When her season of “The Bachelorette” premieres in May, Clare Crawley will be 39 years old.
That means she will be the oldest star the reality show has ever had, and by a serious margin: Attorney Rachel Lindsay was 32 when she embarked on her quest for love in 2017. The program’s most recent lead, Hannah Brown, was barely out of college when she was the bachelorette at 24.
I don’t say this to age-shame. I say this because Clare’s age is actually deeply meaningful to me.
First, a quick primer on our new leading lady, who revealed Monday on “Good Morning America” that she will succeed Brown for the gender-flipped spinoff’s 16th season. Clare is no stranger to “The Bachelor” franchise. The Sacramento hairstylist first turned up on the show in 2014, when she set out to compete for the affection of bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis. Her turn on the season instantly turned her into a Bachelor Nation legend.
After a consensual late-night romp in the ocean, he implied that Clare had somehow forced him into a hookup that would make him look bad on TV to his young daughter. Fans rallied to her defense, calling out the slut-shaming, and she only endeared herself to the audience further when she exited the show as runner-up. When Juan Pablo rejected her at the finale podium, she didn’t go quietly: “What you made me go through? I’d never want my children having a father like you,” she said, shedding nary a tear.
Next, she did two stints on “Bachelor in Paradise,” and then turned up on the one-off “Bachelor Winter Games” in 2018. She actually got engaged on the Olympics-themed spin-off, but her relationship with the French Canadian Benoit Beauséjour-Savard was not long for this world.
The fact that Clare has been named the bachelorette after all of this is, frankly, powerful. She is a 38-year-old woman who has unabashedly spoken about her intense desire to be married and have children. She has tried to find love and she has failed. But by casting her as the lead, the show has made — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — a progressive move. It’s a choice that flies in the face of societal expectations for straight women, positioning an unmarried woman in her late thirties not as desperate, but as desirable and worthy of love.
“I feel like a lot of people put [the age] out there as this negative thing, but for me, it just is more years under my belt, more learning and knowing what I want, what I don’t want and what I won’t settle for,” Crawley said on “Good Morning America.”
Before I get too carried away, I’ll pause to say: This is still “The Bachelorette.” Clare is conventionally attractive — thin and blond and curvy. She’s also white and heterosexual. And I’m willing to bet that the dudes who show up at the mansion in a bid for her heart won’t be sporting dad bods.
In other words, “The Bachelor” franchise still has a very long way to go when it comes to accurately representing its viewership. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that for the first time since I started watching this show, I feel seen by it.
At 34, I’m a few years younger than Clare, but I can very much relate to her yearning to find a partner. Most weekends, I’m out on a date with some new prospect I’ve met on Bumble or Hinge. And while I’m not ready to declare just yet that I’m dying alone, I do sometimes fall prey to bouts of self-pity as I turn up at my friends’ weddings and baby showers. With every year that passes, that quiet drumbeat of worry intensifies: At what age will being single signify to the world that I am, in some way, defective?
I hate writing these words about myself, because it’s 2020, and I know I’m far more than a ring on my finger. I know that in theory, because that’s what strong women have been taught to believe. But in practice? That’s not the world I necessarily see reflected around me, especially during late-night scrolling binges on Instagram.
And that’s why Clare’s casting is such a big deal. Even if you think “The Bachelor” is vapid garbage, millions of people still watch it. And that kind of pop culture seeps into the public consciousness.
Clare knows that better than anyone. There have been moments on the franchise when other women have called out her age, branding her pathetic for daring to put herself out there past 35. When I interviewed her for my book about the series, “Bachelor Nation,” a couple of years ago, Clare spoke defiantly about such taunts.
“I wouldn’t trade my age to go back to a younger age for a second, because I am who I am today because of the [crap] I’ve gone through,” she said. “When people take low blows like that, to me, it shows extreme insecurity. I’m not some old, decrepit, withered, pathetic woman. Give me a break.”
As confidently as Clare came across in that interview, she also said some things that now make me anxious about her turn as the bachelorette. For one, she swore she was done with the show, retiring from the franchise because it had done her wrong. She said she hated how its editors had treated her cruelly, making her appear crazy. On “Bachelor in Paradise,” for instance, she was made to look like she confided in a raccoon she met on the beach.
“I was so naive in my mentality going into the show,” she admitted. “I thought: ‘If I’m a good person and I treat people good and I have integrity, they can’t make me look bad, right?’”
She also expressed grievances with the show’s producers. She acknowledged that she became “super close” with the behind-the-scenes team, considering them to be her de facto therapists. But when she felt betrayed by how she was portrayed on the show, those same producers were unsympathetic, telling her: “That’s how it goes. You know what you signed up for.”
“The whole process makes you so raw and so vulnerable, and that’s why it works,” she explained. “You don’t have any outside distraction, so they’re your people. At the end of the day, I’m a person who builds friendships. I had to keep reminding myself — and to this day, I still have to remind myself when they call me — that this is their job. And I have to make peace with that. ... This show either builds you or breaks you. And I’m not going to let it break me, because they’re making money off of people like me. I’ll be damned if they, or anybody else, chooses how my life goes.”
So, yes. I’m thrilled that Clare is our bachelorette, and excited for what that could mean to single women in their thirties. But I’m also trepidatious. As Clare herself stated, she is not, ultimately, in control of the narrative that will be portrayed about her on television. The show made a positive decision in casting her — now I can only hope that they treat her with some long overdue respect.
Times staff writer Christi Carras contributed to this report.