I only care about stuff if it’s gay—there, I said it.
I’ve spent a lifetime consuming heterosexual propaganda that has irreversibly damaged my lesbian psyche. Why waste another moment watching straight women named (probably) Danielle kissing men in zip-up hoodies and plaid button-ups? Yuck.
That said, you can probably guess that I’m new to watching The Bachelor. I’ve always seen the Bachelor-verse as the last bastion of heteronormative brainwashing—television’s last-ditch attempt to keep reality TV in the straights’ corner. As a result, I’ve protested consuming it for years now. When people say things like, “Did you see JoJo’s season?” That Lucille Bluth quote flashes through my mind: “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.”
But I have watched one season of The Bachelor, one season of The Bachelorette, and am currently neck-deep in my first Bachelor in Paradise. And I have to admit, the extended cinematic Bachelor universe has its merits. Mostly, I’ve found a beacon of hope in the breakout star from Colton Underwood’s season, and current Paradise standout, Demi Burnett. And yes, it’s because she’s queer.
Like most LGBTQ people who were raised alongside a landscape of reality television, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the queering of dating shows. Since I was a kid, I’ve been watching straight people date each other on kitschy series like The Real World, Millionaire Matchmaker, and those MTV classics like Parental Control, Room Raiders, and NEXT. If queer people were at all visible on shows like these in the past, they were almost definitely bisexual women, and they were reduced to cruel stereotypes. Like Tila Tequila, who increased visibility for bi women in the late aughts, but ultimately, queer critics found to be performative in her attraction to women, catering to male viewers. Just two years ago, Bachelor in Paradise featured Jaimi King, an out fluid woman, who was portrayed as a sexual deviant; the show hit hard on the idea that she could go “either way,” and other contestants conflated bisexuality with promiscuity (“Jaimi, the bisexual, is pulling the virgin,” contestant Jasmine joked). But finally, with Demi Burnett’s coming out episode this week, the Bachelor-verse is making peace with the harm it may have caused to the queer community, and waving a rainbow flag.
On the premiere episode of the season, Burnett came out to Hannah Brown, the most recent Bachelorette, saying: “I have been seeing someone. Plot twist: It happens to be a woman.” Despite being ultimately supportive, Brown was visibly shocked.
That scared me. I’ve never held The Bachelor to any high moral standards, so I expected the show to treat Burnett’s sexuality like a hot commodity, something to be exploited, and that fellow members of the Nation would respond like Brown did—with feigned acceptance and a recognizable visage of shock. But this week, when Burnett came out to her co-contestants Katie Morton and Tayshia Adams, and her romantic interest Derek Peth, I was the one who was shocked—not only by their positive responses, but by the show’s empathy toward Demi.
“There’s another person in me,” Burnett told Morton through tears Tuesday night. “There’s layers to me, and I’ve been so embarrassed of them for no reason. My whole life, just wanting to be strong and tough, and this is about me embracing that side of me and showing that side of me and knowing that it’s okay.” Those words and the image of Demi and Katie wet-faced and hugging is stamped onto my brain, because it’s a relatable conversation I’ve had so many times with people in my life on my own coming out journey. Representation boils down to the importance of shared experience, and finally, for the first time in—I don’t know, my life?—I understood something that was happening on The Bachelor. I recognized it. I identified with it. And now? Well, now I’m mad with power.