Sharleen Joynt on Episode 2 of The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons—Ever!

The Bach alum shares her POV on episode 2 of the nostalgic new Bachelor series. This week: a look back at Kaitlyn Bristowe's journey

I wasn’t able to really enjoy Kaitlyn’s season when it first aired. Since I began writing about this show in 2014, and to this day, Kaitlyn’s is the sole season I didn’t recap on my blog. I felt too entrenched in it: I had heard from Nick about his crush on Kaitlyn for weeks, as well as his deliberation leading up to his trip to NYC. Andy and I had dinner with Nick the night before he would crash her rap battle Group Date; we would even meet him there. When Nick was gone filming for quite some time, we began to genuinely think he might wind up engaged. When he called me from the airport after getting second place again (a Bachelor franchise first and sure to be last), my heart broke for him. How anyone could think he had anything but sincere intentions in pursuing Kaitlyn—when no one knew she’d for certain become the Bachelorette and given that pursuit would involve moving into a house as unwelcoming as Kaitlyn’s—is beyond me.

What complicated things was the fact that I genuinely adore Kaitlyn, both on and off my TV screen. In 2015, it was difficult to watch what had been described to me in detail, to watch one friend deeply hurt another friend. But, time heals all wounds (OK, most wounds) and last night I was finally able to sit back and enjoy Kaitlyn’s season for what it was: excellent television.

Last week left me thinking there was little reason to watch this series of Greatest Seasons Ever. Sean Lowe’s episode, while enjoyably nostalgic for me, didn’t provide much besides an extended montage and a few catch-up conversations. Hardly a good return on a three-hour time investment, even with pandemic-lowered entertainment standards. A question I posed to you last week, without any irony, was, “Who is going to watch this?” Thankfully, last night was a different story. Perhaps realizing their track record with successful love stories is more woeful than they’d have you believe (legend has it more singles find love on The Biggest Loser than they do The Bachelor), The Powers That Be took a sharp turn and focused on a lightning rod rather than a happy ending.

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It paid off. Kaitlyn’s season, while still on the recent side, has aged very well. First, her crop of men was one of the best we’ve ever seen: Not only Shawn Booth and Nick Viall, but other Bachelor Nation classics like Ben Higgins, Jared Haibon and Tanner Tolbert got their start on this season. (Knowing Jared and Tanner would go on to marry two ladies from Kaitlyn’s original season—Chris Soules’s season—tickles me.) We’ve known for years a season’s success has as much to do with the cast of contestants as it does the lead herself, so this really was the ultimate dream team. Last night, Nick’s love “letters” to Kaitlyn were finally brought to light, a move I found brilliant. It kept things new and interesting and also added further context to their relationship. Hearing Nick put into words his current friendship with Kaitlyn and how they’ve joined each other’s podcasts, it put into perspective what this show really is about in the long term. It’s well and good that Catherine and Sean ended up together, but this is every bit as valid an ending. Kaitlyn wasn’t wrong to pick Shawn—they were together a whopping 3.5 years. She was absolutely correct in her choice, and Nick himself admitted he and Kaitlyn probably wouldn’t have worked out either. “The End” isn’t about finding your husband/wife and getting married. (I can speak from experience that in many ways that’s just the beginning.) Rather, this was about what choices Kaitlyn made with what she was given, both in terms of cast and circumstances. She and Nick are friends to this day, and they’re both really happy and far better off. Highlighting this shows what The Bachelor experience is really about: self reflection, self discovery, the ability to forgive and be forgiven, humility.

To me, Kaitlyn was the ultimate Bachelorette and last night didn’t alter that opinion. She’s sweet and funny, yes, but she’s also blunt and has a backbone. She’s self-deprecating yet confident. Her ITMs felt like a conversation you’d have with a friend; there was no filter, nothing put on. I’ve talked ad nauseam about how I long for the days when reality TV felt real. Kaitlyn personified real. While she no doubt took on the adventure knowing it could bring about opportunity—as any human would—absolutely nothing she said or did felt in the interest of her “building her brand” or kowtowing to what viewers would expect or want from her. Her brand IS honesty and authenticity, and has been to this day. That brings me to the famed talking point of her season—that aforementioned lightning rod—when Kaitlyn would (gasp!) have sex with Nick at the end of their 1-on-1 date.

