What If the Bachelorette Was Polyamorous?

How TV shows represent open relationships—and how they could do better

I watched The Bachelorette. There, I said it. I've always been fascinated by these reality dating shows where one person has multiple girlfriends or boyfriends simultaneously. Not only do all the suitors know about each other, but they live together, and some are even friends. On paper, the setup sounds like a recipe for a progressive vision of non-monogamous relationships. The execution is, well, a little trickier. For example, when 25 women vie for one man's affection on The Bachelor, I can't get over the subtext of patriarchal privilege: It always feels like a cross between a never-ending catfight and a bad harem fantasy. But when a new season of The Bachelorette (one girl, 25 guys) returned in May (this was the fourth one, compared to 12 installments of The Bachelor), I was anxious to see if, this time, it might live up to its radical potential. Imagine: an empowered woman with multiple partners, calling the shots!

See, when it comes to open relationships on television, there's pretty slim pickin's, starting with the scripted HBO series Big Love, which follows the trials and tribulations of a Mormon family consisting of husband Bill Henrickson, his three wives, and their seven children, all living in suburban Utah. They grapple with living in a non-traditional relationship, being in the closet about it, and clashing with their crazy relatives—most of whom live on a cult-like fundamentalist compound full of child brides in prairie dresses. The interactions here are often complex and nuanced, and can even resonate with people who identify as polyamorous. However, it's all framed in the context of a controversial religious practice. I'd love the show a lot more if they got rid of the Mormonism and the wacky fundamentalists. But then it would probably last 10 minutes.

Coming up on its fifth season, The Girls Next Door (on E!) stars the three current girlfriends of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner: Holly, Bridget, and Kendra. Unlike Big Love, this one is unscripted, yet it rarely feels like real life—it's more a commercial for the Playboy brand than a show about alternative relationships. There are very few negotiations or conflicts between the three women in Hefner's life: We rarely hear a confession of one woman feeling envious, another requesting more one-on-one time, or the third feeling relegated to the bottom of the pecking order. Instead, their polyamorous life resembles the women themselves—pink, perky, and not too deep.

CBS's Swingtown is the newest kid on the block, and I'm convinced it only made it on the air because of the writers' strike. First problem: Since it's on network TV, there's not a lot of sex. It does, however, break the mold of one man with three faithful partners—now maybe the ladies will get their turn! And they do, to be sure, but since the show is still so new, the question remains as to whether it will be liberating and thoughtful, or just another 13-week "wife-swapping" party from hell.

Beyond exploring open-relationship styles, these shows have few other similarities. Big Love is an example of plural marriage or polygyny, the practice of one man having several wives or female partners. The media incorrectly calls this "polygamy," a term synonymous with Morman fundamentalist marriage practices, which technically is just one person having multiple partners. Real people don't use terms like "polygyny" and "polygamy" to describe their marriages, though. While The Girls Next Door may appear to be modern-day polygyny (just devoid of religious overtones), it really falls under the umbrella of polyamory, the practice of having multiple sexual/romantic relationships simultaneously. (I'd label it a mono/poly combo, since Hef is polyamorous and his partners are monogamous.) Swingtown, of course, focuses on swinging, and most swingers consider themselves emotionally monogamous and sexually non-monogamous.

But I think there's a subtler thread running through this trio: All three shows delve into alternative partnerships while portraying them as foreign, exotic, and inaccessible in some way. Most people cannot identify with three women who call the Playboy Mansion home and Hugh Hefner their honey. I mean, how many people do you know who spend 80 percent of their lifetime in silk pajamas and robes? Hef might as well be from another planet. For Big Love, everything is shrouded in a strange, secretive culture defined by religion. Swingtown distracts us by gorging on kitsch and camp. (Look at the carpet and those pants! Check out Grant Show's mustache!)

So I held out hope for The Bachelorette, since, unlike the others, it portrays "real" people. As in previous seasons, once the dating got under way, the men coped with jealousy, possessiveness, and competitiveness, while Bachelorette DeAnna Pappas dealt with developing feelings for several men at the same time. The show's formula always seems to be headed in the right direction. After all, in past seasons, when the central character gets down to two or three suitors, she usually confesses to the cameras that she has developed intense feelings or even fallen in love with more than one guy (this has been true in The Bachelor as well). Cue screeching brakes, folks, because that's where my fantasy ends. After that, it reverts back to its monogamous ways, emphasizing that she must choose. She must pick one. It's always been about The One all along. Why couldn't she have ridden into the sunset with both Jason and Jesse? Why didn't one of the relatives suggest this idea during one of those hometown-dates-cum-interrogations? Why couldn't the men make a pact to make it work—because, after all, they both love her. DeAnna, listen: You didn't have to break anyone's heart! You could've picked them both and been the first truly polyamorous Bachelorette!

Please visit my websites, puckerup.com and openingup.net

 
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