Leave it to me to simultaneously become enthralled with the current season of The Bachelor and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. My mother-in-law is to thank for my new addiction to The Bachelor. I have seen a few episodes here and there throughout the years, but never got invested in a full season. The idea of a bunch of women clawing their way to one man that is chosen for them and they barely know seemed a little too medieval for my taste. I made myself let go so I could indulge in some mother-in-law bonding time until Betty Friedan made the feminist in me furious for Sharleen Joynt, the opera singer.
As anyone who’s anyone knows, Sharleen decides to leave after a season of deliberation, despite Juan Pablo’s interest. All the girls on the show have been confounded by their connection and when I read blogs covering this season everyone seems to think she is the weirdo that should have left after the first night if she wasn’t instantly obsessed with Juan Pablo.
I liked her immediately. You can tell she is a very intelligent and serious person from having worked at a very formal singing tradition most of her life. She has also lived and traveled around the world, but still geeked out when she went to a cocktail party in Middleton while in New Zealand. She also processed the experience as I imagine I would, making me relate to a contestant for once. She rocks.
While I thought she might be a little intense for him, I also saw why they were attracted to one another. She and Juan Pablo were able to share in the experience of leaving home, not just for another state, but an entirely different country and culture. I think she signed up for it because she was single, was interested in a new adventure, thought that Juan Pablo was cute and maybe she’d make a love connection. If nothing else, she walks away with a bizarre, one-of-a-kind experience and perhaps a new audience for her music. But going through all of that, spending time with so many women that are so drastically different from who she is and what she values, and watching them have these same strong connections with Juan Pablo, of course it made her pause.
I’ll admit that even I was starting to get tired of her hemming and hawing, though. I can see why the other girls would be frustrated as well. They are all there for the ring and children and a fairy tale ending. But just as I started to slip into a vapid rabbit hole with the audience and contestants, I also finished the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique. As I am reading about women trapped in the role of wife/mother/homemaker, everything that bothers me about The Bachelor and the Sharleen begrudgers comes to light.
The women that refuse to see the show for what it is or to question if Juan Pablo is the right fit for them are the crazy ones. Yes, you sign up for a show, but does that mean you shut off your brain? Does that mean you don’t examine this man and what it would realistically make your future look like? Just like everyone else, all of her fears are coming out. While some women show that their fear is not being the prettiest or the best liked or the center of attention, her fears are based in questions of what she wants and if she can have it all. On top of that, she feels guilty for bothering to question. She says it herself, “I wish I were dumber.” I understand completely. She shouldn’t feel bad. At the heart of her questioning is a very real concern. If you are going to get a proposal, move to another country, limit your career considerably by settling down (at least from what everyone keeps saying), and become a stepmother, I would hope you are seriously thinking about it. We all know it’s a hoax for the most part, that the people that meet on the show generally do not work out, but Sharleen has every reason to feel apprehensive.
Part of me worried whether I was making the right choice falling in love and getting engaged at twenty and married at twenty-two. Some of it was about my husband and whether I thought he would respect and encourage me to have my own life and experiences. Too many men want to control the woman that they are with and want her to focus on them and their family and stop worrying about all that other stuff, even in this day and age. I didn't want to grow and change and find that he didn't want me to. More than that, I worried about fulfilling the promises I made to myself. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of marriage and kids being my only aspirations. I have always wanted to travel, learn, meet new, different people and have interesting conversations, read books that change me at my core, and find my personal way to be part of the world. I eventually got over my jitters. My husband proved how much he cares about me living a fulfilling life of my own and I never stopped being a part of the world and learning. I’d be lying if I said that it’s been easy to maintain the balance between self and marriage. It’s a very real struggle to honor oneself while being with someone no matter how attractive or wealthy or perfect.
Back to Sharleen: Here is a woman, with a career she has focused on and has kept her traveling and performing for many years and she is starting to feel a connection with a man that is tied to Miami for his job and family. It seems like everyone on the show assumes that whomever Juan Pablo picks is obligated to drop everything and move to him. Is that a rule? Is there no room for discussion? No room for compromise? That was the question I hoped Sharleen would ask. Yes, she says she is up for change. But is she? Should she have to be? The very thing that makes her stand out among the other girls, her worldliness and maturity, seems the thing making everyone assume she is unsuitable for Juan Pablo.
