Queerbaiting On Paradise Island

The Bachelor has always been my reality show of choice. Having never really been interested in the two great pillars of Australian free-to-air television — cooking and renovating — I instead choose to spend hours watching a bunch of hot people vie to impress a designated Special Hot Person. Each week the hopeful romantics launch themselves out of aeroplanes, write terrible poetry, and take more unnecessary helicopter rides than an Australian parliamentary speaker, all in the name of true love (and maybe Instagram followers).

I watched enraptured as one by one the losers are sent home, and a quasi-Stockholm syndrome slowly tightens its pallid grip over the remaining contestants. Each season invariably culminates in a tearful, moving declaration of love, set against such exotic locales as Thailand and South Africa (except for that one year they blew the budget early on seaplanes and had to stage the final ceremony in the mansion’s backyard).

While watching The Bachelor or its variants, however, a few things immediately jump out.

First, diversity is not the name of the game. The Channel Ten casting team seems to struggle to even find enough people with hair darker than dirty blonde to enter the show, let alone anyone who isn’t white.

However, the aggressively heteronormative gender politics are weirdly fascinating.

A few weeks into a season of The Bachelor there is often a group date where each woman has to take care of a fake baby for a day, in order to prove her femininity by competitively performing motherhood. The titular bachelor frowns as he scrutinises grown women push around plastic babies in prams, trying to discern her worth as a woman as derived from this test.

This is counterbalanced in The Bachelorette by the Man Test™: a kind of frenzied, tag-team race in which the men have to change car tyres and chop wood while sweating and grunting to exert their dominant masculinity. Since its first season premiered in 2013, The Bachelor has been detached from progressive social movements, passively eschewing discourses related to feminism or queer experience and instead subtly reinforcing traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality. While it would be a bit much to expect a reality show such as The Bachelor to make overt statements regarding current social and political movements, the bachelor mansion has always been, in short, a space wholly insulated from ‘queerness’.

This insulation was punctuated in the 2016 season of The Bachelor when Megan, an early favourite in the competition, told bachelor Richie that she no longer wished to stay in the mansion. Richie was stunned. Australia was stunned. What could make her walk away from the mansion, with its heated pool and endless supply of free booze?

It was later revealed that Megan was in a relationship with Tiffany, a fellow The Bachelor contestant sent home earlier in the season. Australian social media and tabloids were flooded with hot takes on this news. Had they become lesbians during the show? Why did they apply for the show if they were already lesbians? Were they faking the relationship for attention?

Many viewers evidently found it hard to reconcile what seemed to be two incompatible notions: being on The Bachelor, a program aligned so inextricably with heterosexuality, and being in a relationship with a woman. Beneath this tide of comments, however, was a story of two women in a loving relationship, exploring their sexualities and finding their place in the LGBT+ community.

Fast forward to 2018. Having been starved of sweet Bachie content for a number of months, I was super excited for the inaugural Australian season of Bachelor in Paradise, which involves single ex-contestants from previous seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette day drinking for a month in Fiji.

The show’s structure is based on a presumption of heterosexuality. One week, the women each give a rose to a man they are interested in, the next, the men have this power, and so forth. Whoever fails to receive a rose is sent back home to Melbourne to pursue Instagram modelling full time.

Of particular interest in Bachelor in Paradise, however, was the return of Megan, who in the show’s promos was shown stating that she would be open to dating both men and women. In fact, early advertisements for Bachelor in Paradise purported to show Megan kissing a woman in a romantic aquatic setting. A shot of Megan looking at Elora, overlaid with Megan’s voice saying “she’s definitely my kind of girl”, followed by a cut to Megan kissing someone with long dark hair, presenting Elora and Megan as an apparent future couple on the show. The promise of a lesbian relationship was an exciting promise of LGBT+ representation in a prime-time TV slot often devoid of such content. Excited Twitter users wondered how a gay relationship would work within the Bachelor in Paradise setting. Could a woman give a rose to another woman? In a strange way, it seemed to symbolise the broader shakeup of traditional heteronormative institutions to allow for more inclusiveness and diversity.

As it turns out, this question never had to be answered — what appeared to be two women kissing was really a kiss between Megan and a long-haired man named Thomas. Yes, it was our old friend queerbaiting, a longstanding tenant of narrative television, rearing its exploitative head in a reality show.

Queerbaiting is where a show purposefully promises a gay relationship in order to engage an (often young) queer audience with no intention to ever seeing the promise to fruition. Bachelor in Paradise queerbaited in textbook fashion, appealing to wider audiences through the promise of an edgy, hot, tabloid-worthy ‘lesbian’ relationship. This queerbaiting was understandably frustrating for many people, especially given the conspiracies and scepticism levelled at Megan and Tiffany’s relationship, and seems to feed into the stereotype of female bisexuality as somehow illegitimate.

Perhaps the show’s producers intended the promo as genuine LGBT+ representation, normalising WLW relationships to a prime-time television audience. If so, they should have consulted members of the LGBT community as to the best way to go about this. Megan talking about her bisexuality would have been positive representation enough, without the need to invent a fictional relationship. Instead, the show reinforced outdated views of LGBT+ relationships. In one episode, editing made it look like Elora was going to ask Megan on a date, and when the two women went off to talk, a group of guys watching from a nearby couch were shown giving each other high fives. In reality, Elora was actually just checking if she could go on a date with Megan’s paradise buddy Jake. Given the enduring heteronormativity of the franchise, the exoticisation of WLW relationships and the queerbaiting in Bachelor in Paradise is especially disappointing.

It would be unreasonable to expect The Bachelor to be at the cutting edge of social progressiveness. At the end of the day, for better or for worse, it’s endlessly entertaining to watch hyperbolic caricatures of gender roles play out in a boozy sunburned, mango daiquiri-fuelled vacuum. It’s just a shame that the producers of Bachelor in Paradise felt the need to misleadingly queerbait everyone. I for one know I would have watched anyway.