Last night, a rare thing happened on The Bachelorette. In the live portion of the season’s three-hour finale, as Becca Kufrin sat on a soundstage sofa with her newly announced fiancé Garrett Yrigoyen, the ABC reality show was forced to acknowledge the existence of something it has steadfastly ignored for years. The Bachelorette was forced to discuss politics.
Immediately after the show’s 14th season began running this summer, news broke that square-jawed front-runner Yrigoyen had a history of liking alt-right meme posts on Instagram. The story dominated press coverage of this season not just because the memes were particularly hateful and gross — including anti-immigrant jokes, fat-shaming memes, transphobic memes, and a post suggesting the Parkland students are crisis actors — but because this seemed to put Garrett on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Becca, a Hillary Clinton supporter. But the Instagram brouhaha also had the effect of essentially spoiling the season: The amount of immediate blowback from those involved with the show, including a full interview with Becca on the topic and a carefully worded apology from Garrett, suggested he was the season’s winner. Why else defend him so vigorously?
In a sign of how big this story became, and how desperate Bachelorette is to keep Becca and Garrett as potential long-term franchise royalty, Chris Harrison brought up the Instagram scandal during the season’s live TV finale. Let me repeat: Chris Harrison, host of the famously politically mute Bachelor franchise, actually acknowledged that politics exist. And then, because it’s The Bachelorette, Harrison, Kufrin, and Yrigoyen proceeded to discuss the entire controversy without ever actually discussing, commenting on, unpacking, grappling with, or even describing anything to do with Garrett’s political views. The Bachelorette is political now! But please never ever mention anything to do with actual political opinions.
Here’s how it worked: Harrison asked a softball question about how Kufrin and Yrigoyen’s life has been since the show aired, a clearly prearranged opening for them to discuss the controversy. Yrigoyen then stepped in with a practiced reply. “You know, I’ll just take the time now — some stuff came out about my social media. And I didn’t realize the effect behind a double-tap or a like on Instagram. So I put out an apology. I didn’t mean to offend anybody.” He talked about how he’s trying to grow from this experience, said he’s reconsidering his actions, and then added the only thing that comes anywhere close to a political comment: “When I was ‘liking’ things, it was going against what she stands for. And that made it really hard on us as a couple. So when we started talking about that, we got through that together. We’re growing, we’re progressing.”
If you only watched the show and read nothing at all about what Yrigoyen’s “Instagram situation” actually was, this segment would give you no further knowledge about what happened. You’d have no way to know about Yrigoyen’s political beliefs, about Kufrin’s, or about how they “got through that.” You’d have no way to know which people Yrigoyen likely offended (including immigrants, feminists, trans people, liberals, and anyone who feels it’s unconscionable to lie about and attack the integrity of gun-violence victims). Maybe Kufrin and Yrigoyen “got through” the scandal by having a real conversation about trans rights. Or maybe they “got through it” with Kufrin saying, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean it,” and Yrigoyen replying, “Yeah babe, no way!” and then they high-fived each other. The Bachelorette gives us no way to know.
This season of The Bachelorette was presented with a political scandal, one that includes the messy intersection of social-media trolling, the selves we perform online versus the selves we perform in person, Trump-approved ideology, transphobia, the conservative fondness for casting immigrants as animals, and dangerous far-right conspiracy theories. Its response was to reframe the entire scandal as an easily surmountable obstacle in the path of a nice romantic relationship.
Harrison’s follow-up question is the most telling moment of the whole exchange: “Garrett, how worried were you that you were going to lose Becca over this?” For the show, Garrett’s social-media behavior is not a problem because it “offended” people, and it’s certainly not a problem because it espouses nauseating, false, and dehumanizing political stances. It’s a problem because Garrett revealed beliefs that were “going against” Becca’s, and this makes them seem less like fairy-tale soul mates. Even Becca’s rhetoric is couched to respond to the soul mate aspect — “I got to see who he is, his heart, his soul” — while letting her completely avoid the beliefs in question. Garrett might believe in some bad stuff, The Bachelorette told us, but the important thing is that Becca still loves him.
But The Bachelor franchise has always been political. It’s deeply entrenched in the politics of marginalizing people of color, celebrating and prioritizing privilege, and reinforcing stereotypes of gender and romance. It’s also always pretended that it’s completely neutral and none of those things exist. Any overtly political subject feels so out-of-bounds, so completely anathema to the show’s false veneer of inhuman romance, that brushing up against the hint of politics feels like a shock. It is surprising that the franchise finally felt so pressured by the political climate that it had to incorporate Garrett’s scandal into its fairy-tale world. But it’s not at all surprising that The Bachelorette responded to that scandal by ignoring everything political about it. With some careful elisions, thoughtful reframings, and a promise that they’d grow together, Kufrin, Yrigoyen and The Bachelorette rewrote a story about harmful right-wing troll content into an against-the-odds tale of true love. How romantic.