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'The Bachelor' Franchise Celebrates Polyamory. Why Aren't We Talking About That?

Last year, at age 26, I was about to have a cherry popped. I had never before watched a single episode of The Bachelor as the show’s premise always struck me as incredibly sexist, queer-averse and fake. But this time, I didn’t really have a choice. I had been invited to a viewing party hosted by pop culture scholar Stevie Seibert Desjarlais, where she and other scholars get together and critique The Bachelor from a feminist lens. So I sat down, watched, and was far more absorbed than I ever thought I would be.

For those who have been living under a rock, as I recently was, the stated aim of the show is to find love. Indeed, host Chris Harrison tells viewers this often in his voiceovers—lest any of us begin to suspect the true aim, which, let’s be honest, is making money for the network. Seibert Desjarlais believes the show’s appeal comes from capturing the tension between “cynicism at the prospect of finding The One among an unimaginable pool of billions of humans” and “an enduring hope for a fairy tale ending.” And, she adds, the fact that there have been fairy tale endings is “the ultimate trump card for naysayers; there have been marriages and families that grow out of this wild journey.”
While the show continues to insist it’s about finding a single, monogamous, lifelong relationship, it really appears to be demonstrating the possibilities of polyamory.
But in watching The Bachelorette, I started to notice something that troubled my view of the show as normative, vanilla bullshit. Rachel seemed to be falling for various men, and they all seemed to be falling for her. The last four, especially, were incredibly vulnerable onscreen: Dean Unglert, Peter Kraus, Eric Bigger and Bryan Abasolo. Rachel ended up choosing Bryan to the objection of many in Bachelor Nation who preferred all three others. But forget about that part for a moment. Forget about the idea of needing to choose. You see, that remains my biggest fascination with The Bachelor franchise. Because while the show continues to insist it’s about finding a single, monogamous, lifelong relationship, it really appears to be demonstrating the possibilities of polyamory.
Rachel had deep, meaningful conversations with the late-stage men and confessed her feelings about them. These men might not have all liked one another, but they knew about each other and accepted the existence of other men in Rachel’s life. Rather than demanding that she pick one of them, they knew that she had control and accepted it. In essence, they were all modeling a healthy polyamorous relationship.
You may say, well, but then Rachel broke three hearts and chose the really dull and least-good-looking dude, Bryan, and is now marrying him.

The thing is, polyamorous relationships don’t all look the same, and breakups happen in the poly community just like everywhere else. While I would never foist the poly label onto these people without their consent, I will say that Rachel modeled emotional yet kind breakups, sincere and intimate dialogue, and good communication of expectations with all the men she dated late into the show. These behaviors are staples of functional polyamory.

One of the things that most struck me was how often contestants discussed their “relationship” with Arie while also being aware that other women were similarly having relationships with Arie.
And it’s not a fluke—a single person having deep feelings for several folks is pretty much how each season draws to a close, as far as I can tell, including the most recent season, starring Arie Luyendik, Jr., —which I watched with fascination despite Arie basically being a human cardboard box. One of the things that most struck me was how early on, and how often, certain contestants discussed their “relationship” with Arie—implying that they did, in fact, feel as if they were in a relationship with him—while also being aware that other women were similarly having relationships with Arie.

Some were jealous, and they discussed that feeling among themselves, as well as talking to Arie about it. Arie had to learn how to reassure them, and made a point of talking about reassuring his now-fiancée Lauren Burnham of how he felt about her regardless of the other women. He told an earlier contestant, the much-despised Krystal Nielson, that he wanted her to focus on the relationship between the two of them rather than worrying about the other women and what they did or didn’t say to him.
Polyamory can be complicated, and the best poly relationships I’ve known have included partners who discuss boundaries, share jealousies and concerns, and reassure one another. These are things Arie did in his season. He set a boundary with Krystal the night she had a manipulative temper tantrum. He earnestly talked to Bekah Martinez about his worries about her age. He pulled Kendall Long aside during one of the final rose ceremonies to reassure himself that they were on the same page about their relationship. Though he may not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, Arie knew how to communicate when he needed to, like any participant in a poly relationship.

At the end of this recent season, Arie chose Becca Kufrin and proposed to her, but after a scant few weeks away from the cameras, he brought them back in a seemingly overproduced, dragged out, overly dramatic breakup. Next, he went back to the aforementioned Lauren, and got skewered by both headlines and Bachelor Nation, the franchise’s fanbase. Would a solution have been to live in a throuple with the two of them? Probably not, because neither seemed amenable to it. Maybe Bekah and Kendall, both zany and interesting and smart, would have been more interested in that kind of arrangement. (They seem to have developed a close friendship during the season.) The problem for the fanbase was never that Arie had feelings for several women—we all accepted that. Instead, Seibert Desjarlais says, “his real sin against Bachelor Nation was how unceremoniously he broke Becca’s heart. The audience can accept that not every relationship is actually the One…but we cannot abide disrespect of women that we grow to respect and relate to.”

“The franchise has its preferred reading of finding the One and true love,” she goes on, “but the audience and contestants bring enough nuance to the deal that oppositional readings abound every season.” As a member of this audience, I can say that while the franchise’s very essence doesn’t necessarily mean to be about polyamory, it’s teaching a lot of us some very good lessons about it.

2018 EMMY NOMINEE SPOTLIGHT

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