reality tv

The Bachelor Just Did Something Unprecedented

Photo: Bravo

On Monday’s episode of The Bachelor, during a one-on-one date with Colton Underwood, contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes sat at one of the franchise’s familiar date-night dinner tables and laid out the details of her sexual assault. She was raped in college, she told him. She and two of her friends were drugged and raped by men they knew; Caelynn’s rapist also took photos of her while she was naked and unconscious. After waking up the next morning, Caelynn’s friends told her what happened, and she quickly tried to do “everything that [she] was supposed to do.” She went to the police, and she went to the hospital to get a rape kit performed. When the first hospital turned her away, she went to a second hospital, and the results of the kit were “inconclusive” because so much time had passed. One of the men involved was expelled from school, but the others, Caelynn told Colton, “got away with it.”

Bachelor viewers know all of this because Caelynn explained it herself, in a long sequence during which Colton did not interrupt her. For four minutes, Colton sat and listened while Caelynn spoke, and for the most part, the audience watched her, too. When she was finished, Colton asked questions and shared his own secondhand experience with sexual abuse. He connected her story with the history of his own sexual non-history. But he didn’t try to one-up her narrative, he didn’t indulge a desire to comfort her or try to fix it, and he didn’t “freak out,” which is what Caelynn says she was afraid might happen. There’s no way to know how this conversation went before it was edited for prime-time TV, but the version ABC aired on Monday night was unequivocal: When an assault victim decides to talk about what happened to them, the right thing to do is listen.

If you have paid any attention to The Bachelor or any of its spinoff series in the past decade, what happened on Monday’s episode looks like a major shift. In 2017, Bachelor in Paradise got caught a tangled mess of sexual-misconduct allegations after reports that producers and crew watched and filmed two contestants have sex despite suspicions that at least one of them was too inebriated to consent. Subsequent investigations, interviews, and postmortems exonerated or otherwise excused the production. (It’s worth noting that the investigation was performed internally by Warner Bros.) When Bachelor in Paradise aired later that summer, the season did incorporate discussions about assault, consent, and alcohol — but those discussions were bad, especially the Chris Harrison–led group chat about consent which may have been well-intentioned, but which came off as if the franchise’s producers were prodding participants to indemnify them on national television. None of it could be separated from the sense that the whole Bachelor franchise, and Bachelor in Paradise in particular, were glorifying conflict at the expense of personal safety and ethical behavior.

This franchise has never had a great track record of telling stories about trauma, has blatantly pulled on racist story threads to create buzz, and as recently as last year, The Bachelorette cast a contestant who’d been charged with indecent assault and battery. It has always struggled with how to negotiate the gap between its fantasy romance world and what reality looks like. It has never cast a black male lead, has had vanishingly few leads of color, and has never prominently featured a queer story or cast a queer lead. It has only ever been invested in portraying a world where shiny, youthful people — all straight, mostly white — get into drama and silly fun while falling in love; dangerous issues like racism or toxic violent tendencies are just fodder for episodic conflict. Past trauma has always been just a springboard for new romantic feelings.

This is why Caelynn painstakingly recounting her sexual assault feels like a shift for The Bachelor. She was deliberate. She was intensely emotional, but she was also careful. She didn’t apologize, and she didn’t try to soften how terrible it was, not just at the time, but for months and months afterward. In one of the most pointed moments, she told Colton about the first hospital that denied her a rape kit — “I was turned away by a hospital, which is illegal,” she said through clenched teeth, one of the few instances where her composure wavered into something that looks like rage. It’s the kind of story fewer women were willing to tell in the early years of The Bachelor, and it’s also the kind of story that would likely have been edited as tragic but alienating even five years ago. Caelynn would’ve been Sad Sexual Assault Girl, pitiable and too damaged to be a real romantic lead. But in 2019, after Caelynn told Colton her story, he told her about another woman he’d dated who experienced sexual abuse, about how guilty it made him feel, how conflicted he’s been about the widespread stories about his virginity, and how much he hopes Caelynn can now feel safe.

None of this means The Bachelor is not still The Bachelor, of course. Caelynn has spent the last three episodes getting a classic salacious girl-on-girl drama edit, pitting her against her former roommate and co-Miss USA pageant contestant Hannah Brown. When Caelynn and Hannah did finally put their differences behind them in Monday’s episode, it was an unsubtle guarantee that the pendulum of audience goodwill might swing in her favor. But in order to retain balance in the Bachelor-verse, Demi and Courtney step up to take the place of Feuding Housemates at precisely the same moment Caelynn and Hannah bury the hatchet. Cultural shifts aside, especially in the crowded early episodes of this season, The Bachelor’s primary source of drama is still “let’s watch people hate each other.”

Nevertheless, Caelynn’s account of her sexual assault feels like something new for the franchise. It was edited without schmaltzy sad violins. It was presented plainly and calmly, and without apology. Colton listened carefully and shared his own experience, and made sure Caelynn knew he does not think less of her. He wants her to be safe. They are both still participating in a reality show that mines human tragedy for the purposes of TV ratings and will necessarily result in painful exposure and heartbreak for a significant number of people involved. But The Bachelor is a juggernaut and we’re not getting rid of it any time soon, so we should celebrate its newfound sensitivity where we can. Maybe, possibly, hopefully, its treatment of this one story will be a sign of even more change to come.

The Bachelor Just Did Something Unprecedented