If you watched the season finale of “The Bachelorette” on Tuesday, you know that Hannah Brown ends up alone. (If you didn’t, Ali Barthwell’s glorious-as-ever Vulture recap is here; I’m only going to give the quickest, dirtiest plot points, and then flip to a broad view of the season.) Such “bad endings” happen with exceptional frequency in “The Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” universe, but rarely do they happen in such short order or to a person with such little patience for self-pity.
This season has presented something new, and the finale did, too.
In Tuesday’s episode, Hannah, 24, broke up with Tyler Cameron, a 26-year-old Greek god with soul and substance, for Jed Wyatt, 25, a singer-songwriter who admitted on their first date that he came on the show to advance his music career and has transparently serenaded her at every subsequent opportunity. (His music, to whatever extent it even matters now, is terrible.) Hannah and Jed got engaged. She then learned that Jed had a secret girlfriend, whom he proceeded to lie about a whole bunch. When he finally gave his full version of events, it got worse. (Yes, I told my secret girlfriend I loved her, went on vacations with her and introduced her to my parents — but don’t worry, babe. I never took her seriously. I was hooking up with other chicks the whole time.) Hannah dumped him; you loved to see it. They reunited live onstage and she decisively dumped him a second time. Then — here’s a fun surprise — enter Tyler. Sparks flew. “You’re an incredible guy, and I’m a single girl,” she told him, beaming. He was into it, as were we.
The televised part ends there. But since the advent of social media, there have been two “Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” worlds: the show and the sideshow. Immediately after the finale aired, Hannah shared an Instagram story that later disappeared. It was captured right after the live taping. In the short video, Hannah is in the back seat of a car. She’s singing her heart out to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts”: “Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me / Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me.” There’s an empty seat next to her, and she seems happy — actually happy. The kind of happiness the show promises “good endings” deliver.
To end up alone on “The Bachelorette” or “Bachelor” is framed as a disaster, a personal failure of either the lead or their chosen one. The fact that Hannah’s relationship failed both is and isn’t a result of her blunders. She had enough information to have made a better decision (Jed’s family told her he wasn’t ready to get married, to name just one of dozens of red flags, while Tyler seemed lovely and caring and ready; can you tell I have a favorite?), but she didn’t have all the information she needed to know who she was choosing. And how could she, after just two months spent with 25 potential suitors taken entirely out of their usual contexts? In the 15-season “Bachelorette” franchise, exactly three couples have actually gotten married. (Three others are engaged.) If the show would have us believe that’s a personal failure, the viewers can see it’s a structural one. By its own criteria, the show does not work; it does not consistently deliver its product, which is marriage, to market. It increasingly does not fit our time — in which fewer people are getting married, and those who choose to marry do so later in life — nor our culture, which is less puritan than the show’s format. In “The Bachelorette,” the lead and her potential spouses are supposed to get down to sexual business (or at least the possibility of sex, in the fantasy suite episode) only after meeting the suitor’s parents. And, even then, it’s a frenzied rush to the finish line, which is defined as saying “I love you” and getting engaged. It doesn’t make any damn sense.
This season represented the show’s first genuine attempt at changing the formula, spurred on by its spirited lead. Yes, the suitors, as usual, got out of a limo; they made snappy, memorable introductions; they were rewarded with roses, or else sent home; they traveled the world; they told Hannah they were “falling in love” or “could see themselves falling in love” and made other weird pronouncements that only happen in the realm of this show (in the real world, people tend to keep it to themselves until they’re fully in love, instead of offering their partner a daily play-by-play); and so on. The Bachelorette still Bacheloretted. But in prior seasons, rule-breaking was socially punished and structurally forbidden. After Kaitlyn Bristowe, the 2015 Bachelorette, had sex with a suitor before the fantasy suites (verboten) when he visited her in her hotel room outside the bounds of a formal date (also verboten), she was slut-shamed within an inch of her life.
