It doesn’t happen very often—OK, it almost never happens—but once in a blue moon this franchise makes a strong choice that makes me weirdly proud to have been a part of it. As viewers, many of us find ourselves defending watching—and as an alum, defending having gone on—what’s predominantly considered a “trashy” reality show. It can sometimes be tricky to make a sales pitch for the redeeming qualities of a franchise which, if you were to come across it while channel surfing, rarely seems to feature anything more meaningful than tears or makeouts. So, last night, for the Bachelor franchise to have painstakingly and respectfully featured a same-sex relationship on prime time network television is nothing to scoff at. For me, it was like the beautiful love story that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow and Tara (one of US television’s first-ever lesbian couples, nbd!) was met with the meticulous care Survivor used for Zeke Smith when he was outed by a fellow contestant as transgender. There were a lot of moving parts to this—not to mention countless potential pitfalls—and watching it all unfold was damn impressive.
It’d be easy to sum up Demi and Kristian’s relationship as a publicity stunt, a level-up for a show always looking for its next ratings boost. Trust me, I’m not saying Bachelor in Paradise didn’t sink their teeth into this story knowing how it could benefit them, but they also could have done a hell of a lot worse with it. It cannot be overemphasized how simple it would have been to delegitimize this relationship and not take it as seriously as it deserves. It would be all too easy to call Demi young and brush off her feelings for another woman as going through a “phase.” It would be even easier to fetishize or over-sexualize two attractive young women as they kissed. So, credit is due to this show for not only avoiding those tropes, but for taking the time to prominently feature this relationship—one that could very well alienate a significant portion of its conservative core audience—and to do so with care and respect. No moment, no conversation, no interaction felt rushed, glossed over or even all that edited. Demi and Kristian’s connection easily felt more mature and mutually respectful than any other couple this season, and that’s in part thanks to The Powers That Be showing us how mature and mutually respectful it is.
Interestingly, you could make an argument that the show, in its extreme diligence, may have actually gone a bit too far, making exceptions to traditional “rules” that wouldn’t ever be made for heterosexual couples. The established, ironclad “rules” that would apply to any other contestant were suddenly long forgotten: Demi was clearly in a relationship while coming on the show (she called what she and Kristian shared “casual” but Kristian’s resentment over learning Demi had shared “romantic moments” with Derek suggested otherwise), something contestants are vilified and shamed for on the regular in this franchise. Another major exception was made by the show in allowing Kristian to actually remain in Paradise (this really surprised me), when normally couples involving non-Bachelor Nation alumnae would leave the show and fly back home to resume dating in real life. In a roundabout way, this ultra-special treatment almost goes overboard in endorsing this same-sex relationship, and thus, in treating it differently than it would any other relationship, ultimately deprecates it somewhat. But the way I see it, it’s about time media outlets—reality TV included—used their immense power in the form of exposure to help normalize LGBTQ lifestyles and the LGBTQ community. If making strides towards inclusivity and acceptance means making a few special exceptions, I’m all for it.
But last night’s star wasn’t Demi, Kristian, or even Paradise itself. It was Demi’s jilted, quasi-boyfriend, Derek, without whom Demi might not have even lasted long enough to have turned last night’s episode into a historic one. Derek earned himself all the prizes with one exemplary reaction after another to one shitty situation after another. Derek has proven to be an incredibly supportive, sensitive partner, even when rejected by the object of his affections. Early in the episode, amidst woefully wondering what would become of his relationship, he was able to take a step back from his own hurt to realize, “She’s probably going through so much more than I am.” When Demi told him that Kristian had arrived and that Demi would be pursuing her over him—WHILE IN PARADISE, a shockingly cruel twist to him specifically—never once did he guilt trip, accuse, or blame her. To ensure Demi’s comfort, he made a point of first meeting Kristian, even thanking her for her kindness and positivity. To top it all off, when Demi emerged dolled up and ready for her date with Kristian, Derek hugged her and told her to have a good time (!).
Perhaps my favourite showing of Derek’s, however, was when he (perhaps inadvertently) became a voice of reason when it comes to LGBTQ relationships. At the very beginning of the episode, Derek said in an ITM, “I don’t really care whether it’s a man or a woman… I mean, who really should?” His indifference to the fact that Kristian is a woman and did what the show didn’t; there was no overcompensating to prove how he supports a same-sex relationship. Kristian was a threat to his relationship with Demi, plain and simple, and regardless of her gender. When newcomer Jen asked him why Demi had pulled back, he declined to comment. This small move shouldn’t be undervalued; everyone there knows they’re filming for national television. Derek could easily have assumed that since Demi had already come out on camera, the information was fair game. But Derek knew that no matter the circumstances, it was Demi’s information to share when, how, and with whom she saw fit. At every turn, from their first conversation on the matter last week, he understood and prioritized the difficult position Demi was in; he always considered the long-term challenges of coming out and how those affected her, rather than focusing on how they affected him, which frankly wouldn’t have even been all that selfish of him. And that’s not to say he wasn’t hurting; Derek shed many a tear during last night’s episode, but notably saved them for his conversations with a faceless producer, purposely allowing Demi her happiness, guilt-free. If that’s not deep care for another human being, I don’t know what is.
I said last week that Demi and Derek were making Paradise look good. Not only did they outdo themselves last night, but they gave the show the opportunity—an opportunity not squandered—to shatter some glass ceilings along the way.