When straight friends ask why a queer woman like me would obsessively watch The Bachelor—and plenty of them do indeed seem mystified by my devotion to that veritable TV temple of heteronormativity—I offer a simple explanation.
“I watch The Bachelor,” I say, “for the same reason that straight people watch drag.”
Whereas drag shows parody gender, ABC’s long-running reality dating series provides a pastiche of heterosexual dating rituals that is so wonderfully exaggerated, so campy, that people of all orientations can enjoy it. And I don’t just enjoy The Bachelor; I love it.
I love how all the women on the show sport the exact same Millennial Stepford Wife hairdo—a style best described by Racked’s Julia Rubin as “straight-up-top, loose-curls-on-bottom” that I have worn exactly once when a straight woman did my hair.
I love how any contestant with a semblance of a hobby—like this season’s Kendall, who does taxidermy—gets branded as “quirky” or “weird” for committing the crime of actually caring about something.
I love how the rich complexity of human courtship gets reduced to a tired script full of euphemisms that are repeated ad nauseam: First comes “chemistry,” then a “real connection,” then “falling” for each other, and, finally, a proposal—unless, of course, someone isn’t there for “the right reasons” or they’re not “ready for marriage.”
Most of all, I love the hypocrisy of all these potential Bachelor couples talking about sharing “the same values” all season long—then heading off to the glorified breeding shed that is the so-called “fantasy suite” in the show’s final hours. (Don’t worry—I’m sure they just stay up all night comparing their “values” on those petal-covered beds.)
Watching The Bachelor is like being on an amusement park ride lined with animatronic figures whose heterosexuality dials have been turned up to 11. They are overclocked, operating well beyond their factory settings, and when they break down—which they often do—there is nothing more chaotically beautiful.
To be clear, I cannot relate at all to Chris Harrison’s televised coupling empire. I met my wife in an Indiana sex library, for starters, and we never really “dated” so much as we just started hanging out with each other and never stopped. Bachelor contestants often make a big to-do about disclosing their past personal traumas; for us, that talk happened as a simple matter of course within a day of meeting.
Nor does the show offer my partner and I anything approaching wish fulfillment—apart from the copious amounts of international travel. Neither of us want to be Pretty Woman-ed like Becca K. was this season; that fantasy is just not in our psyche.
Reality television bears only a passing resemblance to reality, of course—and there are plenty of straight people who probably don’t see much of themselves in The Bachelor—but there aren’t even shades of our experiences or desires reflected in the show.
But being able to personally connect to The Bachelor isn’t the reason my partner and I consider the weekly adventures of Arie Luyendyk Jr. to be appointment viewing—and why I am currently hooked to the bizarre Olympics-themed Bachelor Winter Games spin-off.
We watch the show for the sheer spectacle of straightness—for what my wife calls the “mock theater” of heteronormativity. And we are far from the only LGBT fans of The Bachelor who tune in for this precise reason.
“My straight husband hates it, I think, mostly because of the garish ugly spectacle it makes of attraction and relationships between a man and an army of discardable women, but I think maybe that’s why I like it?” one bisexual female friend told me. “The show’s whole idea of heterosexual compatibility and marriage is so gawk-ably bizarre.”
“I like watching the exaggerated version of straightness that I grew up internalizing,” a queer transgender male friend told me. “It’s half just entertaining, half a way to access the remnants of a heteronormativity that I tried my whole life to run away from—but that was so strongly forced on me that it will always be a part of me.”
Another friend—a bisexual, feminist woman—participates in regular viewings of The Bachelor with her queer friends and even joined a Bachelor-themed fantasy league.
“When I watch The Bachelor, I don’t think I view it the way a lot of people are intended to,” she admitted. “My friends, including other queer folks, pile together on a couch or in a bicoastal text thread and create community around laughing at cis[gender] straight nonsense.”
“We don’t see a fairytale unfolding,” she added, “we see a dumpster fire catching in ways so absurd, the only thing you can do is laugh.”
