Many will no doubt count last night's ratings victory of The West Wing over The Bachelorette as a win for civility, feminism, and smarts. Are they right?
Yes and no.
On The Bachelorette, we've got a gorgeous, petite blonde surrounded by a flock of men, a story that's as old as hydrogen peroxide. And 29-year-old Trista Rehn, as she portrays herself on the show, is every bit a traditional woman: She's feminine, emotional, and strongly maternal. Last night, she told one suitor that her biggest fear was that she somehow wouldn't get to have children. She repeatedly stressed the importance of family. Sure, she'll play her field of 25 (already reduced to 15) bachelors, but only so she can ultimately land The One.
The show's precursor, The Bachelor, meanwhile, reproduced all of the worst stereotypes about women: That we're catty, prone to hysteria, and all too ready to latch on to a man for identity and self-fulfillment. This new installment threatens to do the same for men.
But since this is reality TV, it's also worth considering what's going on behind the scenes. While TV Trista says that she's looking for a long-term mate, it seems more likely that real-world Trista is looking for a long-term contract. The show, which so far casts the bachelorette as a sweetheart princess with a head on her (graceful) shoulders, positions her perfectly as a future talk show host, workout queen, or sitcom starlet. Whatever its effect on her romantic life, the show is surely going to empower her in a second lucrative career as a professional celebrity.
Despite determined efforts to prove otherwise, it seems that any given television show says very little about "the culture." What's more instructive is why audiences tune into a program and how they're interpreting it.
Reality TV has always been more about scorn for the contestants than admiration for them. The big draws from old shows—epitomized by Jerri Manthey, the Survivor Australia bitch queen who's now joining Surreal Life (Don't miss tonight's debut!)—have always been the characters audiences love to hate.
I can't speak for all of Bachelorette-watching America, or even for my own young-female demographic (apparently the show's biggest audience). But I can say that for me and for the gaggle of women I know in Los Angeles who have religiously or occasionally tuned into this show and its predecessor, the rule holds true. Trista and her former cohorts in the context of the show are not people we identify with or people whose choices we admire. Rather, they're the bearded ladies, part of the freak show culture that has always been very lucrative, a little sick, and reasonably entertaining.