This season on The Bachelorette: Violent suitors and toxic masculinity

The Bachelorette makes viewers complicit in a dark plot line.
The Bachelorette makes viewers complicit in a dark plot line.
Image: ABC
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No one thinks the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise is adept at modeling healthy relationships. But the current season of The Bachelorette has sunk to a new low by peddling patently violent “bachelor” Chad Johnson as husband material. The season’s first few episodes play as a PSA about domestic violence. But here the lesson is, “He might not be that bad. Give him another shot.”

In watching The Bachelorette, we enter into a kind of unspoken agreement to overlook the show’s central truth: that these people will never end up together in the long run. But this season, the show has asked viewers to be complicit in a much more dangerous scheme.

At 6’2”, Chad is the kind of obscenely jacked guy whose veins pop out in a state of rest. Over the course of the season’s first four episodes, his antics include some harmless meathead moments: doing pull-ups with a suitcase full of protein powder strapped to his waist, shoving handfuls of deli meats into his mouth, and biting into a raw sweet potato. But his behavior also crosses into genuinely upsetting and violent territory: he punches a metal door, lunges at the throat of a man who has lightly mocked him, challenges other bachelors to fights, and threatens to find and harm a co-contestant after the show is over.

Even as the show uses Chad’s aggressive and violent behavior to drum up ratings, it consistently minimizes the severity of his actions. The security guard hired to protect the rest of the men from him is portrayed whistling and sauntering in broad daylight, poking fun at his presence. When another contestant attempts to apprise the show’s host Chris Harrison of the situation, Harrison at first dismisses Chad’s violent behavior. “There is a lot of testosterone in this place,” Harrison says. “When you get this many guys together, that can happen.” Then, rather than reprimanding Chad, he basically asks him to do him a favor and smooth things over.

Our bachelorette, JoJo, also wavers about how seriously to take Chad’s behavior. At first she seems ambivalent, constantly referencing the “different sides” of Chad on display. But as the evidence builds that he’s genuinely dangerous, it becomes harder for her to defend him.

At one point she enthuses about a group date, saying, “Even Chad seems to be having fun. I expected to come into this and see some friction, but Chad is calm, Chad is friendly—you know, he’s minding his own business. So right now I don’t really see that negative side of him at all.” When “minding his own business” is a benchmark for good behavior, it’s probably time to raise the bar. But JoJo chooses to hope that Chad will change, opting to give him “a second chance” and keep him on the show.

It’s a terrible reality that innumerable women stay with violent men for any number of reasons—because they have been isolated from their friends and family; because they are in the throes of emotional abuse and manipulation; because they fear the consequences if they leave. But circumstances are quite different on a heavily edited and produced national television show. With security guards watching Chad’s every move and producers scrutinizing the situation, it’s stunning that a man threatening the lives of the people around him is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Over the course of the season, one of Chad’s go-to insults is calling the rest of the guys “sensitive.” It’s a carefully calibrated slight designed to diminish their masculinity and reinforce his own “bad boy” persona. But in defending Chad, JoJo herself says that “the Chad I know is this sweet, sensitive guy.” What’s pathetic in other guys is alluring in Chad, if only because it lies in stark contrast to his aggressive behavior. In showing JoJo swooning for Chad’s sensitive side, The Bachelorette romanticizes the archetype of the bad boy.

It may well be that JoJo was less intrigued by Chad than beholden to producers who didn’t want to give up ratings gold any sooner than they had to. But this, too, is evidence of an alarming undercurrent that runs through the franchise. Both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are, at their cores, about the emotional manipulation of women. This is true despite the feminist promise of the Bachelorette, in which a woman theoretically holds the power over an array of male suitors. In this universe, though, the women tend to be the ones who’ve bought into the idea of finding romantic fulfillment onscreen—and thus are the most vulnerable to exploitation.

The rise of Chad wasn’t the only event this season to reveal the franchises’ anti-woman mindset. As further evidence, allow me to direct you to episode four, in which Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coaches the bachelors as they go head to head in a (very aggressive) football game at Heinz stadium. If you don’t follow sports, the name might ring a bell—Roethlisberger has twice been accused of rape.

It is too much to hope that TV would teach us how to find love. But it seems reasonable to ask that TV show us safe reactions to threats of violence, rather than supporting the message that women should ignore red flags just to make sure they’re really giving a guy a fair shake.

In the end, JoJo could no longer avoid the reality of Chad’s behavior. “Chad, I don’t think that you’re the person that you say you are,” she told him. “I don’t think that the way that you behave and resort to violence is something that’s acceptable. I don’t want somebody that threatens other people, who can’t get along with other people and that thinks that physical violence is the way to solve things.”

If there were any lingering doubts about where the series’ real loyalties lie, the show’s creator isn’t ready to let Chad go. He’ll be joining the cast of the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise. Meanwhile, JoJo is safe, having had the luxury of waiting around to see if her instincts about Chad were right. But in the real world, when we encourage women to put their misgivings aside and give aggressive men another chance, we signal that a woman’s safety matters less than a man’s pride. It’s a dangerous example to set.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated Ben Roethlisberger’s status in the NFL. He is the current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.