UnREAL star Caitlin FitzGerald doesn't watch The Bachelorette, but she kind of plays one on TV. The Lifetime show has captured audiences who love, hate, or love-to-hate the many dating shows of the Bachelor franchise with its juicy depiction of the behind-the-scenes machinations of producers on a Bachelor-like show. But introducing Serena Wolcott, the first "Suitress" on UnREAL's show-within-a-show Everlasting, injects some fresh feminist energy into the backstage drama. Because Serena, an accomplished businesswoman who's quickly dubbed "the female Elon Musk," isn't entirely sure she's cut out for this whole thing, and her apprehension serves as a conduit for all of us who can't believe we're still tuning into weekly rose ceremonies in 2018.
When we sit down together at Bustle HQ, FitzGerald, who played Libby Masters in Showtime's Masters Of Sex and recurred on Sundance's Rectify as Chloe, worries aloud that she'll come off as "shitty" or "snobby" by admitting that she's not a card-carrying member of Bachelor Nation. Disarmingly honest as she is, this is a sensitive subject for a lot of women, and FitzGerald isn't here to judge.
After all, she's sort of living the Bachelor experience. The franchise has permeated the culture so much that even FitzGerald — who confesses that she finds Bachelor shows "mind-numbing" — felt she was experiencing an "alien takeover" of her body when she filmed UnREAL's elimination ceremonies. She just knew how to do it, without even having to think.
And no wonder. The Bachelor has been around since 2002; The Bachelorette arrived a year later. Collectively, they've aired over 375 episodes, and that's not counting any of the spinoffs like Bachelor Pad, Bachelor in Paradise, and The Bachelor Winter Games. There have been 21 Bachelors and 13 Bachelorettes looking for "the one." And the tried-and-true process has been adapted for 34 international versions of the series. It's been parodied on Saturday Night Live, RuPaul's Drag Race, Rick & Morty, on YouTube by a bunch of cows, and in the star-studded comedy series Burning Love. Twitter turns into a mass group-watch during every episode, and both winners and cast-offs make the talk show rounds after their stints. Bachelor Nation is an unavoidable behemoth, but this past year, the fatigue was evident.
In August of 2017, production was briefly halted on Bachelor in Paradise — ABC's beach house bacchanal featuring cast members from both parent shows — when a producer alleged sexual misconduct during an encounter between two contestants, Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. Both Warner Bros. and Olympios' lawyers investigated the claims and came to the conclusion that no wrongdoing had occurred, and production resumed without Jackson and Olympios. But many viewers were troubled by the way that the "scandal" was later used to stoke curiosity and pull in more viewers. The backlash was messy. The Rose Buddies Bachelor podcast, which had recorded dozens of episodes recapping the shows, stopped covering Bachelor Nation completely, and many publications — including Bustle — criticized the show's producers for how they handled the situation, in some cases going as far as to claim the show was "silencing sexual assault victims."
Yet, the show still moves forward. And viewers keep tuning in, if only to then roast Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr. on Twitter for breaking up with winner Becca Kufrin on camera a few weeks after proposing to her, thereby exploiting her pain and surprise. By now, it's basically common knowledge that The Bachelor is heteronormative, classist, fat-phobic, and exceedingly white — so why do people who consider themselves otherwise "woke" still watch?
"I think what's dangerous to me about shows like The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, [is] they continue this fairy tale narrative," FitzGerald says. "We are chosen by a Prince Charming, and it's all hearts and flowers, and it's easy. I totally understand why people love these shows, because who doesn't want that on some level to be true?"
Her character Serena is there, as they say on the original show, for the "right" reasons. She's a formidable businesswoman who doesn't need the fame or the paycheck; she's legitimately looking for a partner, and she's found the search impossible in her otherwise extraordinary life. If traditional dating methods haven't worked for her, why not give this a shot? "She's a numbers girl and it's a numbers game," the actor explains. "And maybe she also just wants a lot of male attention from 26 beautiful men."
