‘The Bachelor’ Is Wrong And Cliche About Gay Men–But Accidentally Right About Reality TV

CREDIT: AP Images/Paul A. Hebert

In an interview published on January 18, the current star of The Bachelor, Juan Pablo Galavis declared that he doesn’t think gay people should star on the show because they don’t constitute family-friendly entertainment.

“I respect them but, honestly, I don’t think it’s a good example for kids to watch that on TV,” he told The TV Page’s Sean Daly. “There’s this thing about gay people — it seems to me, I don’t know if I’m mistaken or not — I have a lot of friends like that, but they’re more pervert in a sense. To me, the show would be too strong, too hard to watch on TV.” Galvais later released a statement intended to clarify his remarks. “The word pervert was not what I meant to say and I am very sorry about it,” he said. “Everyone knows English is my second language and my vocabulary is not as broad as it is in Spanish and, because of this, sometimes I use the wrong words to express myself. What I meant to say was that gay people are more affectionate and intense and for a segment of the TV audience this would be too racy to accept. The show is very racy as it is and I don’t let my 5 year old daughter watch it.”

The clarification doesn’t really eliminate the old canard that any depiction of gay sexuality or romance is somehow too much for children. It does, at least, acknowledge a point made by Andy Denhart, my favorite reality television critic, that it’s hilariously hypocritical to suggest that gay people are somehow verboten, “But a parade of often-drunk women fighting each other for the affection of a man they’ll probably break up with in the tabloids after humiliating themselves on television: that’s a good example?” And Galvais’ statement was obviously intended to bring him in line with ABC, which airs The Bachelor and Warner Horizon Television, which produces the show–both organizations and the show’s producers said publicly that “Juan Pablo’s comments were careless, thoughtless and insensitive, and in no way reflect the views of the network, the show’s producers or studio.”

But while Galvais’ comments are obviously silly and buy into old-fashioned and dangerous canards about gay men, his objection raises an interesting point that’s relevant to both The Bachelor and reality television more broadly. What is it, exactly, that The Bachelor is designed to do? And what about other reality television series that have courted controversy in recent years?

I think there’s a very good argument to be made that the subject of The Bachelor is heterosexuality. The very format of the show, in which a group of women is designed to play up the idea that straight women are in fierce competition with each other for a limited supply of desirable heterosexual men. The physical presentation of that man and those women hew very closely to rigid gender norms: the Bachelor is always buff, and until this season always white, the women always highly feminine. This is a setting where not wearing a lot of makeup counts as gender rebellion. The elimination ceremonies involve the exchange of red roses between the Bachelor and the women he wants to continue seeing, adding an extra charge to the significance of those flowers, which now don’t just stand for romance, but for a woman’s worth as a potential partner. And the fact that the competition ends with an engagement, emphasizes the ways in which American culture so frequently privileges prioritizes weddings over marriages.

I suppose there’s a version of The Bachelor that could comment on the ways in which expanding marriage equality has put pressure on gay men to get married by putting them through the paces with the exact same format. Such a meta experiment could be a fascinating expose of how ridiculous The Bachelor‘s conventions are when they’re separated from the norms of gender and sexuality to which they’re tied. But I can’t imagine ABC conducting such an experiment with one of its long-running brands. A competitive from-dating-to-marriage show that’s meant not as a commentary on the original Bachelor franchise, and that is aimed at exploring the norms of courtship, sex, and engagements among gay men should be structured with those norms in mind. There’s nothing wrong with saying that a show that has heterosexuality as its subject isn’t well-suited to produce specific, compelling drama about gay men. But the solution to that is a show that’s engineered to meet that story-telling need.