Will You Accept This ‘No’: How ‘The Bachelor’ Tells A Love Story
by Madlyn McAuliffe
Needless to say: spoilers.
It finally happened — and I’m not just talking about the now-infamous fence jump. This year’s Bachelor Colton Underwood and America’s new sweetheart Cassie Randolph are finally together. Beautiful, tan, and blonde, this couple is ready to set off into the sunset — or at least pose for another ‘People’ magazine cover.
Yet I am stuck with an uneasy feeling in my gut — like when you accidentally swallow a wad of chewing gum — about what, on the surface, seems a satisfying conclusion — a perfect ending to any storied love. Particularly, I am concerned about the message this season of “The Bachelor” sends about what ideal love is, and about the gendered rules and toxic actions we must perform to pursue a love story that is narratively satisfying but ultimately unhealthy.
You see, throughout the wholly unnecessary two-night finale, Colton’s failure to come to terms with Cassie’s decision to leave the show — because she (reasonably) was unsure if she could accept an engagement after knowing and co-dating Colton for a little over a month — was framed as romantic. So besotted was he, the show leads viewers to believe, that Colton lashed out in anger at the camera crew when Cassie broke up with him, and even jumped an eight-foot fence to run off into the Portuguese countryside. No matter that, as Kathryn VanArendonk from Vulture astutely comments, the climactic hunt for Colton was filmed like a horror film. Our leading man as so filled with love and determination that he could not allow Cassie to get on a plane home, despite her explicitly stated wish to do so.
Isn’t that romantic?
Not only was the breakup, fallout, and makeup all framed almost entirely from Colton’s perspective (given that he’s the lead, this prioritization at least makes some sense), but the show spends an enormous amount of time, energy, and dramatic music buildups convincing the audience that Cassie just needs to be won over. That despite her decision to pack her things and go home, Cassie’s ‘no’ to Colton actually is a ‘yes’ in disguise.
Now that sounds familiar.
We often think about ‘no means yes’ in the context of sexual assault, consent, and fraternity houses — and with good reason. Only recently has culture begun to shift the focus to media depictions of monogamous (and generally heterosexual) relationships in which one partner, usually the man, must ‘fight’ for his woman who has left him for some climatic reason. That the woman still loves this man is generally a given within the narrative. Despite her “no,” which she demonstrates both verbally and physically, Cassie does not truly mean it and, in fact, must be shown she is wrong through some great demonstration of love. A boombox playing Peter Gabriel held aloft in the night. Writing a letter every day for a year.
As a feminist, a skeptic, and a skeptical feminist, I consume “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” and the odd-sibling-out “Bachelor in Paradise” with a taste for the absurd. Even more than a glass of dark red wine, bitter irony is my drink of choice as I waver between giving up forever on a franchise that consistently places heteronormative, misogynistic, and racist values on a pedestal… and tuning in to next week’s dramatic episode.
There are times when I swore I’d quit, most notably after the choose-your-fighter ‘Bachelorette’ debacle that pitted Kaitlyn Bristowe and Britt Nilsson against each other, and following the insulting failure of “Bachelor in Paradise” to discuss consent and sexual assault in 2017. But just when I thought I was out...
There’s something comedically manic about this franchise that so thoroughly clashes with every fortified feminist bone in my body, yet scratches that itch for escape and entertainment I find myself needing after a tough Monday. It is my (only) favorite televised sport. I actually see little difference between the narrative of “The Bachelor” — of heroes and villains, and of struggle, defeat, and ultimate victory — and that of professional football (minus, you know, the football). Fans, myself included, and media even adopt language that reflects the “love is a battlefield” framing: the last contestant standing “wins” the game, as well as the lead’s heart and hand. When it comes to depictions of love, however, that narrative of virtuous conquest and reward for persistence can be dangerous.
Seemingly from birth, we are inundated with stories that portray women as unsure of their own minds and emotions, and men as masters of their own fates. It has been to our detriment. Even before #MeToo, our society has been struggling with the ramifications of these expectations. Men are taught that women will say no but mean yes, or at least that they will arrive at yes if men just wear them down enough. Women are taught that men enjoy the thrill of the chase — that they want to play the game and put in the hard work to win women over. Around and around we go.
I watched this season of “The Bachelor” with my youngest sister, who, at 17, is my junior by a decade. I was thrilled to finally have a watch-party partner, but there were moments when I hit pause to ask for her reactions to what we had just witnessed. We both agreed we appreciated that Colton was willing to break with the norm of the show — foregoing the big engagement the audience of “The Bachelor” has come (has been trained) to expect (after all, an engagement and eventual marriage are the only endings that could possibly be satisfying) — to give Cassie more time.
But it still felt so strange to watch a grown-ass woman wrestle with her conflicting feelings, even shaking and crying with emotion as she is about to meet Colton’s family, while Colton appears convinced he and Cassie will be together forever, and that she is only moments away from falling in love with him. Yikes.
For better or for worse (sometimes, truly, for the worst), the media we consume affects us and our culture at large, reinforcing dangerous narratives using seemingly harmless tropes and editing techniques. I am not going to say I expect more from “The Bachelor” because doing so would be lunacy. I do hope, however, that the young women (and men, for that matter) watching this show see past the fence jump and remain critical of the media they consume.
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