Yesterday a California judge issued a restraining order against Mike Fleiss, the creator of ABC’s monolith The Bachelor, in order to protect his wife Laura Fleiss.
The order came after Fleiss was accused of assaulting his pregnant wife Laura over the Fourth of July weekend in their Hawaii home, where in a fight over her phone he pinned her against a wall and and threatened to push her down a flight of stairs.
“I’m going to punch your face in,” he threatened, as he left the property with her phone, pushing her away from him while calling her a “low-rent gold digger,” and “a $50,000 whore.”
Laura claims the argument follows years of verbal abuse at the hands of her husband. When they married in 2012, she had freshly won her Miss America title at 24 and Fleiss was 48. Though the couple has one four year old son together, Fleiss has been adamant that he does not want a family, and his demands that his wife have an abortion fueled their recent altercation.
“Next time I see you, I don’t want to see your stomach,” Laura says he told her at 10 weeks pregnant. “You have a choice, you can choose. Have an abortion or go back to Wisconsin, but you are not taking Ben,” he said, after telling her she was ‘cut off’ financially. He filed for divorce last week.
As the creator of the reality TV series The Bachelor and its spin-offs, including The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, Fleiss is central to a realm of television dating shows that have been consumed by and marketed to middle class, mostly “Trumpist” Americans, in Fleiss’ own words, who are poised on the premise that one eligible twenty-something can find a match among a gaggle of twenty-or-so girls looking for love.
News of abuse at the hands of the man who Jezebel reported “Once Vowed ‘Abusive Assholes’ Had No Place on His Show” comes at the show’s arguably greatest cultural moment for Abusive Assholes, who have flocked to The Bachelor and Bachelorette for the last two decades.
Recently there was the asshole Arie Luyendyk Jr., who proposed to the woman who later became the next season’s Bachelorette by telling her, “I choose you today, but I choose you everyday from here on out,” before dumping her on camera just a couple of months later, saying of the show’s runner-up, “I go to bed and I think about Lauren, and I wake up and I think about Lauren.”
Then there was the colossal asshole Juan Pablo Galavis, whose homophobic comments calling the idea of a gay Bachelor “perverted” and whose derogatory tweet about mentally disabled people (“Not every flower can save love, but a rose can. Not every plant survives thirst, but a cactus can. Not every retard can read, but look at you go, little buddy!”) landed him a spot on pretty much all viewers’ most-hated-Bachelor-of-all-time lists.
And then this week, the unrivaled villain of this season’s Bachelorette and the man who Hannah Brown happened to have the strongest (sexual and religious) connection with, turned out to be the show’s greatest asshole when he essentially slut-shamed her on national television in the name of Jesus.
Brown, whose “quirky” personality could be summed up by her Twitter account @AlabamaHannah’s bio “I say roll tide an aggressive amount,” has been along for the Luke P. ride for the entirety of her season, defending her relationship with pleas of love at first sight. Their closeness seems to be based on blatant sexual tension and a connection over millennial Christian values, with the stakes of their relationship heightened by his inability to get along with anyone else on the show to the point where he got in a physical altercation with another contestant and told Hannah B. on one particularly cringey date, “Everyone loves me.”
The bubble finally burst on Monday night with the release of the Fantasy Suite week episode, where the Bachelorette is allowed after 10 weeks of dating to take all remaining contestants to bed privately. After Hannah Brown’s first three Fantasy Suite dates the cameras resume with a shot of the couple waking up in bed after presumably a night of vigorous sex before she becomes engaged to one contestant in the week that follows.
Just before Luke P. was to be offered the last Fantasy Suite key, he began a conversation that finally offered Hannah Brown the “clarity” she needed to send him home. Luke began by saying that though he had “made mistakes,” he had abstained from sex for the past several years and explained to Hannah, “Let's say I am the last date. And let's say you have had sex—throwing a crazy scenario at you—let's say you've had sex with one of these other relationships. All of 'em. I'm willing to do or work through anything.”
In his usual controlling fashion, he said with paternalistic smugness, “I just want to make sure you're not going to be sexually intimate with the other relationships here.”
Then, after a whole season of putting up with very similar sex-shaming and manipulative behavior, and Luke P. offering apologies like “I’m sorry I was misunderstood,” Hannah Brown finally takes offense at his comment about other Fantasy Suite dates: “I can understand a slip-up,” he says, “But, like, with all of ‘em?”
