I recently had a conversation about whether The Bachelor would be a success if it launched today, as opposed to back in 2002.
I’m not sure it would.
Picture the pitch: 30 women compete for the affection of one man. In a world of social media, women’s marches, declining marriage rates, dating apps and Time's Up, would such a heteronormative fairy tale fly?
But the show flew back then. In fact, it soared. The Bachelor spawned The Bachelorette, critically putting the franchise on equal footing for men and women (granted, only for heterosexual men and women, but the upcoming season of the series’ other spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise, will feature the franchise’s first queer relationship).
And this season of The Bachelorette, a milestone 15th, has been a pivotal one. Viewers watched as lead Hannah Brown declared her independence -- mentally, emotionally and sexually -- in situation after situation. These scenarios often involved contestant Luke Parker, who repeatedly clashed with Brown and the other men in the house, including fan-favorite Tyler Cameron -- dubbed the “respectful king."
This trio, combined with key producing and editing choices, created the perfect, rose-colored storm, relatable to any woman in 2019.
Parker has an apparent outlook that women aren’t intellectually equal to men. “I don’t even care what you just said to me about you feeling like you have clarity,” he told Brown on camera as she broke up with him. “I still feel like you don’t.” During the season's Tell All special, he said men should lead women in relationships. Frustratingly, but importantly, his antiquated comments compelled the whip-smart, outspoken Brown to put her autonomy on full display. ...More on that later.
Cameron, on the other hand, regularly championed Brown for confronting Parker’s somewhat misogynistic ideas herself. He gave the audience an example of a modern-day man whose strength isn’t shown in moving mountains for his partner, but in supporting her as she moves them on her own.
And because both men made it to the final four on the show, viewers watched these discussions play out repeatedly and impactfully.
“This last season was a long time coming,” host Chris Harrison tells ET. “The last few years we’ve really let this show evolve. This was a culmination of a lot of things coming together in the right place at the right time. The casting this season, from Hannah to the guys, was spot on. We had such depth and so many stories to dive into; it was one of those seasons where we caught lightning in a bottle.”
He commends Brown. “I think if you took a poll before the season, the majority of fans would’ve said Hannah wasn’t going to be a great Bachelorette,” he says. It’s true. Before being chosen as Bachelorette, Brown was a somewhat controversial contestant on Colton Underwood's season of The Bachelor. Her nickname, ‘Hannah Beast,’ ultimately offered just a hint of the strength she'd later demonstrate as a series lead.
“That’s why we have to trust our gut,” Harrison says. “Hannah had a lot of depth and gave us as producers a lot of layers to dive into. She was a great Bachelorette because what you see is what you get with Hannah. She truly opened her heart and soul to all of us and let us watch the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Indeed, Brown provided a refreshing example of beautiful imperfection onscreen.
“I've struggled with showing other versions of what I think people are going to like about me and ‘pageant queen’ was one of those,” the one-time Miss Alabama USA told ET at her first Bachelorette photo shoot, right before filming began. “But we're shedding that, and I'm just going to be Hannah for this experience, as Bachelorette, and that’s what I want my man to know, is Hannah's true self.”
Initially, she dubbed herself a “train wreck … the hot mess express.” The 24-year-old longed to evolve, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to be loved for exactly who she was. For women, in a world that demands archetypes at every turn, her words were often empowering.
“Maybe the most impressive is how she grew as a person this season,” Harrison says. “She’s definitely a different woman than when we started.”
One key episode was teased to all season: an argument between Brown and Parker over sex outside the confines of marriage. The altercation led to Brown revealing she’d slept with another contestant in their fantasy suite. She sent Parker packing for his comments. Parker and Brown are both Christians, and their shared faith simultaneously connected and divided them, yielding a narrative that explored the intersection of sex and religion like never before in the franchise.
Religion has come up in discussions between contestants in the past, but not at this level of intense debate, and it’s never been given this much airtime. The conversations happening onscreen spurred discourse among viewers, and ratings increased week over week.
“I don’t think that would have ever happened if it weren’t those two people,” Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment’s Senior Vice President, Alternative Series, Specials & Late-Night Programming says. “It’s all about the timing, and also being ready for that moment. I think we turned away from it [before] too. But these producers really looked at it and said, 'No, this is something we need to explore,' and that’s a credit to them. It was all those things coming together. … Had it been somebody else, another Bachelorette, they might have said, ‘OK, I understand,’ and might have just shut [the discussion] down. What’s amazing is Hannah chose to take this and run with this, and say, ‘This isn’t OK.’”
Brown explained her passion to ET: “I have worked really hard to break chains of any type of recognition, validation, stereotype, anything to define who I believe that I am, or who anybody else defines me as,” she said in May. “So, that is one thing that will really upset me, if anybody tries to define me as something that I’m not, or make me to be something that in their mind, they believe that I am.”
But, back to to the other taboo topic: sex. Brown didn’t just share that she’d had sex with another contestant -- she declared it. “I f**ked in a windmill,” she proclaimed on camera after her split from Parker. “And guess what? We did it a second time.” There was no shame in her fantasy suite game.
Mills explains why it was so important to include the “f**ked in a windmill” line as part of the episode, even though some viewers might have found it objectionable. “This is a woman who really owned her sexuality and was sex-positive and was really her own person,” he says. “That line is iconic as it was, and it was also one of empowerment. It was sort of a teachable moment … that was somebody saying, ‘I'm not going to be made to feel ashamed.’ For that reason, it was great to air.”
“I think you'll see the cast members, [including] the women on the upcoming season of The Bachelor, they won't be afraid to talk about things now, because they sort of know nothing is off-limits anymore,” Mills says of the impact Brown’s words will have overall.
So now, a franchise that might have crashed-and-burned if it premiered today is on fire.
Ratings for this season’s finale hit two-year highs. The Bachelorette has stepped into the present and has its eye on the future.
“[The franchise] is going to be on forever,” Mills says. “The biggest thing for us creatively is how I feel like the show moved forward in the end. That's why I think it's going to be on forever.”
Brown told me what she ultimately wants fans to walk away with from her unforgettable season. “I want people to recognize their worth and stay true to who they are despite others’ opinions,” she says. “Do what is best for you and your heart. I hope people who watched my season just feel empowered to make their own decisions -- and to never settle.”
Thankfully, Hannah Beast couldn’t be tamed.