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At the time, watching it, I can’t say I saw the whole sex-before-the-Fantasy-Suite thing as the big deal it would end up becoming. After all, had Kaitlyn waited another two weeks for the Fantasy Suite, even if it meant sleeping with three different men back-to-back, this would have been accepted as totally fine and even normal. Now, I realize the casualness I feel towards this likely makes me a product of a similar social culture; sleeping with a guy at that point in the relationship wouldn’t feel wrong to me, nor would it to any of my friends. So, I do see how a lot of this comes down to your personal beliefs—often involving religion—and how intimacy lines up with that. But, even if you are against premarital sex, a) objectively, doesn’t it make more sense for the lead to get intimate with her date when it feels right, not when the show’s arbitrary format tells them to? (I always laugh to myself remembering that condoms are provided in the Fantasy Suite, as if to say, “Alright, you may boink now.”) Isn’t it less likely to feel clinical and comparative if it’s a natural, spur-of-the-moment decision? And, b) why are you watching The Bachelor franchise, which quite literally pimps out its many contestants to one lead and asks her to try each one on for size? Everything about The Bachelor encourages romance, romance is intrinsically linked with sex, yet the show simultaneously seems to champion chastity. It is confused.

For me, watching Kaitlyn take a guy home after a romantic date was and still is the ultimate in reality TV. It is both real and relatable. We’ve all been there: on a steamy date and not wanting the night to end. I wouldn’t choose a boyfriend, much less a fiancé, without making sure the sexual compatibility was there. (I LOVED when Kaitlyn said, in her interview last night, “Even though I didn’t pick that person, I didn’t want there to be shame around [the intimacy] because that was just part of how I got to the end.” The sex isn’t some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; it is far more part of the rainbow itself, a factor in the decision-making process.) So while one could argue Kaitlyn went about it wrong, or didn’t exhibit the self-control she should have, this comes back to what I seek more than anything from this show: realness. Trust me, if it were just about looking great, lasting a while on TV or collecting followers, it’d be easy to do and say the “right” thing, behave in the “right” way. But this “mistake,” this was a moment of reality, of a woman doing what she wanted for her, not for the benefit of millions of viewers. Last night, the show repeatedly referred to Kaitlyn as being a “trailblazer” and I wholeheartedly agree. If you enjoyed the rawness of Hannah Brown’s season, you have Kaitlyn to thank for paving the way.

But—there’s always a but!—for how much credit was given to Kaitlyn for being that trailblazer, I found it curious that the show tiptoed around what she was credited as being a trailblazer for. When I think of Kaitlyn’s turn as Bachelorette, I think of a sexually empowered female. Here was a woman—not a girl—who, as Deanna Pappas aptly put it, “knew she was attracted to a man and as a grown woman made a decision to explore that.” But, interestingly, while the show is apparently quick to take credit for Kaitlyn’s trailblazing ways five years ago, it certainly didn’t protect or even come to her defence, not then and not last night. If anything, they did just the opposite: Both five years ago and last night, Kaitlyn’s night with Nick was endlessly teased as “shocking,” “controversial” and “polarizing”, fuelling the impression that what she did was somehow wrong. (Indeed, when I asked Kaitlyn why she thought the show played up their night so much, her answer was a painfully concise: “Ratings.”) Five years ago, at her season’s Men Tell All, Chris Harrison would go on to read Kaitlyn tweet after tweet from people calling her a “whore” (among other things), in an attempt to snuff cyber-bullying. While it was a well-intentioned enough mission to shame trolls, wouldn’t it have been more effective to not frame what she did as so wrong and shocking in the first place?

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With the above in mind, I wish the show went that extra step further in Kaitlyn’s defence. The recap seriously glossed over the flak she got; Kaitlyn would go on to become one of the year’s most talked-about women and was slut-shamed to high hell, receiving multiple death threats for her decision to have sex. Last night, Deanna Pappas and Clare Crawley were brought on for that female supportive voice, which I suppose was better than nothing. And perhaps if we hadn’t just heard the announcement that Matt James will be our next Bachelor, I wouldn’t even notice this. But just as I craved a firmer opinion and clearer ownership from The Powers That Be in finally crowning a Black man Bachelor, I craved more of a stance in Kaitlyn’s defence for her sleeping with a man she desired to sleep with, in a situation designed to encourage it.

I came to the realization while watching last night’s episode that, while some things haven’t changed in the last five years, my expectations for this franchise have. In the past, I would have accepted the Deanna/Clare cameo as enough, assuming that segment was the show’s mouthpiece in their support for Kaitlyn. But I no longer feel that way. It’s no longer enough to stand idly by and allow the star of your show—the star you cast and filmed every step of the way—to be raked over the coals, particularly when the reason she’s being punished is a decision you set the stage for, encouraged and downplayed to her face, yet advertised to the world as shocking. The fact that The Powers That Be are finally giving Kaitlyn an opportunity they should have given her years ago—to appear on Dancing With The Stars—tells me they agree. I appreciate that they did this and cannot wait to watch Kaitlyn tear up that dance floor, but the gesture should be seen less as a benevolent gift and more as an owed apology.