The response this incredible stream of misogyny ignites in Hannah Brown is almost worth a season rife with similarly sexist and pathological comments. “You keep saying, ‘You should do this, you should do that, we should do this,’” she responds to him. “It’s not should. It's want. It's a desire. It's not something that you tell me that I can do. It's that I want to do.” And then, later:
“You're holding people to a standard that you don't even live by. Maybe because you've abstained from sex, but there's a lot of things that you struggle with, and because I might want to or have had sex, that's like your "X" off. I could have "X'd" you off so many times from being my husband—from things that I want out of a relationship.”
Finally, she drops the magic words with the aptly Tweetable phrase, “I had sex and Jesus still loves me,” referencing the apparently great sex she had in a windmill Airbnb with contestant Peter (“TWICE!”).
Cut to Luke P. asking if he can pray over Hannah before he leaves and her flipping him off as a black SUV pulls him out of the driveway, and The Bachelorette turns a perfectly heinous moment into one of triumph for
many of their young, white millennial twenty-something Hannah Brown-esque viewers watching from their apartments in Dallas or Birmingham with a glass of white wine.
Though The Bachelorette can salvage sending in a manipulative asshole like Luke P. by ending their aired relationship in a moment of empowerment for Hannah Brown, the show’s tendency to turn abuse into views by naming their contestants dramatic “villains” allows viewers to overlook the inherently sexist nature of the show.
Using religion to publicly shame a woman you’re dating for having sex, and explicitly telling her not to have sex with anyone (but Luke P. himself, arguably, if the date had gone as he planned), is a level of insidious control not too far from telling your wife that if she carries your child to term she will be cut off and pushed down a flight of stairs; the stakes are simply higher after marriage and a child than they are while dating.
Though actual physical abuse is obviously worse, such behavior is an escalation of manipulative tactics seen time and time again on the show. Luke P. and Hannah Brown were dating, but should they have gotten engaged it is clear from the way he provoked arguments with, intimidated, yelled at, and threw a pile of meat on other contestants that Mrs. Hannah P. would have been in for verbal abuse after marriage that should worry ‘Bachelor Nation’ viewers.
But the show’s producers are adept at marketing such outbursts as juicy drama rather than concerning aggression, at worst naming them dating “red flags.” ABC and Warner media, who are “looking into” allegations of abuse by Fleiss, can pretend that the assholes on the show are simply bad apples that they happen to choose unwittingly, though they often keep the worst of the villains on the show for views.
The Bachelorette has always been the saving grace of the franchise for viewers who can counter the conspicuous objectification of beautiful, mostly blue-eyed twenty-something women chosen for The Bachelor. Hannah Brown and other Bachelorettes, just like their counterparts, can marvel at the sexual tension between themselves and the chiseled, square-jawed men she’s dating, and remark on her luck that she gets to make out on the beach in Greece with dozens of men bearing their six-packs and former fraternity brother status.
Yet the contestants always fall into their same stereotypes, and the woman “villain” of any Bachelor season remains what in the cultural lingo would be called a diva or drama queen while the Bachelorette villains tend to fall more to the side of abusive assholes. In this way, The Bachelor can still make headlines for being progressive and feminist for having contestants share traumatic stories of rape while Fleiss not too long ago was quoted by People as “horrified” for having vetted at least two contestants found later to be accused of sexual misconduct.
Viewers of this season’s Bachelorette, like Juan Pablo’s season of The Bachelor, give the show points for airing a new and more dynamic side to women facing down these assholes on television. Instead of sipping on margaritas on a sailboat in bikinis all day or viewing Thailand from a helicopter with someone the women are eager to get engaged to “for the right reasons,” contestants respond with a farewell to Juan Pablo by saying “I wish I was more dumb,” or get to say, “I don’t owe you anything,” to Luke P. as he asks for one last chance to speak.
But this fad feminism throws women to the hands of actual verbal abusers and genuine assholes for the purpose of offering a juicy show—“The most dramatic season yet!” as host Chris Harrison always claims. Lust and romance are marketed as love in a game where men and women (especially women) can be won over by a guitar serenade or lost for not being “vulnerable enough,” which usually equates to a confusing spill of past traumas (a common one among contestants being divorced parents) amidst conversations that otherwise contain little content pertaining to people’s actual lives.
The Bachelor is a reality TV series that lacks a healthy dose of reality in every aspect save one, which is that women like Laura Fleiss and Hannah Brown are constantly barraged by abusive assholes in a culture that normalizes such behavior. That Mike Fleiss could manage to build a whole reality TV series that popularizes and celebrates the drama of abuse and misogyny makes his own behavior the natural escalation of his creation and contextualizes Luke P.’s sexual shaming this week.