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The women of 'The Golden Bachelor' are everything. He's just Gerry.

The radical power of women who demand — and deserve — our full attention.
The final six women after a rose ceremony that eliminated three, during an episode of The Golden Bachelor on ABC.
The final six women after a rose ceremony that eliminated three during an episode of “The Golden Bachelor” on ABC.John Fleenor / ABC

UPDATE (Dec. 1, 2023 10:00 a.m. E.T.):?This piece has been updated to reflect Turner's choice on Thursday. He proposed to Theresa Nist.

There’s a moment from the first season of “The Golden Bachelor” that I can’t get out of my head.

In episode five, 72-year-old “Bachelor” Gerry Turner must cull the group of women vying for his heart from six to three. He stands in front of them, eyes welling with tears, and ultimately gifts the final rose of the night to the petite, 70-year-old brunette Theresa Nist.

It’s the reaction of Leslie Fhima, however, the 64-year-old former professional dancer who will also vie for Turner’s heart in Thursday night’s season finale, that stuck with me. When Fhima realizes that her friend Ellen Goltzer is being eliminated, she slides closer to Ellen and gently leans her head on the other woman’s shoulder. The camera immediately pans away, following Nist as she weepily accepts Turner’s rose, but it’s that moment of tenderness between Fhima and Goltzer that burrowed its way into my heart.

It’s the reaction of Leslie Fhima, however, the 64-year-old former professional dancer who will also vie for Turner’s heart in Thursday night’s season finale, that stuck with me.

Anyone who watches reality television is familiar with the trope that cast members on competition shows — even if that competition is for love — “aren’t there to make friends.” But the women of “The Golden Bachelor” seemed there for love and friendship. And those of us who tuned in week after week were there to watch them search — for companionship, for friendship, for the right to be seen and heard and valued — whether or not they ended up with Turner, a man whose on-screen persona can best be described as an AI-generated, Sensitive Midwesterner Ken doll.

Watching “The Golden Bachelor” has been an experience rife with joy. Where past seasons of “The Bachelor” have leaned into conflict and reduced the women to unflattering, flattening tropes, “Golden” flips the script and embraces complexity.

The most heated the drama gets is when Kathy Swarts tells Nist to “zip it” when the latter overshares the lovey-dovey details of her burgeoning romance with Turner. But moments of platonic connection are frequent and dynamic: Susan Noles holds Goltzer as she cries during a group date at an amusement park. Goltzer, Fhima, Nist and Noles sing “Hava Nagila” and do the hora in the show’s sprawling mansion pool. Swarts, Noles, Nancy Hulkower, Faith Martin, Sandra Mason and April Kirkwood play a raucous game of “Never Have I Ever” with pints of ice cream instead of red solo cups full of liquor. When Joan Vassos has to leave the show early to help a daughter struggling with postpartum depression, the other women are devastated on her behalf.

During the reunion episode, where rejected cast members come back together ahead of the finale, it was apparent that this cast was united by a shared sense of purpose; a feeling that they were all engaged in an important, collective process. Swarts said that in her mind the show is, yes, “about love. But it’s also about hope and friendship and what life offers all of us.”

For journalist and author Lisa Belkin, “The Golden Bachelor” is captivating precisely because it allows moments of human connection that have nothing to do with the romantic lead to shine through. It’s a show about “how real people process love, grief, intimacy, uncertainty, rejection,” Belkin told me. “And one [element of that] is friendship.”

I don’t want to overstate the subversiveness of “The Golden Bachelor.” It is still, at its core, a conservative, hetero, marriage show. And Turner, according to a recent Hollywood Reporter piece, is not such a folksy saint. But what makes “Golden” different from its predecessors in the franchise is that it is telling stories that are genuinely underrepresented.

I am struck by how radical it feels to simply watch women over the age of 60 every week on my television screen; to see them portrayed as worthy of our attention, appreciation and investment. And my personal feelings are backed up by data: A report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which reviewed the most popular TV shows and films from 2010-2020, found that just 1 in 4 characters over the age of 50 were women.

I am struck by how radical it feels to simply watch women over the age of 60 every week on my television screen.

In her 1997 essay about the gendered double standard of aging, Susan Sontag describes the experience of growing older as “mainly an ordeal of the imagination” — a socially constructed state of being that “afflicts women much more than men.” For women, the experience of aging is in many ways divorced from the physical conditions of being “old.” Because the culture demands women over the age of 20 exist in a constant state of impossible youth maintenance, a looming dread of inevitable loss becomes imprinted upon our psyches and stays with us for decades.

As a 36-year-old woman, arguably on the precipice of middle age, my peers and I have already spent years battling societal forces that, as Sontag put it, position women as “objects whose value depreciates rapidly with the march of the calendar.” If indeed the double standard women face is first and foremost an issue of a stilted cultural imagination, perhaps “The Golden Bachelor” can, in some small way, push the boundaries of how we imagine ourselves as we age.

Instead of slowly fading into obscurity, the women of “The Golden Bachelor” demand that we look at them and consider them. That we understand their pains and desires and hopes.

After all, they’re everything. He’s just Gerry.

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