Even Juan Pablo sees and understands her struggle but never tries to convince her that he would make it work for the both of them. To be fair, maybe they have that conversation and we don’t see it, but that’s a problem. We need to see that talk. It’s important and realistic and even if this is all for fun, let’s acknowledge the reality of women and their dreams today. Let’s not brush her off and assume she lacks what it takes to be a real woman that someone as special as Juan Pablo deserves. She's pretty damn special too. I understand this is a show about him and for him, but why are we trying to convince this woman or the young women and girls watching that this New Woman, as Friedan named the independent career women of the twenties through forties, is someone to fear, to repel against? Haven’t we covered this all ready? What was all that work for if she gives it up to be stranded in Miami with a guy she barely knows? The hardest part about finding someone is figuring out how to make it all work, but if you are equally committed to each other's happiness and success, you can figure it out. Unfortunately there are plenty of people who still don't think of this as an option, let alone what they aspire to have.
In Friedan’s book, excerpts from interviews with women of various education levels and locations explain how they all feel trapped, they all feel useless, and they all wonder if this is all life has to offer. They feel like they are in the wrong because they should be overjoyed to have so many devices and luxuries and children and a husband at their disposal. When I started the book, I thought it would help me see how far we have come and why, but when I watch The Bachelor and the way that the other contestants, the audience, and even the host view Sharleen’s hot and cold feelings for Juan Pablo, I know the fight isn’t over. I never thought it was over, living in the middle of a rape culture, but I guess I hoped we were making some strides when it came to our views on straight marriage (let alone GAY marriage) and the expectations we place on women.
While careers are at the forefront of women today, we are still trapped in the details of our future wedding day(s), a point made obvious by the women signing up in droves for The Bachelor and watching each season with bated breath. Many women have their wedding day planned out but no relationship. When they get into a relationship you feel them rushing it into marriage so they can have their wedding, buy that house, have those kids. Shouldn’t the goal in life be living a life that fulfills you in every aspect, a goal that may happen with or without a man? I believe this can happen even when you are married, that you can be the well rounded person you want to be, but why does marriage seem to still hold a key for so many women?
I can tell you from personal experience that marriage itself does not bring you happiness. If anything, it brings more unhappiness. You enter into a marriage accepting that you will take on the joy of your partner, but you also take on all of their hardships as well. You nod your head, thinking you understand what this means, but remember, when you aren’t having hardships and the other person is, you can’t just brush them off and go have fun. That’s when they need you most. My husband and I have been through hell and back our entire relationship, taking care of his grandparents through dementia and cancer, as well as his mother who suffered a stroke three and a half years ago. I was in college when we met and dealt with these questions and troubles while I was figuring out who I wanted to be. But it’s our connection, the fun that he brings to my life even when we are going through hard times that keeps me there. The present and the future shine so brightly with both of us fighting for each other and ourselves to not settle, to go for what and who we want to be. We complement and encourage our shared and separate happiness. Our wedding was one day, our marriage is our everyday.
Yes, times have changed. Yes, women have careers. But in the case of this particular bachelorette, she is losing a lot if she decides to go on with Juan Pablo under the assumed conditions of The Bachelor. It’s only a television show, but when young women and girls watch another woman get shitty comments and looks because she is weighing whether or not a man is the right fit for her and the life she has chosen up to this point, I can’t help but turn my brain back on and go, “WHAT THE FUCK?” All I can think about are all the women who were and still are shamed to sit lifeless at the kitchen counter, waiting for their family to dictate their days and wondering, “Is this it? What do I really want?”
Passing something off as “just TV” is a slippery slope. When we accept a public image, even if it ventures from what we know is reality, it eventually becomes our truth. It’s what happened after men returned from World War II. The New Women of the 1940s, who had taken over most of the writing and editing of women’s magazines and advertising, suddenly found themselves sent home. The men were back. They weren’t here for the rebirth of women and the ones that were assumed it was temporary, a phase. As Friedan said, the men back from war were full of nostalgia for the old way of domestic life. Suddenly these writers, poets, baseball players, psychologists, nurses, were being sent home to pop out kids and starch their husband’s suit. Thanks for holding down the fort, but go back where you know you really thrive, where you can achieve real happiness. Because you’re a woman, it’s your destiny.
Maybe you enjoy the drama; to sit around and judge these women for having to be whomever this season’s bachelor wants them to be. Maybe it’s all in good fun. Maybe I need to get out more and not make such a big deal over a small plot point on a silly reality show. Maybe it’s easier to find the ideal shade for your wedding day mani-pedi and rip apart women, like Sharleen, who are just trying to figure who and what they want to be and how/if a suitor fits in. Maybe it’s easier to accept traditional ideas and stereotypes and make them our own, to stick to the path of least resistance. Or maybe we should give ourselves more credit than that.