Near the end of Episode 4 of the current season of The Bachelor, contestant Caelynn Miller-Keyes sat down with 26-year-0ld vocal virgin Colton Underwood, for a one-on-one dinner date. The format was familiar: a tight shot of two straight, conventionally attractive 20-somethings sitting hip-to-hip, occasionally interrupted by a perfectly timed zoom and close crop of a hand upon a thigh, or a glossy eye about to tear, as the contestant discloses a very specific trauma in an attempt to prove their vulnerability.
Those scenes seldom have the intended effect, but Miller-Keyes was the exception. She described in harrowing detail her college sexual assault. She recounted being drugged and raped her sophomore year, being turned away from the first hospital she went to, having a rape kit performed at the second, and stopping at nothing to seek justice. Underwood initially responded with sympathy, seeming to understand that she felt comfortable enough to share her assault with him, but quickly took his response a step too far. He mentioned that an ex-girlfriend is also a sexual assault survivor, and positioned her trauma to complicate viewers’ comprehension of his virginity.
“I have had a situation in my past where I was in a relationship in which she was sexually abused and for me, that was the hardest thing I ever had to watch, going through something with someone, looking into her eyes and just knowing, like, the pain associated with it... One thing people never understand, [is] the intimacy that goes along with what you have experienced. I’ve been on the other side of it. For me, for that to be my first love, and my first person that I found for me, and it didn’t happen, and opening up last year about my virginity wasn’t the easiest thing to do but the thing I realized is that everybody who asks me, ‘Why are you a virgin?,’ they expect this simple answer. They want a reason. And my reason is complicated.”
Underwood’s comments struck as self-serving, ruining an otherwise genuine moment and refocusing it on the obsessive focus of the season: his virginity.
Up until that point, the conversation surrounding Underwood’s virginity had been explained through obvious reasons: he grew up in a conservative, Christian household where he believed waiting until marriage was God’s way. As he grew older, he changed his mind, but once deep into a promising athletic career, he found himself too busy for casual sex. He decided to hold off until he found love. When he did, intimacy proved to be, in his words, much more “complicated.”
And yet, this season of the Bachelor centers on his virginity to an almost unbearable extent. In every episode, Underwood is shown shirtless and showering, as if teasing a forbidden fruit—a muddled expression of both masculinity and a kind of infantilizing purity. It’s hard not to see The Bachelor as an expression of America’s most conservative corners. The show packages a PG-13 fairytale (one woman dressed up as Cinderella and arrived at the Bachelor mansion in a horse-drawn carriage), intimately bound to the happily ever after. With Underwood at the helm, The Bachelor is a romantic fantasy drenched in nostalgia. Virginity isn’t just a gimmick, it’s a value.
During the second episode, contestant Hannah B. tells Underwood at the end of her one-on-one date that she feels like a “hot mess” that can never be “perfect” because she slept with someone she was in a committed relationship with, and therefore cannot “give” her future husband her virginity. Her remarks directly reflect the show’s value of women’s virginity. Two years ago, Bachelor in Paradise Season 3 contestant Daniel Maguire attempted to explain “why sleeping with a virgin is good” but was swiftly cut off by producers. But the seed was planted, and has flourished in Season 23.
Take, for example, 23-year-old contestant Demi Burnett. In one episode, she quips that Underwood’s virginity is little more than a detour. It’s delivered with a devious smile by the show’s playful villain, as if any true expression of women’s sexuality or desire is a dirty joke. But Burnett’s villainy and Underwood’s virginity is a telling contrast; it says everything viewers need to know about male purity and dangerous women.
As television continues to enjoy a Golden Age of original programming, it puts even greater pressure on reality television to innovate: new voices, new stories, and new points of view crucial. In a few ways, it is succeeding: the greatest, trashiest show of our time, Vanderpump Rules, added a trans woman, Billie Lee, to its on-camera cast. Fights now deal with cis privilege instead of pasta. The Queer Eye reboot celebrates the original program while modernizing it for the current political climate. Conversely, The Bachelor, a franchise that’s been on the air for almost two decades, has been slow to adapt, maintaining its fundamentally conservative point of view.
Bachlor loyalists desire consistency. Funny how it often looks a lot like regression.