My wife’s favorite part of the show also has nothing to do with cheering for the romantic hopefuls to find love; she likes “watching the sisterhood develop beyond the editing” between the female contestants—the “handholding, wiping of tears, jokes, hugging, sly giggling, and heart-to-hearts had while the bachelor is away.”
The Bachelor itself doesn’t explicitly invite this subversive LGBT audience. Most obviously, there has never been an openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual star of The Bachelor or Bachelorette—which means little hope of seeing same-sex love onscreen.
The series has also indulged in a fair bit of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, even in recent years, like in 2015 when two male competitors developed a strong friendship that was teased as a potential romance, or in May 2017 when the ABC website published a comment by a Bachelorette contestant who said his biggest date fear would be that “the chick is actually a dude,” or in the summer of 2017 when the first openly bisexual contestant was noticeably tokenized on Bachelor in Paradise.
(ABC later removed the “chick is actually a dude” comment, as The Wrap reported.)
The Bachelor still seems to take place in a universe where queer people don’t exist—not in the real world, where something like seven percent of millennials are LGBT.
But this is one area in which I’m decidedly not looking for increased LGBT media representation. I would definitely like to see ABC improve the show’s racial diversity—instead of believing that Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette can atone for all of the show’s unrelenting whiteness. When it comes to matters of queerness, though, I say, please, God, let The Bachelor remain resolutely in the past.
The show’s outdated, almost primeval portrayal of heterosexuality is exactly what makes it such compelling viewing. It only bolsters my case that previous attempts to imitate the Bachelor format with an all-gay cast have been disastrous, as my Daily Beast colleague Kevin Fallon has noted.
“One upside to being ignored by the dating show craze has been escaping the saccharine fairy-tale narrative,” Fallon wrote, in his review of the short-lived Logo series Finding Prince Charming.
Queer lives don’t typically fit the template provided by The Bachelor, and it’s probably futile to try shoving our round pegs into a straight dating show’s square holes—at least as such shows are presently constituted. As my bisexual feminist friend noted, if there were a version of The Bachelor that “accurately portrayed the diversity, complexity, and humanity of LGBTQ people looking for love,” that would be terrific—but if that were the case, the show “wouldn’t be The Bachelor” anymore.
However, as long as enough straight people out there still aspire to a storybook ending—or, at least, as long as a casting director can corral a couple dozen conventionally attractive Kinsey Zeros into a single Southern California mansion—The Bachelor is always going to work, as it has for a marathon run of 22 seasons.
As a cultural artifact, the 16-year-long success of this show is a testament to the staying power of our heteronormative fantasies around sex and dating—fantasies that, judging by the show’s abysmal success rate, don’t seem to make people happy in real life.
Over and over again, this year included, my partner and I watch the eponymous Bachelor or Bachelorette dump contestants who actually have personalities—like fan favorite Peter Kraus on Rachel Lindsay’s season or Arkansas girl Tia Booth, whom Arie just eliminated Monday night—and pick a bland winner who looks good on a glossy magazine cover, who fits some idealized notion of what a couple looks like.
Queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner defined heteronormativity as the way in which heterosexuality has an “invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness”—and I can think of no better way to articulate my frustration with The Bachelor than to say that the show’s heroes almost always pick the aspiring fiancée who seems like “the right choice,” not the choice they actually want.
Not all straight people pick that norm-satisfying path, of course. Fortunately, the vast majority of married heterosexuals in my friend circle look nothing like the cardboard cutout couples that The Bachelor produces—and who get blown away with the slightest gust of wind once they step out of the jacuzzi and spend uninterrupted time together.
Indeed, The Bachelor doesn’t capture what it’s actually like to be heterosexual any more than a gay male drag queen captures the essence of womanhood. But The Bachelor is perhaps heterosexuality’s carnival mirror, an irresistible reflection of straightness in its most heightened and concentrated form.
Through that artful exaggeration, The Bachelor reveals heterosexuality as the beautiful, thorny, fragile rose that it is—and that’s one rose I will gladly keep accepting, whether it’s intended for me or not.