Toxic Femininity on The Bachelorette
On June 3, 2019, The Bachelorette aired an episode in which a group of bachelors played rugby in order to win the bachelorette’s favor. Even after one contestant was carted off to the hospital, the game culminated in one contestant body-slamming another into the turf and kneeing him in the head. The men were behaving badly, and Hannah B. couldn’t have been more pleased.
In the past two years, popular culture and the media have taken up the issue — and rightly so — of toxic masculinity. The shift was fueled in part — but certainly not solely — by the infamous Gillette ad that asks how men might raise boys so that they are not toxic. Although the ad received some backlash, overall, it contributed positively to a larger discussion of the issue. At this point, most people are quite familiar with the term toxic masculinity, and they can provide (often, far too many) examples of it from their own lives.
But gender does not operate in a vacuum. Binary gender is defined as much by what it is not as by what it is. Women are women because they are not men. And conversely, men are men because they are not women. Non-compliance causes the kind of gender confusion on display in Monty Python’s lumberjack skit. To be sure, I am not arguing that gender is or should be a binary. But these two aspects of gender — feminine and masculine — are really the only options on The Bachelorette.
Which leads to what would seem to be an exemplar of toxic femininity, Hannah B. of The Bachelorette. Before one thinks that this is merely another lets-bash-the Bachelor-franchise rant, let me assure you that I watch the series regularly. Have done so for years, although sometimes with all the Schadenfreude of rubberneckers on the LIE.
The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise has never been mistaken for a paragon of feminism. Both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are predicated on the centrality of appearances — physical and otherwise. Appearances matter. A lot. And conversations, if they take place, are edited to be extremely superficial, as well. Perhaps if they had conversations about things that matter — religion, politics, lifestyles, life goals, and so on, Becca would not have been blind-sided by Garrett’s horrific social media presence. Furthermore, the franchise has struggled — and generally failed — to address the issues of race and class. Fans take it as axiomatic that the Black and Asian contestants are never likely to make it very far in the competition.
Hannah B., however, represents an interesting case. The 24-year-old bachelorette graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications (magna cum laude). And, yet, despite possessing enough intelligence to graduate from a major university with honors, she plays dumb on TV. In one episode filmed in Boston, she muddled “facts” about the Boston Tea Party, claimed she excelled at “making up facts,” and she said she “just didn’t care” about a statue they stood before. In this particular scene, she certainly appeared to be playing a particular stereotype — and for a particular audience.
Hannah Brown was also Miss Alabama in 2018. As such, she fits cultural stereotypes of (white, middle-class, cis-het) attractiveness and desirability, and she clearly loves the attention paid to her looks. It’s all too evident in each episode how much she relishes the men’s compliments about her looks. Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. Most people like to feel desirable to at least some one.
Hannah has also been overt about her sexuality. From the way that she dresses to the way that she presents herself, sexual desire and sexual desirability are important to her. In an early episode, she has a male contestant remove his shirt as they make out. In promos for the remainder of the season, she suggests the bachelors need to stop thinking about their infighting and starting thinking about having sex with her. Perhaps the least demure Bachelorette yet, and that she identifies as a Southern Belle makes it all the more transgressive. She proudly proclaims, “Yes, I’ve had sex, and Jesus still loves me.” Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with someone wanting sex, Southern Belle, or not.
What makes Hannah the poster child for toxic femininity is the way in which she spurs the suitors to embody and enact the worst aspects of toxic masculinity. She enjoys the posturing. She enjoys the bravado. She enjoys the fighting. She enjoys the violence. In the episode that aired June 3, 2019, the group date featured 13 contestants playing rugby. As the men prepared for their contest, she huddled them together and screamed, “Blood, sweat, and tears,” which they loudly echoed. As they played, she ran up and down the field, she jumped up and down as the men bashed one another about. When one contestant dislocated a shoulder and was carted away to the hospital, she claimed she didn’t really want them to get hurt. Later, Luke P. picked up Luke S. and body slammed him and kneed him in the head. When she said that she didn’t really intend for anyone to get hurt, her disavowal carried all the credibility of Donald Trump’s disavowal of white nationalists and Nazis. To further illustrate the connection, Luke P. defended his aggression by noting, “It’s what she wanted.” He was right. Two weeks later, Hannah confirmed that she “wasn’t mad at all” about the body slam.
Later in the June 3 episode, Luke P. and Mike sparred about their status as protector of Hannah’s — reputation? Honor? Emotions? While Luke P. seems to be more conniving, he embodies and enacts toxic masculinity. While Mike may seem more mannered and polite, he acts every bit as toxic as Luke P. They are two pumped up men, doing battle to protect the fair maiden. Both of them fit the mold that Hannah desires and encourages.
Which leads, perhaps inevitably, to her equivocation on the word “no.” On the episode from June 17, Hannah refused to give Luke P. a rose and sent him home. He looked stunned. She said, “I need you to respect that.” He did not. He wandered around the Scottish woods, and proclaimed that she was all that he wanted in this world. He would not stop fighting for her. So, he returned to the building to continue his fight. Instead of throwing him out, instead of waving a giant red flag, Hannah B. allowed him to stay. Her “no” really meant “yes.” When she encourages them to fight — even to fight dirty — she encourages and invites their toxic masculinity. For Luke P., ignoring her plea for “respect” and fighting for her favor was the only possible response.
I do not mean to suggest that Hannah B. is alone in this. For one, TV airwaves are filled with examples of toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. For another, the show’s producers and editors construct the conflicts. They, as much as any, are responsible for perpetuating the narrative. They manipulate contestants and they manipulate footage, and viewers never really know the “reality” of what happened. Nevertheless, toxic masculinity is pervasive and pernicious. It elevates a particular set of harmful attitudes and behaviors as ideals of boys’ and men’s behaviors. It produces the kinds of individuals who see women as property and as sexual objects, who walk through the world with a sense of entitlement. It produces the kinds of men who shoot up churches and post offices and who want to control women’s bodies. Toxic femininity, on the other hand, is as set of attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate and reward such toxic behaviors. It invites the objectifying gaze; it rewards the violent victor of the joust. It even gives them a rose.
If we as a society want to do something about the former, we must simultaneously address the latter.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.