Friday, June 21, 2024

The Colton Situation: Why The Bachelor Franchise Generates Harmful Representation

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A year and a half after winning Colton Underwood’s season of The Bachelor, Cassie Randolph filed a restraining order against Colton himself. Colton had allegedly placed a tracker on Cassie’s car, sent threatening text messages from false identities, and ultimately was revealed as an abusive and manipulative individual with an urgent need for course correction. Even after the order was dropped out of court, the bulk of Randolph’s comprehensive and convincing evidence was never really called into question. It appeared that Colton had, through his actions, effectively ended his reality television career. The network that owns The Bachelor – ABC – apparently had other plans.

Barely more than a week ago, I sat shivering as I watched Colton come out as gay on ABC’s morning show, Good Morning America. Any queer person who has come out will recognize the intense jubilation-mixed-with-fear in Colton’s eyes as he reveals his sexuality. Television or not, that moment is real, and while watching it, I felt so intensely hopeful for Colton that I wanted his sketchy past to dissolve like some abandoned dimensional timeline. I wanted to take the pride I felt for Colton and run with it, because I couldn’t help but resonate with the feelings I saw on screen.

Colton’s interview offers a heartfelt but highly-curated view of the former Bachelor’s troubling path.

When I came to terms with my bisexuality, I came out immediately, almost recklessly. Within ten minutes, I had texted my immediate family members, and I’d published a coming out post on Facebook with enough caps lock and emoji usage to thoroughly overwhelm anyone over the age of 15. I wanted fanfare and celebration, and if I had a morning show opportunity for coming out, I would have taken the first available plane to the studios. Watching Colton, I understood exactly why he was there, and I understood exactly why he jumped at the opportunity to make reality television centered around his new identity as a gay man.

The problem is that Colton is not in a position to be a model for queer people. It is true that societal homophobia places a unique pressure on queer people, and that we are more likely to face violence and mental illness because of that pressure. What we aren’t more likely to do, by any legitimate study, is abuse others because of that pressure. Colton didn’t stalk Cassie because he was gay; he stalked Cassie because he didn’t respect her as a person with her own autonomy and he saw her as a solution for his internal problems.

That’s not a matter of queerness – that’s a matter of the all-too-familiar entitlement that men feel toward women for their own emotional healing. One thing that Colton must first do, if he is to be a good man, is to fight against the part of himself that wields power over others for his own benefit.

ABC knows this, but they don’t care. The Bachelor has long been a site of oversimplified, troubling narratives for marginalized individuals. First, there was Juan Pablo, the franchise’s first ‘non-white’ Bachelor, cast with seemingly no evaluation of whether or not he would fit into the role. Juan Pablo was maligned for awful political leanings and highly questionable behavior, but he also often fell under fire for the limitations his English fluency imposed on his self-expression. Now he’s quite universally regarded as one of the worst Bachelors of all time. Even taking into account Juan Pablo’s behavior inside and out of The Bachelor, ABC was very content to set him up and leave him as a problematic stereotype.

More recently, we had a serving of awful bisexual representation through Demi Burnett, whose narrative on Bachelor in Paradise could have been retitled Biphobia: All Your Fears Were Well-Founded. Demi goes on the show, dates a man, and then reveals that she’s been dating a woman back home and prefers her to said man. The happy ending involves the woman coming to the island and dating Demi in front of the man. And yes, it’s undoubtedly a ‘happy ending,’ complete with eventual engagement – as if it’s normal for bisexual people to flip relationships, especially if it’s for someone of a different gender who just makes them feel a different way.

The bizarre break-up between Demi and Derek remains one of the show’s only portrayals of bisexuality.

And then there’s Matt James, the first Black Bachelor, who ultimately chose a racist woman and was subsequently harassed for his management of the season. While unpacking that is something that I don’t feel particularly qualified to do, there’s a good Reddit post over at r/TheBachelor_POC that sums up the awful content of that quite well.

The Bachelor‘s major problem is that it never truly lifts up marginalized individuals because it is caught in a feedback loop: the show has long played into the attitudes of bigoted, specifically racist, viewers, and it is now beholden to them. Contestants of color are consistently out-performed by white contestants, and they are consistently given less screen time than them as well. The most astounding, blatant example of the series’ innate race issue was the substantial dip in viewership it experienced during Season 13 (10%), which starred Rachel Lindsay, the show’s first Black lead.

With solid storylines, popular contestants, and one of the most charismatic leads the show has ever had, Season 13 left no question of why fewer fans tuned in. Even the show’s creator and producer, Mike Fleiss, has admitted that Season 13’s numbers indicate that a significant portion of The Bachelor’s audience is racist.

And now we’re here, where the first Black bachelor’s season is regarded as one of the worst in history, and we have retroactively gained our first gay bachelor who is also a stalker. And yes, he is our first gay bachelor, because ABC and Colton himself have collaborated to extend his narrative as it exists over the course of his series. A rumored Netflix series featuring Colton as he navigates his identity, details of which have begun surfacing after the ABC interview, just cements that this is the queer story The Bachelor franchise supports and wants to tell.

There are a couple of reasons Colton fits the bill for this role: he’s white, classically handsome, and masculine in presentation, and he’s already established within the franchise. These are aspects that are absolutely inessential to queer representation, yet mean everything when creating a ‘safe’ queer narrative.

I first watched The Bachelorette from an absolutely ideal setting: a dorm room at a women’s college filled with laughter and glasses of wine. Looking back, I don’t know how I missed the fact that all top eight contestants from that season were white, or why I passively resigned to the idea that there would never be a gay bachelor.

When you’re a straight, cis white person, you can watch The Bachelor and say, hey, that’s the beautiful protagonist I feel most like – they’re doing what I would do, and I wish them the best of luck! When you’re not, you look at the screen at your options to choose from are conspicuously fewer. Even worse, you can’t help but invest in someone who looks like you without waiting for something to go wrong.

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