry (extremely). Juan Pablo would later prove to be an asshole when he became The Bachelor, but he didn’t get much screentime on The Bachelorette. His entire role on the show was “hot foreign soccer player,” and, dammit, he played the hell out of it. Brooks was a bit boring, but he had glorious, magical, Kardashian-thick hair. And then there was Drew. Sweet, beautiful DrewBoo. Look at this picture of him thinking and imagine it’s him sitting across from you, trying to come up with the answer to twenty-six across because you are the kind of couple that does crossword puzzles together. Tell me you don’t want that life. You can’t. The crushes I had on these guys were fun because they were pure fantasy. I didn’t exist in their lives, so there was no risk of them reacting to my interest in any way.
It was completely safe—a word I’d stopped associating with men.
Des was the most powerful person on the show, but she did not have complete control. This became abundantly clear when Luscious Locks Brooks, one of the final three contestants, dumped her. He wasn’t cruel, but it was brutal in the way breakups are. He told her he wasn’t madly in love with her. He said he loved things about her, and he wanted her to be with someone who was passionate about her. Those are both very sweet sentiments, but I’m positive she didn’t hear anything beyond “I’m not madly in love with you.” She told him she loved him and quickly devolved into a weepy mess because that’s what you do when your heart breaks. Imagine how painful that must have been. She wasn’t only let down by Brooks; she was betrayed by the show itself. SHE was supposed to be the one in charge. SHE’D already been devastated on national television the year before. SHE was supposed to be the one breaking hearts, and here she was in little white shorts, sobbing over some sales rep on a tropical paradise. It was by far her lowest point on the show, and it was hard to watch.
We turned every episode of The Bachelorette into a drinking game, and one of the rules was to drink whenever someone said “fairy tale.” It was an excellent rule! It got us very drunk. After Brooks left Des, there was speculation the fairy tale (drink) was over, but one day later she was engaged to Chris the “poet.” She got her fairy tale (DRINK) ending! At least, that’s what she and Chris Harrison said. Bachelor Nation was skeptical. Wasn’t she just crying over spilled milk, by which I mean the boring white dude who just dumped her? Poet Chris looked an awful lot like an adorable silver medal.
HOWEVER, out of the thirty-four Bachelors and Bachelorettes in the show’s history (excluding Rachel and Not-Peter—they are too recent a couple to count), only eight couples are still together. Des and Chris are one of them. They got married in 2015 and recently had a baby. Four years is still pretty early to say “happily ever after,” but it looks like they’re going strong. Watching the show, I never got the feeling Des was settling for Chris. Chris was in love with her and was willing to give her the future she wanted. Brooks wasn’t willing to give her anything. Chris wanted her; Brooks didn’t. She didn’t waste time pining over a guy she couldn’t have. She got up and got the goddamn fairy tale (DRIIIIINKKKK) she was promised.
I wasn’t ready to be wanted (and wouldn’t be for a while), but I was able to envision a version of myself that welcomed male interest.
OF COURSE being wanted was better than being unwanted. Des saw it, and finally I did too. I wasn’t ready to be wanted (and wouldn’t be for a while), but I was able to envision a version of myself that welcomed male interest. I wanted to look for and love someone. It would require a strength and bravery I didn’t yet possess, but I believed I could get there, and I knew it would be worth working toward.
I should stress here that The Bachelorette did not “heal” me/permanently rid me of my man problems. I didn’t start dating again until a year after the finale, and it took another eight months beyond that before I was able to go to the fantasy suite without having a panic attack. Five years later, I still have nightmares about a guy after the first few times I sleep with him (although generally they’re much less graphic/horrifying than they used to be. Sometimes they’re almost funny. I recently had one where the guy kicked me out of his apartment and made me drop off his laundry on my way out). If I’m alone with a guy in his apartment, and we haven’t known each other for too long, no matter how fine I tell myself it is, my body disconnects with my brain and starts shaking a little bit. Truthfully, I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe around most guys, but the fear is no longer paralysis.
I am able to date men. I am able to sleep with men. I am capable of loving men, and I know the love of a man is something I want. I don’t want to call The Bachelorette therapy, because therapy is therapy, but it was an enormous help to me. It gave me a weekly excuse to sit around with some of my favorite people and laugh at something I’d forgotten could be funny. The Bachelorette is a stupid show about love, but it reminded me that wanting love isn’t stupid. It didn’t solve any of my problems, but it encouraged me to take small, positive steps that would lead to big, important ones.
In The Bachelorette that summer, I’d found (to borrow from Des) a love that lit the darkness.