Illustration by Dave van Patten

‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ Could Break Down Ideas About Monogamy

Could reality TV open up a real conversation about relationships?

During the last season of The Bachelorette, 25-year-old bachelorette JoJo Fletcher was overwhelmed. The physical intimacy she experienced in the Fantasy Suite — the only private moment offered to contestants who are dating, as a reward — came threefold. In an interview with People Magazine, Fletcher joked: “I’ve definitely kissed more guys in a few weeks than I had in my entire life!” She added that you can’t censor yourself during the show: “…If you know there is chemistry and a physical connection, it’s a good time to have privacy and let whatever happens happen.” Though she eventually shacked up with former quarterback Jordan, her experience through reality TV show sounds like a combination of speed dating and a possible foray into polyamory — particularly because there is so much emotional processing on the show itself.

Ultimately, audience members are programmed to want Fletcher to pick one guy and settle down with him for the rest of her life, or something like that — and while the show’s finale implies a happy ending, that’s usually not the case. Meanwhile, the journey she takes to that final moment is a pretty unusual one. Could The Bachelor open up a conversation about relationships, specifically the idea that one person can’t be everything, and thus it’s okay to date multiple people at once or have relationships that are not so black-and-white?

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette mirror the processes of speed dating and dating app hookup culture and throw in the close confines of early reality TV shows such as The Real World — where romance between participants happened as a result of emotional needs, pheromones and perfect on-set dramatic struggles. But more often than not, the potential for actual romantic compatibility and true partnership was the least important part of this process. The Bachelorette (as with The Bachelor), however, is created with the intended outcome of happily-ever-after monogamy, yet the drama of the show itself suggests a version of polyamory-lite. Sure, ABC would never call it that, because polyamory is not mainstream, and in The Bachelor’s world it’s not possible to love more than one person. This show is about finding The One — not The Ones.

Just like any reality show with an end prize, strategy and distrust run high. The Fantasy Suite episodes amplify this, particularly because the bachelorette will ideally get intimate with each of her top three picks. In bachelorette Andi Dorfman’s Fantasy Suite episode, she noted the double-standard for men and women and the slut-shaming she encountered for testing out physical chemistry with her suitors—i.e., sleeping with them. She was put in an uncomfortable position by one of them, Nick Viall, who revealed on live TV that they’d had sex during their private time together:

About that, Dorfman told People:

“After that aired, I saw clips of national news anchors on TV calling me a slut. Verbatim. On live national television, calling me a slut,” Dorfman recalled — though, as she points out, the Bachelor rarely faces the same criticism, despite sleeping with his final two or three women in the Fantasy Suites as well.

In its own way, The Bachelorette presents a watered-down, heteronormative version of polyamory — albeit a made-for-TV version that offers a fast track to finding The One.

In a Q&A with BuzzFeed, Jade Sylvan, who is in a polyamorous triad with two other women, explains what it’s like: “I’m in love with two people. I have individual romantic relationships with both of them, they have a romantic relationship with each other, and we all have one big, loving, triangular relationship all together.”

On The Bachelorette, there would never be the possibility for Fletcher to have a “triangular relationship” with two of her suitors, or be in the Fantasy Suite with more than one person at a time — even though she admits to experiencing feelings and attraction toward multiple men. The setup guarantees that everyone arrives and remains heterosexual (at least, to the knowledge of the viewers). Any homosexual complication would likely be jokingly implied, sensationalized, or just too off-topic for the show to proceed toward its end goal: a ring.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17vz7DGQur8

Meanwhile, while the women of The Bachelorette are left alone to deal with their emotions, the dudes are grouped off together and led into man drama territory. Guys egg each other on, attempt to intimidate one another, profess their love for the bachelorette and bond over their dislike of other contestants. True fans of The Bachelorette will remember Chad, a villain who made enemies with the other dudes on the show and isolated himself while attempting in vain to win JoJo. The guys were so traumatized by Chad that they treated themselves to a group spa day shortly after his departure. If anything, this seems like potentially poly behavior on the part of the dudes — if only they were into one another too, that is.

Fletcher’s explanation of her romantic feelings is sensationalized and short-lived, and a result of the specific situation she’s in. That’s not the case in actual poly relationships, however, where feelings aren’t performative. The relationships on the show are sensationalized as well, and emoting, confessing and character dynamics are used as plot twists rather than things to be worked out and through.

On the show, jealousy is a major spark for any drama, but in an actual polyamorous relationship it’s something to be aware of and work out as best you can. In Jeff Leavell’s “My Advice for People Considering Polyamory” for VICE, he writes: “…At the end of the day, it’s how we react to that jealousy that matters. I constantly have to remind myself to shift the focus of my thoughts back to me: What am I really afraid of? Why do I not believe I am deserving of all this love?”

On The Bachelorette, dishonesty, game-playing and deceit are major factors in the lives of all the contestants — in the words of the cast, some people are just not “here for the right reasons.”

These are the same types of faults often placed on people engaged in polyamory. “Mostly when people talk about bad experiences with poly, they’re talking about a situation in which someone was dishonest,” writes Sylvan. “Honesty is key.”

Similar dynamics occur in the Bachelor in Paradise, the ABC show that premiered in 2014 and is now in its third season. The show uses characters with whom viewers are already familiar, including former fan favorites and controversial characters from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, all of whom are willing to come back for round two of this dramedy branded as a search for love. Placing them in a paradisiacal setting heightens the contrast between idealized romance and the reality of complicated, messy and heightened emotions.

On this polyamorous lite island, the cast of Bachelor in Paradise feels more Lord of the Flies than Romeo and Juliet. Survival depends on navigating the murky emotional waters of this rigged game — and not actually falling in love, like or lust with too many other people.

Some contestants may be clinging to hope, but are audiences? Surely, anyone who has experienced true love knows that it involves trust, something that The Bachelor and its spinoffs lack. Instead, what they’ll get is constant, draining and often explosive emotional processing. It’s not a real, workable relationship, whether it’s polyamorous or monogamous, but rather the kind of drama that occurs because of boredom, loneliness and a self-willed search for love. On the manipulative game that is The Bachelor, there’s no such relationship — polyamorous or monogamous — that could ever really work.