I have a confession to make. I watch The Bachelor. Alright, two confessions; I also watch The Bachelorette.
As most people know, The Bachelor franchise involves one person courting a group of people, taking them on dates and occasionally making out with them until they decide which one they’re ‘in love’ with.
Of course, there are plenty of things wrong with The Bachelor/ette, not least the ‘reality’ component of it. But leave aside the critiques of reality TV, and of race and gender (it’s all been said before). The core of these shows is the promise of love, in the most fairytale-like sense. Love, according to The Bachelor/ette, is straight, attractive, (generally) white, and definitely, definitely monogamous.
But what you see on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette sometimes looks a lot like polyamory.
Polyamory, essentially, is about having more than one romantic or sexual partner. Where a monogamous person would have a relationship with one other person to the exclusion of others, a polyamorous person might be in relationships with multiple people at the same time.
Being a young, creative, queer person who studied in Melbourne, I’ve had my brushes with polyamory — from guys who were okay with their girlfriends seeing other women, to couples of three people (‘triads’ as opposed to ‘couples’), to open marriages where each partner had other relationships.
Of course, all of these polyamorous relationships were characterised by trust, and all parties agreed to the arrangements. Otherwise, the relationships I described above are just people cheating on one another.
Polyamory is not particularly well understood, or well-regarded, amongst most people. It seems greedy, or selfish, or just confusing. Plenty of poly people have heard all this before, and fielded questions about their relationships and their legitimacy. Non-poly people have various reactions to the idea of polyamory: most are disdainful, dismissive, and mostly, confused. This could be because many popular depictions of non-monogamy are of sleazy men (think Joey from Friends, Charlie Sheen’s character in Two and a Half Men or Barney from How I Met Your Mother) or fundamentalists (Big Love, Sister Wives, or My Five Wives).
Except when it comes to The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette.
Take The Bachelorette as an example: several men, who get on fairly well with each other, are dating a woman, who likes all of them too.
During the show, the woman will talk about how much she likes all of them, and how she’s attracted to many of them, and how difficult the decision is to choose between all these men she has an equally strong ‘connection’ with. Of course, when it comes down to the end, she tells her choice that she’s certain it’s always been him. It’s always one person, and it’s always certain. That’s how love works.
But obviously, that’s not always how it works.
Non-monogamous relationships have become slightly more mainstream in recent years – I can’t vouch for this, but twenty years ago, there were not a dearth of polyamorous characters on mainstream television. However, they’re still definitely not acceptable to most people by any means. Sure, there’s the odd show that plays with the idea of polyamory (HBO’s Big Love – even though most people practice poly without religious affiliation – and Comedy Central’s Broad City are two of the better known ones), but can you imagine a mainstream hit like Modern Family featuring a husband and wife who have consensual relationships outside of their marriage?
Most of our society is built on the idea of monogamous relationships, and the tensions and dramas that come from them. The concept of a ‘soulmate’ is the most obvious example of this idea, but so too, are love triangles, romantic jealousy, and The Bachelor. A lot of media is propped up by our deep-down belief in romantic love as being between two individuals, and it’s difficult to conceive of a world in which monogamy isn’t the default state for relationships. We wouldn’t have Twilight, for one thing.
I spoke to a friend, Angel, who is married and polyamorous, and she believes that depictions of polyamorous people and relationships are developed from what we think of monogamous people and relationships. ‘One potential issue in TV shows is that they make crises around a lack of communication in relationships,’ she says. ‘A didn’t communicate properly with B, so they have a fight but neither really knows the full story.’ However, polyamory requires extremely strong communication skills and trust in the partner. At its best, polyamory doesn’t make for a whole lot of drama.
Angel points to House of Cards as a show that deals with the concept surprisingly well. Both the main character and his wife have other partners, with varying degrees of romantic involvement, and each is aware of the other’s partners. However, they do keep it quiet due to the issues of public perception – which is pretty realistic.
There’s little that is realistic about The Bachelor. These shows get away with showing relationships surprisingly close to polyamory because they’re competitions: the core of the Bachelor shows is the monogamous relationship in the end. ‘This is echoed in a range of TV and movies of people who are dating multiple partners, where there is seen to be a competition between them,’ Angel says. ‘However, in polyamory, this shouldn’t be the case if all involved are consenting and communicating.’ The only real issue is time management – far more mundane than some depictions of polyamory would have you believe.
Most importantly, we as a society have a certain idea of what love is, drilled into us by years of Disney films and chick flicks. ‘The common depictions in media don’t show the whole gamut of relationship styles where one is in love,’ Angel says. ‘Society tells us that we must squash feelings for other people when we’re in a relationship.’ But, she adds, that isn’t natural – it’s common to feel attracted to other people while in a relationship. And instead of the trope of the emotional affair while in a monogamous relationship, polyamory offers the opportunity to choose a different way to react to that attraction, ‘whether we do so ethically and with the consideration of our partner(s).’
‘In poly, you learn that there is an almost limitless array of relationship styles, not just the one depicted by media.’
Image: Daria Sukhorukova
Sharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.