The first two seasons of UnREAL had male Suitors at the center, and Everlasting's unscrupulous producers Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) deftly steered and manipulated them by exploiting their male privilege. Serena is an entirely different story. While fans don't get much backstory on the Suitress, it's understood that she's a woman who's made herself remarkable in a man's world, and thus has had to develop a cunning sixth sense that her two predecessors were lacking.
"Serena is very accustomed to controlling every aspect of her life, so I think she comes into this assuming that she's going to be control this whole process," FitzGerald says. "So, you know, there's certainly a butting of heads around that, and who holds the power."
It hits the producers hard on the first night of filming. Serena is resistant to their instructions. She doesn't want to wear the pageant-appropriate mermaid gown they want her to wear. She wants to immediately jettison the guys that she calculated on sight are not for her. Basically, she's you if you were ever on The Bachelorette, because you know who you are and you know how this works. But internalized misogyny runs deep, and the pressure to conform is strong. By the second episode, Serena is reluctantly heeding the advice of a male producer who advises her to appear more weak and helpless in front of the guys. Depressingly and predictably, they respond well to the new, less intimidating Serena. But at what cost to her dignity?
FitzGerald has felt that internal conflict too, as an artist and just a person living in this world. She tells me a story about a recent dinner she attended, where she was the only woman seated at her end of the table. When the discussion turned to the #MeToo movement, the men took the reins of the conversation.
"My first — and I hate this — but my first instinct is to sort of agree with them and make them feel good about their opinions, even though I wildly disagreed," FitzGerald remembers. "And then I was like, 'No no no no no.' Actually, this is our time where we get to say, 'I think what you're saying is total bullshit.'"
The actor says that her dinner companions were surprised and appreciative of her contribution. Still, she felt in that moment the fear and trepidation of going against societal conditioning that encourages women to always be seeking male approval in order to avoid being labeled "a feminazi bitch." It was a "learning moment" that she's carrying forward, she says. "How you unravel [that training], I don't entirely know," she continues. "But it feels like this is the moment where things maybe are shifting."
What place does The Bachelor and The Bachelorette occupy in this shifting world? It's unclear, but this does seem like a turning point. The arrival of UnREAL on the scene, along with pieces of cultural criticism like Amy Kaufman's franchise history Bachelor Nation, may help feminists who struggle with their affinity for these shows contextualize the experience and examine why they just can't let go. As much as we make fun of Arie's "I love that" or dissect the Bekah age debate, we're still giving our attention to a show that centers on "women competing over each other for the attention of a man," as FitzGerald says.
And that male gaze is something she's been struggling with recently. As she spends more time writing and directing, FitzGerald has become hyper-aware of how acting can sometimes feel like a powerless profession. "This year I've found it increasingly hard to just be a vehicle for someone else’s story and words," she wrote in a blog post for the site Seed & Spark. "It has become increasingly hard to be directed by men. To be directed at all, in fact." She goes on to say that she wants to be "the subject rather than the object, the maker instead of the one who is made."
She chuckles ruefully when I bring this up, joking that she was putting her career in jeopardy by putting those frustrations into words. (Clearly, it's in fine shape — in addition to UnREAL, FitzGerald plays the key part of Simone in Starz's upcoming series Sweetbitter, an adaptation of the novel of the same name.) But something inside her is rebelling from being constantly looked at, managed, and assessed. It's something that comes with being a successful performer, paralleled in the scrutiny that dating show participants like Serena are put under. And there's no reason to pretend that the societal standards in both of those cases aren't higher for women.
"I think the nature of being an actor — you have to really relinquish that control. And there are moments where it's so satisfying to do," she says. "I think I just feel hungry for more."
More, for FitzGerald, is continuing to tell stories with her friends and collaborators. She directed a short film in 2017 called Mrs. Drake, which she calls one of the most satisfying experiences she's ever had. Meanwhile, she's calling on the industry to create "more space" for women and people of color to spin their own narratives. Hopefully, some of those narratives can help us look critically at those problematic shows that we just can't quit. And taking on the Bachelor franchise is a pretty auspicious start.
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