If you tuned into The Bachelorette this week for the first time since, oh, 2013, you might have noticed things are a little different now.
No, the overall premise of the show stubbornly hasn’t changed — it’s still “an advertisement for old-fashioned, heteronormative matrimony,” in which getting engaged is the ultimate prize — but season 17’s lead, Katie Thurston, is certainly living up to the dramatic narrator voice in the intro that promises she’ll be “a Bachelorette like we’ve never had before.”
Katie is, as Vulture puts it, “America’s Horniest Bachelorette.” But while critics are celebrating her “sex-positive” approach to the show (which, while perhaps overplayed, is honestly refreshing to get out in the open since The Bachelorette‘s historically prudish approach to sex has never convincingly jived with its polyamorous conceit), there are more signs that a shake-up is afoot in Bachelor Nation than the premiere’s multiple masturbation puns.
Katie’s sex-positivity is undoubtedly a significant step forward for the franchise, which is coming off one of its most turbulent seasons yet. Bachelor Matt James’ season, which ended in March, had been tainted by scandals ranging from slut-shaming by the contestants to the explosive revelation that the eventual winner, Rachael Kirkconnell, had attended a racially insensitive antebellum-themed party in 2018 (James, notably, was the series’ first Black male lead in its nearly-20-year history).
Longtime franchise host Chris Harrison’s decision to defend Kirkconnell in an interview with the series’ first Black female lead, Rachel Lindsay, resulted in much-justified pushback and ultimately led to his sitting out hosting Katie’s season of The Bachelorette; former Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe are co-hosting in his stead. But after Katie’s season debuted on Monday night, the conclusions of the franchise’s recent soul searching were revealed. Harrison, who’d hosted 19 seasons of the show and declared as recently as March that “I plan to be back,” was reported by Deadline to have exited the franchise for good.
Harrison’s departure won’t automatically fix Bachelor Nation’s deep-rooted issues when it comes to race, but it does at a minimum signal that the franchise is taking seriously the criticism that it has faced. As Vulture‘s critic Kathryn VanArendonk pointed out in the wake of the Kirkconnell episode, “Harrison more than any other person is the face of the Bachelor franchise. If The Bachelor is actually committed to addressing its racist past and reforming its racist present, is he still the right person to be the franchise’s most prominent figure?” Their answer was clearly, and responsibly, no.
There’s evidence that The Bachelorette‘s more conservative tendencies are getting shaken up this season, too. The franchise had become a “hotbed for highly Instagrammable twenty-and-thirty-something Christians,” Bustle observed recently, while a fantastic piece in Alma wondered if The Bachelorette has become “just a Christian dating show now.” While Bachelorette Hannah Brown broke new ground by declaring in 2019 “I have had sex, and, honestly, Jesus still loves me,” her season’s successor (and the show’s new co-host), Tayshia Adams, sent one of her contestants home because he was not a practicing Christian.
Regardless of how foregrounded the religious aspects are season-to-season, though, traditional family values have long been the reality TV program’s dubious core. In a 2018 KQED article titled “Is The Bachelor franchise’s popularity rooted in fear of social progress?,” writer Rae Alexandra called the show “a bubble in which old-fashioned courtship is still standard practice, and traditional gender roles remain firmly intact (it’s the man’s job to propose, even on The Bachelorette).” She further noted that “there are always discussions amongst contestants about future children.”
Katie is already upsetting those expectations. As she put her philosophy in the premiere, “It’s 2021, let’s talk about sex, let’s be open, let’s be comfortable” — a vocalization, perhaps, of The Bachelorette‘s new approach, too. Nowhere is that more clear than in Katie’s version of a happily-ever-after; as she tells one contestant, while she wants to be engaged by the end of the show, having children might not necessarily be a part of her particular fairytale. “For me, I definitely want kids in some way, I think,” she explained. “You know, whether it’s somebody who already has a child, that’s something I’m fine with. If someone doesn’t want children, I think I’m also fine with that.” That ambivalence is startling; while The Bachelorette hasn’t often kept pace with what modern relationships look like, choosing a series lead who isn’t single-mindedly focused on motherhood feels, well, normal.
Even so, there’s a long way to go. For all the show’s celebration of Katie’s sexuality, the producers couldn’t resist their proven and infuriating gimmick of setting her up with a contestant who’s saving himself for marriage. By consequence of its speed-dating premise, The Bachelorette also continues to place outsized importance on commercially good-looking contestants; Katie doesn’t have much more to reflect on the 29 men and a box competing for her attention in the first episode beyond stage-whispering “they’re literally all 10s!” (The men in turn obligatorily gush about how “beautiful” she is). Katie’s top two crushes of the night were a white guy and a white guy dressed as a cat, despite her supposedly advocating for a “diverse” cast. Additionally, a viewer can’t help but wonder why Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe were given the co-hosting gig together; to quote Refinery 29‘s senior television critic Ariana Romero, “could Tayshia, a Black and Latinx biracial woman, really not have hosted on her own? Jojo Fletcher certainly was allowed to last year when Chris was unavailable.”
Katie seemed almost to speak for the franchise, though, when she offered to The Hollywood Reporter recently that “change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s what people need to remember: Change is happening, it just takes time.”
Fans, of course, have every right to be impatient with, and actively demand better, from the franchise, which has historically been glacially slow to keep up with modern romance. But in Monday night’s premiere, Katie’s season really did feel like watching a whole new Bachelorette — one that was all-around kinder, less judgmental, and more in touch with the times.