ABC News got a great deal of credit this spring for the sensitive, nuanced interview Diane Sawyer conducted with Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner, in which the Olympian came out as transgender. But the promotion around an upcoming episode of The Bachelorette suggests that the network's entertainment division didn't get the same sensitivity training.
Tonight's episode, in which two male suitors of series star Kaitlyn Bristowe are purported by ABC to have found love with one another, is being marketed by the network as "Brokeback Bachelor." In a promo for the episode, one of the two men makes a series of anodyne statements ("I never thought I would meet someone like that"; "falling in love with a man never crossed my mind"), edited together to build the sense that there's a gay love affair blossoming among the men who are meant to be seeking Bristowe's hand in marriage.
In the extremely unlikely event that this strangely cut-together ad for an episode of reality television is depicting events as they actually occurred, it's in poor taste. If the gay subplot is being created from whole cloth, it's far worse than that.
Start with the phrase itself: The term "Brokeback" isn't just a word interchangeable with "gay." It's a reference to Brokeback Mountain, a 2005 film (and before that, a short story) that outlines the social conditions that keep gay men from ever acknowledging, even to one another, their true feelings. The movie ends with one man dead; the other is a shell of a human being. To use the "Brokeback Bachelor" term knowing its repercussions is grotesque.
This could go either way, but neither path looks good for ABC. There's a crass, freak-show element to the Bachelorette promo, as when the voice-over indicates the episode "will blow your mind." The lewd double-entendre aside, only on The Bachelorette would the existence of gay people be treated as mind-blowing. And one of the two cast members in question has made a series of strange jokes on Twitter about the episode, referring to himself as a "woman" and saying he hopes to be like Brokeback's Heath Ledger, the actor who played the more masculine of the movie's two lovers. Enough time has passed since the movie's release, and enough legal and cultural victories have been won by gay people, that this could be framed as all-in-fun japery. But who's laughing?
A simple understanding of how reality-show promotion works indicates that this gentleman is probably not, in fact, a gay man, and that the "Brokeback Bachelors" are just having a laugh.
And it's almost refreshing to see cast members in a show that's so consistently obfuscated its motives be so upfront about a set of beliefs and attitudes. When, on The Bachelor, women are shamed for having sex, or when the cast, year after year, is mysteriously almost all-white, it's treated by the show's host and cast as an embarrassing sideshow, tangent to the proverbial "right reasons" that the singles have gathered together. But while the show, perhaps rightly, has decided it's not equipped to handle issues of misogyny or class, it either felt the need to entirely invent a gay storyline or market it aggressively, all for the apparent purpose of proving that gay people are funny, weird and mind-blowing.
Last year, Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-star of The Bachelor, declared in an interview that gay people should not be a part of The Bachelor, saying: "They're more pervert in a sense." He was roundly criticized at the time, but his comments seem to be far closer to the heart of what Team Bachelor actually believes. Whatever happens with tonight's episode, a contrast has been drawn, and drawn sharply. There's Kaitlyn and her real suitors, there to find acceptable, TV-friendly love, and then there's the real or perceived threat of homosexuality at the margins. That's a point of view that would have felt far more current in 2005, when Brokeback Mountain came out—yet it's one that's absolutely still with us.