This year, Hannah straddled several suitors in party dresses at cocktail parties; casually welcomed them into her hotel rooms when they came calling; spoke freely about sex and sexuality; and decided to keep an extra contestant on quite close to the end because she didn’t want to rush her decision. The men, to their credit, are different now, too. Hannah required emotional work; she wanted to talk about her feelings all the time and she pushed the men to do the same; she’s occasionally awkward and often fierce. We’ve had strong Bachelorettes before — Kaitlyn, yes, and 2017’s Rachel Lindsay — but we’ve never seen one advocate for herself this insistently. If Lizzo is the modern prophet of self-love, Hannah is a passionate disciple. Take me or leave me, she tells her suitors.
She’s perhaps best known for one memorable quote. “I have had sex, yeah, and Jesus still loves me,” Hannah told one disappointing Christian contestant, who told her he’d want to leave if he learned she’d had sex with any of the other suitors. The sex in question, she told him, had happened recently, with another contestant, in a windmill; the windmill sex, she told viewers, gleefully, had happened more than once. It’s not what we might have expected from Hannah, who was a wild card contestant last season on “The Bachelor” (she placed seventh), but was also a Miss USA competitor representing Alabama (she did not place). On last season of “The Bachelor,” she struggled to be authentic and often seemed like she was censoring herself. Maybe she got a bad edit the first time around, or maybe she’s grown. Either way, the times they are a-changin’, and, credit to Hannah, so did the role.
“The Bachelorette” is largely the same as when it aired in 2003, but the world is wildly different. When the #MeToo movement gained momentum nearly two years ago, it exploded the show’s naive constructs. Reality seeped in. On the last season of “The Bachelor,” contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes spoke about being drugged and raped in college, and the lead received her story with compassion. More than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and some experts believe the number to be much higher; many women don’t report). It’s likely that dozens of women in the show’s history have experienced sexual assault, but Caelynn was the first to name it on air. Recently, “The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” creator, Mike Fleiss, has been subsumed in his own grotesque abuse allegations. The imaginary firewall between the chaste, idealized world of the franchise and the hellishness of the world itself is disintegrating, and if the show is largely a relic of a time that never quite was, molded in concrete, its contestants aren’t quite so stiff.
Hannah, after a season of expressing herself in a way that was as modern as we’ve ever seen, attempted the dated act this franchise imposes: an engagement to an untested partner after a woefully short courtship. It blew up swiftly and resoundingly, as these sorts of pairings often do. But Hannah did the absolute most with her time; she wrung this season dry.
“She’s a fighter,” Tyler told the audience during their finale reunion, and “the world is hers.” Hers to explore now, freely. That doesn’t mean Hannah isn’t interested in partnership — she may well end up with Tyler, or someone else, or no one at all — or that she isn’t ready to give as good as she gets; we’ve seen her love generously and hard.
The world may be hers, but that also doesn’t mean she isn’t hurting; in perhaps my favorite line from Tuesday night, Hannah chided the audience when a few people started clapping after she told Jed she didn’t love him “like that” anymore. “It’s not something to clap about,” she said with the off-the-cuff candor for which she’s come to be known. “It’s sad.”
In our cultural moment, we want women to be all-powerful. Strong, smart, clear about what they want and relentless in the pursuit of it. That shift marks progress — but it’s not nuanced. “Women now invent the weapons and shoot the weapons and are tough and not allowed to cry,” Emma Thompson told the New York Times in regards to contemporary roles. “We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank, and there’s nothing in between. So we still have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.”
Hannah is perhaps our best Bachelorette, the Bachelorette we need right now, not because of her “beast mode,” but because of her complexity. Because she is tough and she cries, she’s resolute and heartbroken, she wants a wedding and a spouse but she won’t accept just any partner. She isn’t overly hard or overly soft. She has the gumption to ask for what she wants, but that doesn’t mean she gets it. And yet she keeps on asking (case in point: asking Tyler for drinks). What does it mean to be a woman? There is not a single answer to that question, there are many. Hannah’s turn as the Bachelorette happens upon one authentic response.
“The Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” franchise remains largely unchanged, but Hannah infused its same old song with new meaning.