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Hear Me Out

The Bachelorette's Struggle Proves the Show's Format Needs a Shake-Up

The long-running dating competition series could stand to explore non-monogamous relationships.
  • Charity Lawson and Jesse Palmer in The Bachelorette (Photo: ABC/Craig Sjodin)
    Charity Lawson and Jesse Palmer in The Bachelorette (Photo: ABC/Craig Sjodin)

    There used to be an unspoken rule in all The Bachelor franchises: the “L” word was off limits for the leading man or woman until they handed out the final rose. In a sense, this saved those being dumped from any extra heartache — once “love” started being thrown around willy-nilly in later seasons, it was especially devastating to be sent home. More than that though, the restraint was representative of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette’s traditional values. In Bachelor Nation, the end goal is marriage, and said marriage, up until this point, has always been between one man and one woman. And for the most part, that means that on this show, true love only exists between one man and one woman.

    But as the series has gone on, that unspoken rule has been broken more often, with leads openly admitting that they love more than one person. Now that even this bastion of monogamy has begun to acknowledge just how easy it might be to be in love with more than one person, it’s clear that reality dating competitions have to consider new approaches.

    Ben Higgins was the first lead to scandalize Bachelor Nation with a double declaration of love. During Season 20 of The Bachelor, he said “I love you” to both of the final two women, JoJo Fletcher and Lauren Bushnell. When he uttered the words to JoJo, she responded with complete shock saying, “I don’t understand.” Up until then, no contestant expected to hear those words unless they came with a proposal, and no Bachelor or Bachelorette had been so open about being in love with two people at once. JoJo was dumped one episode later, and Ben and Lauren’s relationship fell apart a year after their engagement.

    Since then, it’s become more common for those on the show to discuss their feelings more openly, even if it’s just with the host or producers in their confessional interviews. Simply pretending that certain feelings don’t exist doesn’t lead to a happier, healthier relationship, and the more the contestants talk about it, the more ridiculous the idea that they should quickly choose one single person to marry becomes — there has to be a better (or at least different) option.

    Charity Lawson has been falling in love with four men on The Bachelorette Season 20. She openly admitted it during the July 31 episode, struggling with her decision to send one of the finalists home after the all-important hometown dates. It’s always one of the toughest weeks for breakups, with the lead spending an evening convincing someone’s parents that they really care about their child only to send them packing a few days later. But often those handing out the roses, while upset that they hurt someone so badly, return to their final three people with a sense of clarity (one of the franchise’s favorite words) that those contestants are the right ones. This season, Charity said goodbye to Aaron B. through a steady stream of tears, wondering if she’d really just let the love of her life go.

    But what if Charity didn’t have to say goodbye? Or at least, what if there was a series that was about holding onto the people you fall in love with instead of arbitrarily letting them go because that’s what society would have you believe is the only way to be in a relationship? Even though the goal on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette is marriage, the odds of that are actually low. After 21 years, why not try something new with people who have a different goal?

    As people become more open about their nontraditional approaches to relationships, it seems only fitting that reality television follows suit. The genre has been expanding its representation of queer relationships, with series like Are You the One: Come One, Come All and The Ultimatum: Queer Love. The next logical step would be to introduce a format for polyamorous daters, allowing them to choose multiple partners in a dating show setting.

    As with all of these shows, there will also likely be some missteps in accurately representing the community at their center before getting it right. For every Are You the One: Come One, Come All, there’s a Love Allways that doesn’t quite get it right, and it would be easy at first to feed into stereotypes about poly people in an attempt to make the most dramatic dating show ever. But there are already some non-competitive, documentary-style shows offering a realistic look at how open relationships work everyday, like TLC’s Seeking Brother Husband. While the title may sound salacious, the show itself normalizes polyamory, and the most successful iteration of a dating competition on the subject would do the same.

    There have been some hints that more series exploring open relationships and polyamory may be in the works — this Reddit post from last year referenced a casting call for a series looking for couples exploring open relationships. But as of yet, there has yet to be a reality dating show specifically designed for poly people to meet and potentially fall in love with each other or fulfill another relationship need.

    In many ways, The Bachelor actually created the blueprint for such a series. The franchise is made up of group dates, two-on-ones, and instances of navigating differing boundaries around intimacy and emotional connections. Whether The Bachelor and The Bachelorette contestants realize it or not, they’re all engaging with some aspects of a polyamorous relationship. It wouldn’t take much of a structural overhaul to focus instead on non-monogamous relationships, just an understanding among the contestants of what they’re signing up for.

    But it’s unlikely that this particular franchise will change its endgame — it’s taken Bachelor Nation more than 20 years to even alter its format to acknowledge that people over the age of 30 date, too, with The Golden Bachelor. That’s leaping straight to a lead in his 70s, leaving a huge chunk of the population unrepresented. If straight fortysomethings are still being left behind, it will be a while before the franchise takes the plunge into non-monogamous or even queer relationships. And it’s making it even more obvious that there’s a need for a completely new show, one where admitting that you’re falling in love with multiple people is entirely the point.

    The Bachelorette airs Mondays at 8:00 PM ET on ABC and streams on Hulu the next day. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: The Bachelorette, Are You the One?, The Bachelor, The Golden Bachelor, Love Allways, Seeking Brother Husband, The Ultimatum: Queer Love