Call me by your name and I’ll call you Lauren B.: The sad queer history of ‘The Bachelor’

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A woman in a gorgeous golden evening gown and glittering chandelier earrings stood at a elimination ceremony on “The Bachelor,” a prominent moment in an episode televised late last month. Tears welled in her eyes as she faced the man with a red rose in his hand.

“I went into this competition to find love. I’ve found that love for myself, but it isn’t you. It’s someone else,” she said, with dramatic pauses between each sentence.

The woman — Minh Thu, a contestant on “The Bachelor Vietnam,” then turned around, crossed the elimination floor and faced contestant Truc Nhu. Giving Nhu a hug, she cried and then said, “Come home with me.” And then they fled the pit of heterosexual despair that is “The Bachelor” franchise, running off into the sunset like the end of a low-budget and campy but heartwarming lesbian flick — that is, until Nhu later decided to return to the competition.

This moment was so unexpected, so distinct from the status quo of heterosexuality on “The Bachelor,” that it made international headlines. It became sensationalized in the media because, structurally, “The Bachelor” franchise is about heterosexuality — it’s not a show that knows how to handle LGBTQ+ identities. The franchise is so rooted in the heteronormative “romantic love” of a cisgender boy proposing to a cisgender girl at the end of the show that anything outside of that formula does not compute.

When LGBTQ+ representation does appear in the franchise, it seems to be used as a marketing gimmick to get more views — a process known as “queerbaiting.” Sometimes the editing of episodes implies that a queer storyline may develop, but by the episode’s end, everyone can rest easy knowing that we are still in cis-hetero-ville.

On the first night of Ben Flajnik’s season of “The Bachelor,” contestants Monica Spannbauer and Blakeley Shea cuddled and flirted on the infamously makeout-friendly couches. A seemingly drunken Spannbauer was heard telling Shea: “You’re my experience. If you’re the only thing I get out of this, I have lived, and I have lived great,” and the producers ran with it. Clips of the two were edited to imply a sexual connection, which did not actually happen. After the first night, the women went back to competing with each other to win Flajnik’s heart. After Spannbauer was eliminated, she insisted to Entertainment Tonight that her words were “absolutely not” said in a romantic context.

Similarly, during Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of “The Bachelorette,” countless promos teased an intimate bromance between male contestants JJ Lane and Clint Arlis, editing footage and interviews to make it seem like they were falling for each other rather than competing for Bristowe’s rose. Promos went so far as to title Arlis the “Brokeback Bachelor,” explicitly demonstrating the complicitness of “The Bachelor” in this queerbaiting. Other contestants also made fun of the homosexual undertones of the men’s friendship, because heaven forbid that male friends open up about their emotions on a franchise steeped in hetero-masculine norms.

The fake storyline went all the way to the “Men Tell All” episode, where Lane and Arlis’ friendship was revisited and mocked by the other eliminated men. Arlis set the record straight, telling Bachelor nation he was, indeed, a heterosexual man who came to the show “to develop a relationship with a woman.”

Any hope of queerness on the more loosely structured spin-off “Bachelor in Paradise” can be dashed as well: With the entire plot circling around men or women holding the power of the roses each week, introducing even one genderqueer character would send the series crashing in on itself.

When the first openly queer contestant of the U.S. “The Bachelor” franchise entered “Paradise” — Jaimi King from Nick Viall’s season — her entrance was edited as if she may have come to “steal” a man’s girl. Her bisexuality was teased solely as a source of drama, with fellow contestant Jasmine Goode speculating to the cameras: “Jaimi is interested in boys and girls, so — I don’t know — the possibilities are endless here in Paradise.”

“Endless” possibilities, even though she was surrounded by heterosexuals.

Her sexuality was constantly brought up, with contestants obsessing over it and her date card even saying, “Choose whomever you want.” When King took Christen Whitney aside for a friendly, platonic conversation about what was going on in Paradise, Goode joked, “Jaimi, the bisexual, is pulling the virgin,” reducing both Jaimi and Christen to one, sole characteristic each — their sexualities.

While King was open about her sexual orientation in Viall’s season, even she made it clear she didn’t want to be labeled by it, going so far as to tell Viall she “didn’t want to be, like, the weird lesbian.” Singlehandedly bearing the burden of LGBTQ+ representation on her shoulders, she likely felt pressured by the franchise to affirm herself as more than just her sexuality. Yet it was a distinctly hurtful statement from a contestant who was seen as revolutionary for being open about her bisexual identity on America’s straightest TV show.

Franchise-wise, there were two women contestants on “The Bachelor Australia” who dated after their season. Though they’re now broken up, Tiffany Scanlon once declared, “I did find love on ‘The Bachelor.’ … I love (fellow contestant Megan Marx) so much.” While their former ties to “The Bachelor” made their relationship go viral (and of course people claimed that they were faking it, à la “Faking It,” for the publicity), their relationship developed beyond the franchise’s grips. The franchise couldn’t use their “scandalous” love to promote viewership — that is, of course, unless they return for “Bachelor in Paradise Australia.”

“The Bachelor” is stuck in a 2008 “I Kissed a Girl” mentality when it should be inching even just slightly closer to Hayley Kiyoko terrority. Anything “gay” on the show is usually played up to be more than it is through outright queerbaiting in advertisements. Anything truly queer, such as Jaimi’s bisexuality, is played down to minimize her identity to just her sexuality.

We’re not saying we want to subject queer people to the ridiculousness of “The Bachelor,” but any challenge to the rigid heterosexuality the franchise has upheld for 16 years would be a positive change.

Breaking down the romantic gender binary for which “The Bachelor” so aptly stands is the change we need on reality TV. So cast some goddamn LGBTQ+ people, ABC, and when you do, treat them with as much respect as you do any other contestant: mock them for the ridiculous things they do or say, but not for their sexualities or gender identities.

Julie Lim covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Caroline Smith covers queer media. Contact her at [email protected].