The Crushing Reality Suite: 3 things I’m learning about masculinity while watching The Bachelorette

1. Psst. You guys. I have to tell you a secret: MEN GOSSIP.

In an effort to inject some drama into the post-Chad era, a crafty producer manages to slip the contestants some Jojo-trashing tabloid mags featuring accusations from her pre-Bachelor boyfriend (conveniently also named Ben).  Their reactions are pretty much exactly what we would normally associate with women: they get jealous, they get insecure, they question Jojo’s intentions, they fret over their own connections with her.  In fact, in this episode men do a lot of things we tend to assume are gender normative for groups of women—make that groups of teenage girls—things like gossiping, acting cliquish, excluding each other, and mocking each others’ perceived vulnerabilities.  (I’ll come back to this one later.)  Why, then, do we think of these behaviors as gendered at all?  I keep thinking about the recent flap over “vocal fry,” which was commonly decried as a scourge among young women…until research began to show that men do it all the time too, only we seem not to notice or be bothered by it.

2. Vulnerability with the Bachelorette is good; with other men, not so much.

Last week, in the wake of Chad’s anticlimactic departure, the remaining contestants started to turn on each other. Actually, on Derek.  Sweet, Dumbo-eared, surprisingly emotionally intelligent Derek.  This week, Derek hears the other guys talking about how hard it is to watch other contestants getting close to Jojo, and like any adult human, he has a moment of insecurity and jealousy.  Also like an adult, he opts to talk about it with the woman he’s dating, and guess what?  It works!  He and Jojo reconnect, she says she feels like Derek is “back”, and she cements her connection by giving him the group date rose. Emotional vulnerability is rewarded within the confines of a romantic relationship.

But Derek’s maturity and forthrightness don’t have the same effect on the men.  Alex, in particular, seems enraged by Derek’s vulnerability, raving that he knows Jojo doesn’t want someone who is “insecure” (read: a pussy).  In an interview, Derek slams his disgruntled housemates with diametrically opposed gender stereotypes, calling them “a frat house” and a “mean girls clique” in rapid succession.  But they do in fact demonstrate a certain Heather-like quality in their interactions with him.  Alex describes Derek’s group date win as a “pity rose,” and he and Chase mock Derek for needing “reassurance.”  But Derek again deploys his masculinity jujitsu, making explicit the shade the Heathermen were throwing: “That specific word [reassurance] could maybe make me look weak, I mean, I think that’s what you’re trying to say,” he says plainly.  “No matter what you think, no matter what’s on your lapel, there are men here that are moving forward,” Alex tells Derek with incoherent menace, before he and Chase laugh together and declare that they are “done” with him.  In this episode, the same dudes who looked like heroes for eschewing Chad’s Neanderthal machismo, turn out to have a hard time owning and expressing feelings of jealousy or tolerating the idea that a hot girl might find another man’s vulnerability attractive.

3. In Bachelor Nation, violence between men is “entertainment,” but male violence against women is not spoken of.

All of Chad’s steroidal aggression on the show was directed towards the other dudes, with never a hint that Jojo herself felt unsafe around him.  Nor, in fact, did we ever see him get visibly angry at her, even when she ultimately rejected him.  I honestly can’t understand her apparent lack of concern for her own safety: I felt threatened just watching Chad on my television.  But even as she dismissed him, Jojo described herself as “disappointed” in his behavior, not scared to be alone with a guy whose default mode of responding to conflict is to promise a beat-down.  Does the Bachelor’s viability require maintaining the fantasy that intimate partner violence simply never darkens the Bachelor mansion?  What would Chad’s story arc have looked like if he’d threatened violence to Jojo instead of to Alex and Jordan?  This Bad Romance version of the Bachelor does work its way into some offshoots: Bachelor In Paradise, Andi Dorfman’s book in the wake of her failed (and, she claims, emotionally abusive) Bachelorette engagement, and the absolute horror show of Bachelor Jake Pavelka’s post-breakup interview with Vienna.  But I’m guessing ABC has concluded that intimate violence (suggested or actual) would be real bad for the core brand.

I’m also noticing that the franchise is super-selective about which types of trauma narratives are welcome in the mansion.  Tragic childhoods and lost loved ones are evergreen storylines, as are stories of romantic abandonment and stoically perseverant single parenthood.  But there’s another category of trauma—one that is, in fact, reinforced by the Bachelor franchise itself—that remains notably invisible on the shows.  Male violence (threatened) against other males is acceptable entertainment; male violence against women (excepting emotional abuse, at least, because mind-games are a villain’s calling card) is not.  If one out of every six women experiences sexual assault in her lifetime, we might predict that FOUR WOMEN EACH SEASON would be entering the mansion with a history of sexual assault.  So far only one contestant in the entire history of the franchise has gone public with such a story.  The Invisible War just doesn’t fit the show’s romantic narrative.

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